Humanity’s failure to collectively respond to the pandemic presents us with a fast motion view of our inability to combat the ongoing climate crisis.
The destruction wrought by COVID-19 represents an unprecedented crisis in recent history, yet it somehow feels eerily familiar. This is because the pandemic has mirrored many of the dynamics of the climate crisis, but on an extremely compressed time frame. An imminent global threat presented itself — the full extent of the danger being largely unknown — which required swift, coordinated and collective action. Instead, it was met with divergent national responses, finger pointing, appeals to individual responsibility and extreme resistance to any fundamental change to the status quo.
A number of leftist thinkers, including Vijay Kolinjivadi, Andreas Malm, Rob Wallace and others, have provided important insight into the ways that COVID-19 and the climate crisis are intertwined. In particular, they have pointed to the fact that the pandemic is one manifestation of a larger ecological emergency, and that both crises are ultimately rooted in, and the result of, global capitalism.
In this essay I aim to build on these arguments and show that there is also analytical value in seeing these dual crises as reflections of one another. The COVID-19 pandemic is in this sense a fast motion microcosm of what we are experiencing with global heating. As such, an analysis of the pandemic, and responses to it, can help us to better understand how we are failing to deal with climate change.
So, what other similarities are there between COVID-19 and the climate emergency? For one, our ability to understand and discuss both of these crises is hobbled by widespread disinformation, denialist conspiracy theories, corporate lobbying in the interest of inaction and genuine disagreement over best practice. In this context, two main camps have arisen pushing different policy responses: those advocating mitigation in order to live with global heating and the pandemic while moderating their ill effects, and those arguing for the suppression of the crises through quick, decisive, action.
With a few notable exceptions of countries that have successfully applied suppression strategies to the pandemic — such as Taiwan, Vietnam and New Zealand —national governments have turned to variations of mitigation for both COVID-19 and climate change. These measures have generally been reactive and taken out of necessity because slow initial responses have allowed the crises to spiral out of control, but they are also a reflection of an unwillingness to engage in the fundamental restructuring of capitalist relations that a strategy of suppression requires.
In the case of the pandemic, mitigation has ranged from explicit attempts to achieve herd immunity to efforts to “flatten the curve” in order to avoid overwhelming healthcare. While it is tempting to see strict pandemic measures taken under duress as evidence of political will to engage in suppression, this is not the case, as Andreas Malm points out: “the appearance of energetic action against the pandemic is but a semblance. The contrast between coronavirus vigilance and climate complacency is illusory.”
At the same time, governments have largely failed to meaningfully coordinate efforts and have ended up pinning hopes on deus ex machina-style technical fixes for both the pandemic and the climate emergency. There has also been an obsessive focus on which countries are ”doing best,” even though this has limited value for problems that are global, interconnected and transcend artificial borders.
Let’s Be Realistic! Herd Immunity And Climate Adaptation
To see the parallels between climate change and COVID-19 mitigation logics, we can look to the writings of climate action sceptic Bjørn Lomborg, who argues against attempts to contain the climate crisis on economic grounds, and is also an outspoken opponent of strict measures aiming to suppress the pandemic. For instance, citing a study published in World Development, Lomborg says: “reducing emissions under the Paris agreement will lead to an increase in poverty of around 4 percent.”
This argument against coordinated climate action mirrors the objections of those opposing lockdowns to slow the pandemic due to the damage they cause the economy, and specifically the livelihoods of the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, the Great Barrington Declaration — a widely covered statement published in early October arguing for the pursuit of herd immunity — claims that suppression measures disproportionately harm “the working class and younger members of society.” It is worth noting that the Declaration was signed on the premises of the American Institute for Economic Research — a libertarian think tank that has also downplayed the dangers of environmental collapse.
Lomborg goes on to say that “humanity – including the world’s poorest people – will be much better off in a ‘fossil-fueled development’ scenario than under a ‘sustainable’ scenario of a lower-CO₂ world,” essentially making the argument that we simply have to learn to live with the adverse effects of climate change. This mirrors the thinking of coronavirus mitigation proponents, such as former Swedish state epidemiologist Johan Giesecke, who wrote that: “our most important task is not to stop spread, which is all but futile, but to concentrate on giving the unfortunate victims optimal care.” And Stanford professor John Ioannidis who has argued that society-wide lockdowns aimed at reducing viral spread are “killing people.”
In both of these crises, proponents of mitigation are not wrong that ill-conceived and reactive governmental responses have negatively impacted the poor and vulnerable, particularly due to repeated failures to provide sufficient social support alongside these measures; nor are they wrong that plans for climate action or COVID-19 lockdowns often ignore this fact and become forms of virtue signaling for middle-class and wealthy populations that are not particularly adversely affected by regulations to polluting industries or work-from-home orders.
What they fail to recognize, however, is that the global poor also suffer disproportionately from inaction, and that without fundamental, structural change their suffering will both continue and compound in situations of ongoing crisis.
Marginal populations get the worst of both worlds, bearing the brunt of the affliction and suffering the most acute side effects of the treatment. This can be seen clearly in the context of Sweden’s laissez-faire pandemic response, with the poor being three times as likely to die from the virus, while also suffering from the country’s largest economic downturn in 40 years. As such, our understanding of crisis itself requires an intersectional approach that acknowledges the multiple and overlapping ways in which those at the margins are disadvantaged.
Ultimately, the widespread resistance to any crisis response that presents a challenge to the status quo could be considered an expression of what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher termed “capitalist realism” — or the situation where capitalism is depicted as the only viable socioeconomic system. While recent work has highlighted the fact that capitalist realism is beginning to “fray at the edges,” potentially fracturing into a new configuration that Kai Heron has termed “capitalist catastrophism,” this does not preclude the continued existence — and even intensification — of capitalist realist discourses in the face of the increasingly obvious absurdity of the argument that capitalism is in any way realistic.
