What the coronavirus tells us about our dying planet

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By Jack Phillips

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 2 of VARSITY News.


Our reaction to Covid-19 is vastly insignificant compared to what is required should we wish to maintain organised human existence in the not-so-distant future.


As Covid-19 spreads, governments around the world have been relatively quick to act. Politicians like Donald Trump and probable democratic nominee Joe Biden have characterised the necessary mobilisation against the virus as a “war”. Countries like China and South Korea have implemented radical and otherwise draconian measures in an effort to stall the spread of the virus. This is in stark contrast to the globally lackluster and insufficient measures put in place (if put in place at all) to combat climate change ever since scientists gave the world grave warnings of the climate’s then-avoidable disruption in the 1980’s. The urgency of the coronavirus is likely responsible for the immediate response, and the gradual nature of the climate threat makes it hard to perceive the terrific danger on the horizon. Of course, this doesn’t justify our complacent inaction in lieu of this existential threat.


We’ve now reached a point in our climate’s disruption in which we cannot stop, nor nullify, the effects of global warming, we only have a chance at capping its severity. The coronavirus is a powerful indication of what it will take to do that. As a significant portion of the globe’s population self isolates, a significant portion of the globe is not in cars, on airplanes or in offices. Because of this, we are burning less fossil fuels than we were, but despite the massive shift in many lives, even if we all stayed home as we are now doing, for the rest of our lives, it would still be a far cry from what has to be done to avert the imminent climate catastrophe. The fact that we haven’t managed to come close to what is needed to prevent serious and irreparable damage to the planet, despite so many of us not even leaving the house, is a dire indication of what is needed to avert catastrophe, and with whom the greatest burden lies.


In 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report detailing the measures that would need to be put in place should we wish to avoid warming the planet 1.5 degrees Celsius more (surpassing that critical average would result in horrifying consequences such as a decline in up to 99% of coral reefs and hundreds of millions of more people in poverty). The report explained that countries would have to slash their carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. This means cutting emissions by 45% by 2030. China, where some of the harshest measures in the world have been put in place to combat the spread of Covid-19, emissions have dropped by between 18 and 25. Despite the harsh measures and the significant drop in people using cars, airplanes, and office buildings, that is nowhere near net zero, and half of what is needed to be cut by the next decade. This is because, in averting climate catastrophe, it is not individual consumption and market forces that are the greatest threat to the planet (aviation, for example, only accounts for 2.5% of total carbon emissions) it is the fossil fuel industry and the companies that profit from it that must come to an end.


The coronavirus has proven what we’ve already known, that humans, like other organisms, aren’t well evolved to respond to threats outside of our immediate environment and surroundings. It has shown that in order to combat climate change, we need to radically cut carbon emissions in such a way that is only possible if we change the structure of our economies, not just our lives. The coronavirus put how urgently, and how radically we must move, into clear perspective.


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