The Response to COVID-19 Should Also Be a Response to the Climate Crisis

The climate crisis was already well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
The climate crisis was already well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

By Preety Bhandari, Arghya Sinha Roy

Now is the time to ramp up actions on resilience so that society can beat the COVID-19 crisis while reducing the impact of climate threats.

The last few weeks have taken all of us by surprise. We are confined to our homes. Weaknesses in health care systems have been exposed. Jobs are uncertain. Women are bearing the burden of providing informal care within families. Millions are being pushed back into poverty. Stock markets are reeling.

We long for normality. But when life was normal we were already in crisis – a climate crisis. Returning to that status quo isn’t an option. Instead, we should ensure our decisions to tackle this pandemic do not compound the climate crisis. Rather, they should help shape an inclusive and sustainable future for all. Now is the time to ramp up our actions on resilience so that our society can beat the COVID-19 crisis and reduce the impact of climate threats.

The following five approaches can drive this shift.

First, use the opportunity to tackle the climate crisis head-on, as well as the pandemic.  Though national borders are closed, global solidarity is high. Time and resources are in short supply. We do not have the luxury nor the financing to deal with each crisis separately. More importantly, dealing with the impact of both requires us to urgently address underlying vulnerabilities – poverty, limited social safety nets, weak health systems, and structural gender inequalities.

Tackling issues together can redouble resilience. For example, more resilient health care systems would cope better during pandemics. They could also deal more effectively with diseases caused by climate change, such respiratory ailments due to higher temperatures and waterborne illnesses from changes in precipitation.

Second, reforms, tax cuts, subsidies, and incentives designed to help economies recover should also examine the implications for longer-term climate-resilient development. Sustainable recovery will require a long-term systemic shift so that short-term fixes don’t have adverse consequences for the environment and equity.

Actions for climate resilience have always prioritized long-term thinking. Still, climate risk information has only very rarely found its way into fiscal policy and management processes. Now is the time to make this happen. Proposed reforms to meet immediate needs should also promote green infrastructure; create jobs in sectors that reduce carbon emissions; and incentivize actions such as business continuity planning across supply chains that promote longer-term sustainability and equity by addressing climate risks. 

Third, measures should have an explicit focus on the poor and marginalized. The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on poor and marginalized populations. These people are already burdened with the ill-effects of climate-related shocks and stresses such as salinity intrusion at coastal areas and urban “heat islands” endured by outdoor workers.

To prevent millions slipping back into poverty, a sharp focus on strengthening the resilience of the poor will be needed. This calls for tailored solutions to support the chronic and near poor in both urban and rural areas. Large scale pro-poor development programs should proactively introduce explicit resilience-building measures. Technical and vocational education and training programs can build skills for climate-friendly livelihoods, such as producing drought-resistant high-value crops. Cash-for-work programs can help protect wetlands and mangroves.

  Let’s address the dual threats of COVID-19 and climate change.

Equally important is to invest in social protection systems with adaptive features. For example, using climate risk information to target vulnerable populations and flexibly allowing cash transfer programs to add temporary new beneficiaries can cushion the impacts of a crisis. It will be important to strengthen linkages between various programs – public health, community infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods, microfinance - to deliver resilience solutions.

Fourth, let’s take a transformational approach to resilience. The effects of climate change are not linear. Therefore additive incremental actions taken to combat a pandemic won’t necessarily protect assets, livelihoods and well-being over the long-term. 

Instead, we need to address the systemic, structural and gendered dimensions of vulnerability. The focus should be on underlying inequalities, balancing bottom-up and top-down planning approaches, and requiring behavioral and lifestyle changes. For example, investments to support populations in urban informal settlements should involve communities, especially women, in decision-making about selection, construction and maintenance of water supply and sanitation infrastructure.

We can promote behavioral change through improved hygiene and by forming self-help groups to kickstart sustainable livelihoods in climate-friendly roles such as management of wetlands and mangroves.

Finally, invest in communities. Managing any crisis boils down to individual communities – their capacity, resources, and level of preparedness. Communities that are well informed about risks and involved in local decision-making can play critical roles in helping local governments to identify and serve vulnerable populations.

This can improve the targeting of resources and distribution of food. Self-help groups have spread awareness about climate and disaster risks, performed caregiving roles, and implemented farm-to-home models to deliver agricultural produce. Grassroots women’s groups are better aware of local vulnerabilities and can ensure that government support reaches the last mile.

Building the adaptive capacity of communities requires sustained investments in organizing communities and empowering them economically and socially. The Global Commission on Adaptation has estimated that investing $1.8 trillion globally from 2020 to 2030 in resilience-building measures could generate $7.1 trillion in total new benefits.

It pays to invest in resilience. Let’s make those investments now so our communities can thrive—before, during and after crises.