COVID19 & Lessons on Combating Climate Change

Department of Sustainability, Governance, and Methods Blog Article
by Dr. Gunther Maier

­Two and a half months into the Covid-19 crisis in Austria, it is time to look back and see what we can learn from it. In particular, what can we learn from the Covid-19 crisis for the much more substantial problem we are facing - climate change. While the Covid-19 crisis was triggered by a virus getting out of hands, climate change is related to the way we all live, work and organize this world. But, let us go step by step.

1. The Outbreak

The outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis clearly showed the risk of exponential growth. From March 1st to March 13th, the number of people infected increased exponentially by an average of 34.8% per day. Had this growth continued in Austria, the virus would have run out of population by April 14th. Most likely, the health care system would have collapsed one or two weeks earlier. Of course, even without the lockdown the number of infections would not have grown that strongly for that long. The virus would have had increasing problems finding people to infect. But, we do not know at what percentage of infections the pandemic would have levelled off. What we do know is that a virus works like a machine: it multiplies in a host, spreads and infects others when it gets the opportunity. What does that tell us for climate change? Two things: First, exponential growth is always explosive; irrespective of how high the (positive) rate of growth is. When any resources are limited, they will be exhausted at some point. Some regions in Italy, Spain, and France experienced this in the Covid-19 crisis when they ran out of hospital capacity. Second, natural processes (e.g. the spreading of a virus) roll on once they have started. Some of them, like a pandemic roll fast, others, like the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps roll slowly – at least in human dimensions.

2. The Lockdown

Despite the dramatic growth in the number of infections, when the lockdown was imposed on March 13th many argued that it was too drastic, premature, not adequate: all we had in the statistics on that day was 504 infections and one confirmed death. Does that justify sending people into isolation and the economy into a deep recession? This is a political question and we cannot answer that here. But, what we could observe is a change in perception during the following weeks when the numbers of infections continued to grow and more and more deaths were reported. Maybe the lockdown does not work? Maybe it is not strict enough? Maybe some folks do not obey the regulations? Behind this was a simple feature of the virus: it takes about two weeks for infected people to show symptoms. The people we observed as infected on March 13th have collected the virus already at the end of February. Or, said differently, the number of people actually infected with the virus is much larger than the numbers show. And, during the following two weeks, there is nothing one can do to avoid these infections. Obviously, it was quite difficult for the public to understand that there is a delay between infection and the outbreak of Covid-19. As humans, we expect to see immediate reactions to our activities. As it is known in psychology, it is difficult for humans to cope with such delays. In the Covid-19 crisis, the delay was just two weeks. In the case of climate change, we have to cope with delays of decades and even centuries. In comparison, how much more difficult is it for our brains to comprehend the link between action and reaction in that case. The periods before and after the lockdown were also difficult for politicians. First, there was pressure for less, then for more action. In the case of Covid-19 they only had to wait a week or two to find confirmation for their actions. With the much longer delays in the case of climate change, policy makers will need a lot more commitment and endurance to keep necessary restrictive measures in place.

3. The Restart

At the core of a pandemic is a process that economists call “externality”: the unintended transmission of something – in this case a virus – from one person to the next. The decisions an individual takes, e.g., whether to be careful or careless, may have very different implications for others. They may or may not become infected, fall ill, and even die. Neither economics as a social science discipline nor we as humans are very good at handling externalities. Economics largely ignores them and assumes that people pursue just their self-interest. In the crisis, we as individuals may have the best intentions to cooperate, support each other and act in the common interest. The Covid-19 crisis seems to show, however, that this does not last long. Now, as the country is in the process of rebooting, we also see a race toward the individual advantage. Every sector of the economy that is strong enough to make its voice heard requests financial support. More and more people complain about face masks, a measure that helps protect others from health-externalities I may impose on them. “Why do I have to endure the nuisance of wearing a mask, when just others may benefit from that?” seems to be the underlying rationale. Once a vaccine becomes available, many of those fellow citizens may resist being vaccinated. As it seems, we are unable to take into account externalities even over a few months. Much more challenging are the externalities of climate change. On the one hand, it is not only our immediate neighborhood that we may “infect”, but the globe as a whole. On the other hand, the incubation period is not just two weeks, but years or decades. The above-mentioned rationale applies even more in this case.

4. Summary

The Covid-19 pandemic is a severe health problem on a global scale. Compared to climate change, however, it is short term, easy to detect and easy to combat. Despite that, we could see severe deficits and difficulties in governance and policymaking during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the end a question demands to be asked - How will we be able to combat climate change with this existing set of instruments? The answer could spell our success or our disaster. 


Related subjects at MU Vienna:

BSc in International Management with a Specialization in Entrepreneurship and Governance
BBA Tourism and Hospitality Management
MBA with a Specialization in Sustainable Management and Governance
MSc in Sustainable Development, Management and Policy
MSc in International Tourism Management