It’s not often that we get a preview of global catastrophe, and yet Covid-19 has offered us just that: a cataclysm that affected the entire planet, cost too many lives, battered economies and hit the poorest disproportionately hard. Unimpeded, a warming planet will do all that and more. Like the pandemic, limiting climate change will test governments’ ability to adapt and cooperate across borders. This time, we don’t have to fail.
For all the cheering scientific breakthroughs, it’s hard to look back and see Covid-19 as anything other than a litany of failures. That of governments, which should have been better prepared to use their resources. That of countries, too wrapped up in themselves to learn from each other and help the more vulnerable. The least wealthy 52 countries have 20% of the global population but 4% of vaccinations. The Covax vaccine initiative has fallen short. Deficiencies in record-keeping and testing mean that in much of the developing world we don’t even know exactly how many people have died from Covid-19.
What does that have to do with climate? Plenty, and not just because some causes of climate change, from deforestation to factory farming, also increase the risk of pandemics. The consequences of global warming, such as altered weather patterns and habitats, create opportunities for pathogens to find new hosts, for diseases to leap from animals to humans.
What matters today, as leaders and officials from nearly 200 nations prepare to meet in Glasgow for the first post-pandemic climate talks, is what the past two years have taught us about managing a disaster foretold. They should bear five lessons in mind.
The first, and the simplest, is that underplaying the problem and delaying action serves no one. In January 2020, as the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in the U.S., President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus “very much under control.” It wasn’t. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shook hands in a hospital in early March and spoke of business as usual, even as Italy was already in crisis. Putting off action failed to avert a lockdown, made it far harder to contain the virus and landed Johnson himself in intensive care. A report from the U.K. parliament this month declared it “one of the most important public health failures” the country has experienced.
The same risk exists for climate: Waiting may ease short-term costs but greatly increases long-term ones. It makes disastrous temperature increases harder to avert.
The second is that multilateralism is the key to success. Climate change cannot be resolved with national solutions alone. However advanced the European Union’s green recovery, the world still needs Asia to stop burning coal. The limited role of the World Health Organization and others when it came to organizing a global response to the pandemic, and the sheer unwillingness of states to share resources and information, simply cannot be repeated with global warming.
That means talks in Glasgow must narrow the gap between countries’ commitments, agree on rules underpinning a global carbon market — the missing piece of the Paris climate rulebook — and deliver on promises of hefty financial support for developing nations. The already-promised annual $100 billion should have been reached in 2020. Without this, the consequences in economic, social, health and migration terms will be devastating for all.
The third lesson is that governments determine the success of efforts on this scale, even if private enterprise is vital to the solution. We know from the pandemic that countries with good institutions and effective leadership did better than those without. That means investing in capacity, to help countries adapt at the speed that they need. It also means stronger action from leaders. Governments need to step up, set climate targets, invest and enable regulators to get tough on disclosure and greenwashing.
The pandemic has also shown us that science and technology can do great things when sufficiently funded. The wrong conclusion to draw here is the one that Australia and others appear to have landed on — that it’s fine to delay action on climate, because miracle carbon-extracting solutions are on their way. That’s a bet the planet will likely lose. But it is true that generous financing and attention can do the impossible, as they have done with vaccines, particularly mRNA shots. This is important to understand at a time when investment not just in renewables but in vital related infrastructure, never mind adaptive technologies, is falling short.
Finally, there’s the importance of winning (and retaining) hearts and minds. The fights against Covid-19 and climate change have suffered from misinformation. Both require not just strong measures, but popular support for such policies — even if they are uncomfortable in the short term — and an understanding of the consequences of inaction. Covid-19 has shown how a lack of trust in government can undermine solutions, as low vaccination rates and record death rates in Russia demonstrate. The same is true of climate.
That will mean ensuring the burden of climate responses is spread — mitigating the impact of carbon taxes on the poorest, say — and also capitalizing on evidence that increasingly frequent extreme weather is moving public opinion from alarm to action.
Leaders in Glasgow: Learning from past errors is our best hope of future success.—Bloomberg