The Other Global Emergency: Coronavirus in the Time of Climate Change

With the world in the grip of coronavirus fears, many are wondering why governments and people have proven so willing to take science seriously on that front while continuing to spurn climate action.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images News / Getty Images

With the world in the grip of coronavirus fears, many are wondering why governments and people have proven so willing to take science seriously on that front while continuing to spurn climate action. Coronavirus is without doubt a serious issue; it has claimed at least 3,000 lives around the globe already, and the scale of the virus’s spread is yet unknown. Yet the cumulative impacts of climate change—heat waves, drought, wildfires, extreme weather events—are already killing thousands of people a year, and displacing millions more. And that’s not to mention climate change’s projected economic impacts, which rival or exceed those of the coronavirus.

“While coronavirus is understandably treated as an imminent danger, the climate crisis is still presented as an abstraction whose consequences are decades away,” writes Owen Jones of  The Guardian.That said, coronavirus has shown that the world is capable of responding at scale to an urgent problem: The whole of Italy is now on lockdown, and people everywhere are taking steps personally to minimize their risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Owens wonders what would happen if governments, businesses, and individuals at last responded to climate change like the existential threat it is. He’s not the only one asking the question. In The New Yorker, Bill McKibben suggests lessons we might take from coronavirus and apply to the climate crisis: for example, that events happening far away nevertheless matter, and that international cooperation trumps unilateral action. “This might also be the moment when we decide to fully embrace the idea that science, you know, works,” McKibben writes.

(Please consider republishing Jones’s Guardian piece, “Why don’t we treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as coronavirus?”, which is available free of charge to CCNow partners, consistent with instructions found below. TV and radio outlets might also consider booking Jones on your talk shows.)

Now, here’s your weekly sampling of the latest in climate news, from across the Covering Climate Now collaboration.

  • Amazon, which postures lately as ecofriendly (and whose chief executive pledged $10 billion to the climate fight), has internally rejected proposals that would have cut back on the company’s emissions, Bloomberg Green reports. One proposal would have given customers a “green” shipping option, which would have prioritized lower emissions over swiftness of delivery. The plan was scuttled for fear that it would give customers a moment’s pause before they clicked “Buy Now.” “It was all efficiency and bottom-line focused,” one source tells Bloomberg Green.
  • The Netherlands’ beloved Elfstedentocht, a speedskating extravaganza that crosses 11 cities and 125 miles via frozen rivers, is “under threat” from climate change, reports Bill Whitaker for CBS’s 60 Minutes. In fact, for years, the race hasn’t taken place at all in the Netherlands, where rivers now often remain unfrozen all winter long; this year, the race was moved to the frozen lakes of Austria. Many in the Netherlands worry the tradition might never again return to its home country.
  • As big oil faces a challenging  future, fossil fuel companies plan to offset revenue losses by ramping up production of plastics, writes Mother Jones. Especially in the US, even companies that have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seem to be trading one pollutant for another. And that’s no win for the planet: Even before plastics are discarded to accumulate in landfills (or oceans, where they may interfere with the algaes’ absorption of excess carbon), they take a toll on the climate in every stage of production. As a result of this plastics push, MJ says, plastics’ oil consumption is expected to exceed that of cars by 2050.
  • Not only are the world’s tropical forests losing their ability to pull excess carbon from the sky, but the world’s largest, the Amazon, is at risk of becoming a net carbon emitter within the next decade,The Guardian reports, based on a new study from CCNow partner Nature. The Nature report marks the culmination of 30 years and 300,000 trees worth of research, conducted in the Amazon and parts of Africa. “Forests lose their ability to absorb carbon as trees die and dry out from drought and higher temperatures,” The Guardian explains.
  • Another new study from Nature shows that fully half of the world’s sandy beaches could disappear by the end of this century if no action is taken to curb climate change. Already, one of every four beaches is subject to erosion of a half meter each year, as a result of rising seas—and this erosion is profoundly affecting the world’s coastal economies. The Conversation reports that solutions exist—pumping sand onto endangered beaches, for example—but these solutions carry their own climate impacts, not to mention significant costs.
  • Even as the president and swaths of Republican leaders reject climate science and shred environmental regulations, some young conservatives are lobbying for a course change within their party. On the heels of last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in DC, the Christian Science Monitor profiles a group of college students who support a carbon tax as a “capitalist solution” to climate change. A carbon tax is still a new tax, however, the Monitor notes, and is unlikely to be an easy sell with the powers that be in the party. To date, the few Republican proposals to fight climate change—such as planting trees—have paled in comparison to the policy proposals put forth by Democrats.
  • Project Drawdown, a nonprofit that bills itself as “the world’s leading resource for climate solutions,” has published a report detailing 76 practical fixes for climate change that the world could implement immediately, reports Gizmodo’s Earther. In addition to replacing fossil fuels with clean energy and protecting and expanding the earth’s carbon sinks (such as the Amazon), top solutions include “Building onshore wind turbines, reducing food waste, and eating plant-rich diets.”

* When republishing any of the individual stories identified above as available, CCNow outlets are asked to append the CCNow logo, which you can download here, and the following tagline: This story originally appeared in [insert name of original news outlet, with a link to the outlet’s homepage] and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story. Further detailed information on CCNow content sharing, including answers to frequently asked questions by our partners, can be found here.

And finally, a reminder to CCNow partners that from April 19-26 we will host a second “week of coverage” focused on Climate Solutions! If you plan to participate but haven’t gotten in touch, please let us know with an email to! Not a partner? We hope you’ll consider joining our collaboration.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week!