In the cases of COVID-19 and climate change, the mitigation logic exists because many people are fundamentally unable to conceptualize the different forms of socioeconomic organization that become necessary as we confront impending catastrophe. While we often attribute this lack of imagination to the center and the right, the left is not immune, as evidenced by the fact that Jacobin Magazine even saw fit to publish an interview with Martin Kulldorff — one of the initiators of the Great Barrington Declaration — arguing against lockdowns.
In this context, mass death and illness are easier to imagine than radical alternatives to the capitalist system. As such, mitigation proponents are stuck mapping out crude cost/benefit analyses based on the assumption that our current political economy will necessarily remain static and unchanged — a fallacy in normal times due to the dynamic nature of social structures, but a grave miscalculation in periods of momentous and rapid socioeconomic upheaval brought on by crisis.
At the same time, both climate change and corona have illuminated, in stark terms, a widespread inability to perceive and address a crisis that is ongoing, accumulating, and collective. In our current alignment we seem to be attuned to isolated, fixed crises that exist in a single space and time. We are the proverbial frog in the slowly boiling pot in more ways than one.
Perhaps one silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis is that it has allowed us to assess the outcomes of the mitigation logic in fast motion. High-profile critics of suppression approaches to the pandemic, such as Johan Giesecke and Nobel Prize winning biophysicist Michael Levitt, have made numerous public predictions about the pandemic ending naturally with relatively few deaths — all of which have turned out to be dramatically incorrect. Rather than admitting their mistakes, these mitigation proponents have continued to double down, finding ever more tenuous evidence that herd immunity and a return to normalcy is just around the corner.
These failures to understand the deadly dynamics of COVID-19 are because of a fundamental misunderstanding of how human society functions. In place of interconnected and mutually dependent populations facing a collective problem, they see atomized individuals — a textbook case of missing the forest for the trees. This allows them to indulge in deluded fantasies, such as risk groups being “shielded” while the rest of the population gets herd immunity — a suggestion that fails to recognize that there is no practicable way to separate the vulnerable from the societies within which we all exist.
As if in fast motion, the response to COVID-19 helps us to see how proponents of mitigation intend to respond to the ongoing, slow motion, climate catastrophe. Those pushing climate change adaptation imagine the world simply getting warmer, and propose ways for us to adapt to — and even capitalize on — this situation. What they do not understand is that these dramatic changes we are inflicting upon our ecosystem will result in irreversible tipping points, altering the conditions for life on the planet in ways we cannot yet fully conceive, but surely with devastating results.
Ultimately, those advocating for COVID-19 mitigation and climate change adaptation suffer from a lack of system-level thinking — they see the world as sets of simple individual relationships, rather than complex, integrated ecosystems with emergent properties. With COVID-19, their failure to comprehend the irreparable damage that sudden mass death and illness inflicts on human societies and economies has had devastating consequences. As such, with the even larger looming crisis of climate change, we would be wise to pay them no heed.
Instead, we should look to supposedly ”radical” solutions, such as the degrowth movement, the Green New Deal or the host of other post-capitalist imaginaries emerging in our present era of intensifying crisis, all of which understand the severity of the situation and the necessity for coordinated, collective and solidaric action in the face of impending catastrophe. As Malm notes: “To be ‘radical,’ after all, means aiming at the roots of troubles; to be radical in the chronic emergency is to aim at the ecological roots of perpetual disasters.”
Vaccinating The Future
So, what are the prospects for humanity to take this much needed radical turn? If we see the global response to COVID-19 as both a fast motion microcosm and a symptom of the climate crisis, then the prognosis is grim.
The fact that some countries have successfully suppressed the virus shows that concerted, coordinated, collective action is possible, but that it is the exception rather than the rule. Dealing with rolling, accumulating crises like a pandemic, or the much larger challenge of the climate emergency, requires global solidarity and mass mobilization, both of which are in short supply at the moment. Indeed, the pandemic has generated suspicion and nationalistic competition, which has manifested in increased geopolitical tensions and racist violence against Asians around the world.
The potential for collective action has also been hindered by the pervasive discourse that any restrictions on individual freedom in the interest of the common good is a slippery slope to authoritarianism. While regimes from Hungary to China have certainly used the pandemic to consolidate social control and develop new technologies of surveillance, it should be obvious that collective mobilization in order to suppress crises can be solidaric, rather than authoritarian, in nature. Unfortunately, during the pandemic discussions of human rights have largely been reduced to narrow individual rights, rather than the right of vulnerable populations to exist without the pervasive threat of infection and death.
The emergence of a potential deus ex machina for COVID-19 in the form of inoculation also has implications for how crisis is perceived going forward. While the quick development of a number of vaccines is obviously wonderful news, it will also reinforce the idea that our age of escalating crisis has the potential to be “cured” through technology.
This is the story the proponents of mitigation want us to believe, and is the narrative that underpins their argument that it is unrealistic, and even detrimental, for humanity to shift into a more collective mode of socioeconomic organization based on solidarity. Instead, they urge us to intensify our engagement with destructive capitalism in order to facilitate the next technological advance. This approach approximates the nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a spider to catch a fly — ending with the verse “she’s dead, of course” — and fails to comprehend the far more complex nature of environmental destruction.
The unfortunate reality is that curing symptoms will do nothing to deal with our underlying condition, nor will it change the writing on the wall. There is no vaccine forthcoming for the looming ecological collapse. Our only hope is to unshackle our collective imaginations and build a global mass movement capable of facilitating coordinated, solidaric action in the interest of the public good.