Cancelled, delayed, cancelled, cancelled – airport departure screens across the world flash as flights to and from the Chinese regions are grounded. At the time of writing the Coronavirus has affected more than 24,500 people globally, and more than 500 fatally. Measures to control the virus have been prompt and far-reaching, taken in response to this very real human disaster.
This is an example of a global response to a global problem. At times of global health emergency, we come together and take the necessary steps to limit human suffering. We are capable of quick, effective action when human life is under threat.
Yet we have so far failed to apply this thinking and this action to the climate crisis. When will we start to see the global climate crisis as the global health emergency that it is? Aircraft emissions already cause 16,000 deaths per year. The WHO has predicted that, between 2030 and 2050, 250,000 people per year will die because of climate change. We will see mass starvation because of crop failures, increased extreme weather events, spread of disease, and mass displacement from areas made uninhabitable by a changed climate. These are real people in real scenarios with real lives – lives that are at increasing risk from human-induced climate change.
Extreme measures are currently being taken to prevent further spread of the Coronavirus, including precautionary measures in places where no cases have been detected, because money spent now will save money in the long term. We understand what we need to do when the threat is immediate and clear. This principle absolutely applies to our environmental challenges: we need to take every measure to prevent things escalating further, and money spent now will save money down the line.
The restrictions on Chinese air space presents a specific moral question: why are we willing to curtail air travel to reduce the risk of contracting a potentially deadly disease when we’re not willing to curtail that same air travel when it directly contributes to a global crisis that will kill lots of people? Both things are equally deadly and serious.
The climate crisis will bring much more human suffering than any virus, and indeed, it already is. And we already have the antidote: stop burning fossil fuels. We need to wake up and see this for what it is – a global health emergency – and finally kick-start our emergency response.