How Covid-19 pandemic foretells the climate crisis

Best chance to avoid catastrophe is tech fix by rich country in its own self-interest that works for all

When England drops nearly all its Covid-19 restrictions on July 19th, it won't be the end of the pandemic. It may not even be the beginning of the end. But it is a foreshadowing of an ending of sorts.

One day, rich countries will emerge from Covid-19 while poor countries remain stuck in it. And this isn't just the scenario for the pandemic. It is probably also a preview of the climate crisis.

Both crises crept up on us in similar ways, notes David Fisman, a Canadian epidemiologist and member of Ontario's Covid-19 science advisory table. There is exponential growth (in infections, in carbon emissions) but initially without visible damage. Life continues happily, for weeks in the case of Covid-19, for decades with carbon.

By the time we act, we’re already behind. Then each country works out almost entirely by itself what to do. Should it close schools, build wind farms? Global problems require global co-operation, but “global government” has become a political swear word like “foreign aid” or “technocracy”.


Expert advice bounces off harried, ignorant national leaders who worry about today’s headlines. Meanwhile, disinformation narratives – “It’s just a flu!”, “The climate’s always changing!” – continue to ensnare a large minority even as the crisis hits.

Quite a few people are now willing to lay down their lives in the culture war: in some rich countries, deaths from Covid-19 have become concentrated among unjabbed anti-vaxxers.

We are an inventive species and, in an emergency, rich people and places will save themselves, through tech fixes or otherwise.

There's no vaccine for climate change but as floods worsen, New York and London will beef up their protective barriers. Americans will start leaving dried-up California and doomed Miami for cooler regions, just as their ancestors went west.

More drastically, the Dutch might end up largely abandoning their low-lying country. The joke among Dutch water experts is, "We'll all just move to Germany and learn German."

Luckily for the Dutch, that’s not impossible. But poor countries lack the means to dodge climate change or Covid-19.

"High-income countries have administered almost 44 per cent of the world's [Covid-19 vaccine] doses. Low-income countries have administered just 0.4 per cent," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, said in June. Frustratingly, he added, the statistics hadn't changed in months.

So Covid-19 is becoming a poor-world problem.

England is celebrating "Freedom Day", rich countries are jabbing adolescents and Israel is offering third doses to people with weak immune systems.

Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, the army has been patrolling streets to enforce the latest lockdown, while children have missed 15 months of school. Tunisia's own government says its "health system has collapsed" under a new wave of infections.

By early June, Covid-19 already appeared to have killed more people worldwide than in all of 2020. But poor people’s deaths aren’t news. In practice, the value of a human life depends on its nationality.

This is a rerun of the HIV crisis. Once new drugs started saving rich westerners in the 1990s, the west moved on, while African people kept dying. The global death toll from HIV is now about 32 million.

With Covid-19, many NGOs are rightly saying that it’s in the rich world’s interest to help vaccinate the poor. Delta won’t be the last partially vaccine-defying variant of the virus to emerge from a poor country and bite the rich. Nobody is safe until everybody is safe, is the mantra.

The same is true of the environment: the destruction of the Amazon is climate’s Delta variant. When Brazilian rainforests shrink, rich countries heat up too.

The rich world is now making leisurely attempts to save the Amazon and send vaccines to poor countries. But its Plan A is simpler: save ourselves, then barricade off the poor.

Travelling to Fortress Europe from the mostly poor red-list countries is almost impossible for all but the very rich. Britain has considered deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. It's brutal, but it's how nation-state democracy is designed to work: politicians worry about their own voters.

That’s why Britain cut foreign aid in the year that global poverty rose for the first time since 1998. Covid-19 has fed the rich world’s self-pity.

All this is a preview of the climate crisis, when poor countries destroyed by desertification or rising seas will be isolated – struck off the global map, in effect. All we'll want from them are raw materials. The model is the relationship that rich countries have with the Democratic Republic of Congo: it's valued almost solely as a supplier of minerals, such as the cobalt that allows us to power our devices and electric cars.

If the only hope now is moral awakening, then there’s no hope. Based on what we’ve learnt from Covid-19, our best chance to avoid climate catastrophe is a tech fix developed in a rich country in its own self-interest that would save the world at modest additional cost. I’m told that sucking carbon out of the atmosphere at the scale required might not prove totally impossible. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021