Climate emergency is deeper crisis than virus

Drought in Chile: 65% of people want climate change prioritised after the coronavirus. © Getty

Is the coronavirus making us forget the deeper climate emergency? There has never been a better opportunity to change things for the good of the planet – but many fear we will waste it.

The coronavirus pandemic has killed 225,000 people worldwide in the last four months. Deaths continue to rise. It is a global tragedy.

By 2050, however, 250,000 people could be dying per year as a direct result of climate change. And that’s a conservative estimate.

It is hard to dwell on such a dreadful number because it points to a terrible truth: if the coronavirus is the biggest global challenge since World War Two, the climate emergency is the biggest global challenge in the history of humanity.

But not everyone wants to see it that way.

In countries around the world, governments have announced less scrutiny for companies breaking environmental laws – either in the fight against Covid-19, or in racing to bring about economic recovery after lockdown.

The Czech Republic’s prime minister, Andrej Babiš, has said that the EU should “forget about the Green Deal” for now.

Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, disagrees. Last week, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, he stressed that the climate crisis is an “even deeper emergency” than the pandemic.

Many would argue that they are not even separate problems.

Coronavirus is just one symptom of this “deeper emergency”. Deforestation and industrial meat production – both drivers of the climate crisis – are factors that make it possible for viruses to leap from animals to humans.

For Guterres, global recovery must be linked to steps to address the climate crisis and environmental damage. We need new jobs in green industries – not polluting ones, he says. We need a transition to a sustainable future.

A time of crisis is also a time of change. It “rips open the fabric of normality”, as writer Peter C Baker puts it.

The claim that it is impossible to change society quickly enough to tackle the climate emergency can never be made again. We have changed society overnight in response to this pandemic.

Academics and scientists are now saying that what matters is building on those changes.

But with politicians arguing that our response must come at the expense of environmental protection – are we in danger of forgetting the deeper climate emergency?

No going back

Yes, it seems likely. Rather than using the opportunity offered by the coronavirus to change the way we live and make things more sustainable, governments are busy bailing out big, polluting businesses – airlines and oil companies. The focus is on returning to “normal” – looking backwards – instead of thinking seriously about radical alternatives.

No, there are glimmers of hope. Milan is permanently changing 35km of its streets to bike paths and footpaths after the incredible drop in air pollution during lockdown. We can’t forget about the deeper climate crisis because it is inseparable from the pandemic. What matters is that we now make the right choices – and change the way we live.

You Decide

  1. Which do you feel more threatened by: Covid-19 or the climate crisis?
  2. What is more important: the present or the future?


  1. How do we make the most of the opportunity to tackle the climate crisis that Covid-19 has given us? Make a list of five changes caused by the coronavirus that you think have had a positive impact on the environment. Should they stay in place when the pandemic is over?
  2. Write one page on the differences and similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. Which is easier to tackle and why? How closely do you think the two are linked?

Some People Say...

“We don’t need to go back to normal when normal was a crisis.”

Naomi Klein, Canadian writer, social activist, and filmmaker

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the global response to the coronavirus has had a positive environmental impact. Wildlife has flourished; tens of thousands of lives have been saved around the world by the reduction in air pollution, and global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to drop by 5.5%. However, the UN has indicated that we need emissions to fall by 7.6% per year for the next 10 years to avoid global heating of 1.5C. If they don’t, the WHO predicts 250,000 people could be dying a year by 2030.
What do we not know?
One big debate is whether governments will rise to the challenge and use the opportunity created by this crisis to put the way we live on a more sustainable footing. Can individual countries overcome nationalism and co-operate globally? Will governments have the courage to let big, polluting business fail, using policy and legislation to preserve jobs and livelihoods through new, green approaches to industry and the economy?

Word Watch

Conservative estimate
A guess that is likely to be too low.
Checking something carefully.
Green Deal
Short for Green New Deal. The phrase ‘New Deal’ refers to the policies followed by the US government in the 1930s, after the Great Depression (a period of very high unemployment). The Green New Deal describes a specific set of laws proposed in the US to address climate change and the economy. It is also used to talk more generally about any set of progressive policies a government might use to tackle these issues.
Earth Day
An annual event, held worldwide on 22 April, to demonstrate support for environmental protection.
Global recovery
The process of undoing the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
Bailing out
Saving a company that would otherwise go bust, often by using taxpayers’ money.


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