Covid-19’s unexpected impact on climate change debate


By Emmanuel Koro

Johannesburg - The novel coronavirus has clearly turned people’s lives upside down around the world in a matter of weeks since its discovery in late 2019.

The virus has created a totally different world with instant effect on our behavior and our attitudes. While the pandemic has negatively impacted the political and business world, little is yet known about how it has affected wildlife.

Two authors — US-based ivory specialist, Godfrey Harris and this writer, an African environmentalist, discovered to their surprise that the coronavirus pandemic could have a positive impact on the long-term wellbeing of African wildlife.

One of their most encouraging findings involves how much climate change advocates can learn from how the coronavirus pandemic has been handled.

Meanwhile, this discovery encouraged Harris to share his observations on how the fight against the coronavirus provides lessons to those concerned about the impact of climate change on wildlife.

“Much to our surprise, the initial US confrontation with the coronavirus offers important lessons to those worried about the survival of wildlife resources in the face of climate change,” said Harris, who is widely respected for his views on the politics of wildlife management.

He notes that the first media reports from the city of Wuhan, China, only revealed a mysterious new illness that caused a lot of people to become sick and an alarming number of them to die. The new disease soon proved to be more virulent than the world had faced with Ebola, SARS, MERs or the H1N1 flu. This upper respiratory illness, eventually named Covid19, was not only easy to catch, but was 10 times more lethal than any previous such virus.

The initial effort to contain it was undertaken with little information from China or concern that the world faced a potential crisis. In fact, the disease raced into 2020 with little being done to prevent its spread or test for its penetration.


“While infectious disease specialists understood what had to be done, politicians, particularly in the United States, were reluctant to frighten constituents in an election year with talk about a killer disease that was easy to catch, had no vaccine, no treatment, and no cure,” said Harris.


As a result, the politicians tended to shy away from doing what needed to be done. There was no sense of urgency. The world’s great economies soon began shrinking in real time as people were forced by both fiat (orders/decrees from authorities) and fear to stay close to their homes, consuming fewer dinner outs, watching fewer movies, attending fewer meetings. This in turn reduced the need to drive a car, diminished the need to have clothes cleaned, and eliminated the need to go to the bank.


Each step, writ large in nation after nation and multiplied by tens of millions of consumers, quickly began showing up in the statistics that measure the world’s economic activities. Projections suggested the world was looking at a 10 percent to 20 percent instant economic contraction.


The advance of the coronavirus across more than 100 countries seemed to us similar to the great flocks of birds that rise as one from a sanctuary and then bank to the right or turn to the left in a coordinated wave. How do tens of thousands of birds get the message at the same instant that a turn will be initiated or a change of speed is imminent?


Yet it is exactly the same kind of coordinated movement that the world needs to react to climate change. Harris believes that humankind must deal with it now despite the fact that it appears to be a very difficult-to-solve political and psychological problem that will inevitably destroy the very institutions that gave it viability.


This is the issue that Harris and yours truly deal with in their forthcoming book, Death Defies Debate. The book’s subtitle sums up the problem facing the world: Climate Change is Destroying Wildlife Faster than Poaching, Hunting or Population Pressures. Yet animal rights groups and most national governments refuse to acknowledge this situation. Worse, climate change activists continue to fail to make a dent on the public’s thinking because they ignore the animal rights groups in favour of targeting governments to adopt their solutions.


What lessons, then, does the effort to blunt the spread of the coronavirus offer to climate change activists?

“Plenty,” said Harris. “Animal rights groups long ago stopped reviewing scientific data on changing populations and migration patterns and resorted to rearranging their prejudices to a point of view they are comfortable with. Climate change advocates keep hoping that politicians will agree with them because of the logic of their positions.

“They need to realise that governments are more cautious, more conservative, more reluctant to do anything that might prove controversial or might fail. Note their initial timidity over the novel coronavirus. In short, it is likely that climate change advocates will continue to be ignored.”

Harris suggests that world leaders need to study what can be done to benefit the community as a whole as well as the group involving itself in a climate change issue. Advocates need to work on only those win-win opportunities. They should stop crusading for the biggest possible victory. Climate change will not be conquered by dazzling public relations; it will be tamed by thousands of small steps that added together make a difference.


“The great lesson that we are taking from the Covid-19 episode is this: don’t wait, don’t hesitate,” said Harris. “Delay may bring disaster. Do what seems required in the moment — asking for forgiveness rather than permission if need be.  When the Federal government of the United States seemed unable to make the big decisions — frozen between adopting policies that would slow the virus or jeopardise the economy — individual entities lower down the public policy decision chain started to decide matters on their own.


“Create a specific, goal-oriented program for each private sector entity helping to arrest climate change,” said Harris. “This is the hard work. Anticipate costs, what changes need to be made, what opposition the bosses will encounter from neighbors, from unions, from government, from unfavourable tax laws. But encourage big name celebrities and institutions to take the lead in promoting the program sought.”


Harris foresees that once the first few programmess are in place and operating, other entities will join the fight against climate change, perhaps encouraging the coronavirus crowd to join the climate change movement.

There is considerable hope for an enlarged worldwide movement to address the climate change challenge. Climate change scientists, under the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and climate change activists worldwide, have long told the world it needed to change its ways. Few have been willing to make the sacrifices.

“Yet climate change may require adjustments far more severe than those made for Covid-19,” said Harris. “For example, environmental refugees - both humankind and wildlife – may have to be accommodated in order for the greatest number of both to survive. But remember this: Faced with the immediate threat of the novel coronavirus, leaders and citizens have dramatically changed their lives for fear of being killed by or killing someone else with Covid-19. Climate change may soon present the same stark choice to the world.”


  • Emmanuel Koro is a Johannesburg-based international award-winning journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa for the past 26 years.








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