Is Global Cooperation Out of the Question for the Climate Change Crisis After the International Response to Coronavirus?

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, global cooperation and efficiencies have been at an all-time low. Why is lack of unity bad news for the climate crisis?


Nothing highlights the interconnected nature of the modern globalised world like the pace at which coronavirus spread across the globe at the beginning of 2020. When the pandemic sent countries across the world into lockdown a sense of solidarity was apparent with endless zoom calls, balcony choirs and clapping for key workers. Although as global citizens we were all confined within the walls of our homes, there was a sense of unity in our common fight against the invisible killer. Videos like The Great Realisation by Tom Foolery visualises a utopian hope that lockdown will result in a greater appreciation for the planet and a newfound normal in 2020. The photographs of clear Venetian canals and other tangible environmental improvements made us stop and think that if a few short months of stillness could make such a difference, then what else is possible in our new normal?

However, simply dreaming of this new utopia wasn’t going to fix either the global issue of coronavirus or climate change. Throughout the pandemic, the cracks within this future got wider with the lack of cooperation between countries in their fight against the virus. Even from the outset of the crisis, China’s attempted suppression of those suspicious of the new illnesses in Wuhan created a rigid global attitude towards the virus. As well as this, it’s no secret that Trump’s America has been embracing protectionism long before the Coronavirus pandemic, but his decision to defund the World Health Organisation in a time of international crisis highlights the Republican’s self-interested survival strategy.

The same can be said about efforts to dictate potential vaccines for the virus. One of the most promising trials is that in Oxford, where many western countries seem to be manipulating their standards to gain early access to the vaccine. Although it isn’t outrageous that the host country of the first vaccine gets priority, the UK’s securement of 100 million doses doesn’t quite align with England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries statement that everyone should have “fair and safe access to vaccine development.” The protectionism displayed by Western countries during the coronavirus pandemic, a global crisis so tangible to their citizens, says little for the likelihood of their cooperation or engagement in global issues that affect them less directly. 

if left unchecked, climate change and the increasing global temperature will cause 85 deaths per 100,000 people per year by the end of the century

So what does this failure of international cooperation in a far-reaching imminent crisis mean for our future? Does this imply that future failure is inevitable in less tangible crises, such as climate change?

The magnitude of the coronavirus crises mirrors that of the climate crisis we have now been tackling for decades. They are both global issues on an unprecedented scale that put millions of lives at risk, while being solidly backed by science. Their impact is tangible and left too long undealt with could have disastrous consequences. However, even though these two crises have many similarities, the urgency in which the public (and countries) have responded to the two is alarming. The National Bureau of Economic Research have published new analysis which suggests that if left unchecked, climate change and the increasing global temperature will cause 85 deaths per 100,000 people per year by the end of the century. This is higher than those killed by all infectious diseases (including coronavirus). Yet, because this death is not as imminent, it is easy to often ignore the climate crisis and view it as a problem for the future.

Another reason that the climate crisis has not received the same urgency as coronavirus despite being more threatening in the long run is the lack of accountability surrounding it. There is no direct link between emitting and having to deal with the consequences of rising temperatures and pollution. In fact, those who pollute the most (US, China and the West) are more often than not the ones who have to suffer the most severe consequences (the Global South). This means that as long as Western countries can get away with emitting GHGs into the atmosphere and having to deal with less than their fair share of the consequences, there is little incentive for them to stop. 

If we are unable to cooperate against a tangible threat such as the coronavirus, which significantly impacts the West, how probable is it that we will miraculously be willing to do the same for the climate?

Due to the unaccountable nature of climate change, global cooperation is required to mitigate its effects . A balance needs to be struck between the over-polluting and non-consequential West and the underdeveloped victims of global warming in the South. This agreement requires a level of selfless sacrifice for the greater good of the planet, which has arguably been absent in the fight against Covid-19. If we are unable to cooperate against a tangible threat such as the coronavirus, which significantly impacts the West, how probable is it that we will miraculously be willing to do the same for the climate? Without the level of vulnerability that Covid-19 brings to Western civilisation, the effects of climate change do not seem strong enough to force the international system into cooperation over and above what we have seen throughout the pandemic.

However, what coronavirus has shown us is that in the face of a collective crisis, the world is capable of changing its ways and taking unprecedented action we never thought was possible. The drastic adjustments made for coronavirus show that if the incentives and sense of urgency are strong enough, there is true potential for us to make these drastic changes to mitigate climate change. Has the pandemic made us understand the vulnerability of the planet and the true dramatic action that the climate actually requires? It may seem farfetched, but after all, if someone said you would spend the summer of 2020 locked inside your house, you wouldn’t have believed them either.

Art by Oliver Walter

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