Jun 1, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Your guide to comparing climate change and coronavirus

Illustration of earth/ globe compass

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Climate change and the coronavirus have a lot more in common than the letter C, but their differences explain society’s divergent responses to each.

Why it matters: The Internet is full of comparisons, some from biased perspectives. I'm going to try to cut through the noise to help discerning readers looking for objective information.

Here are some of the more common comparisons made on climate change and the coronavirus over the last few months and corresponding reality checks.

Comparison: Pandemics and climate change are both massive risks that much of the world is ignoring or downplaying.

Reality check: True.

They’re both gray rhino risks. As I wrote in this column early in the pandemic, a gray rhino is a metaphor coined by risk expert Michele Wucker to describe “highly obvious, highly probable, but still neglected” dangers, as opposed to unforeseeable or highly improbable risks — the kind in the black swan metaphor.

Comparison: They’re both existential crises of our time.

Reality check: Partially true.

The pandemic will define our generation uniquely, while climate change will wear on for many.

  • The word "crisis" implies a finite beginning and end, which certainly fits the bill of the pandemic. At some point, just like past pandemics, this coronavirus will likely recede, become normalized or be resolved with a vaccine.
  • I don’t use the word crisis to describe climate change because humanity is going to be living with impacts of a warming world indefinitely even if we do drastically reduce heat-trapping emissions. It doesn’t have finite parameters that typically define crises.

Comparison: The coronavirus is climate change on warp speed.

Reality check: False.

This characterization, made by environmentalists and other experts, fails to appreciate the inherent differences in these types of risks.

  • It’s like saying a cheetah is a turtle, only faster. Yes, they’re both animals, but otherwise they have inherent differences that means the turtle will never be faster than the cheetah.
  • Climate change is, by definition, a slow-moving, centuries-long problem whose impact on the world is uneven and secondary. A pandemic is fast-moving and relatively equal in how it affects different parts of the world.

Comparison: They both threaten our public health.

Reality check: True.

But the coronavirus could kill someone within two weeks, while climate change does it more slowly and in a more indirect fashion.

  • Climate change is like diabetes for the planet: It makes existing weather events and patterns worse. Its exacerbating impact can increase the likelihood over many decades that crises like heat waves and other extreme weather events could kill people.
  • Again, it comes down to the time difference, which explains society’s immediate response to the coronavirus and its slow and uneven response to climate change.

Comparison: Scientists have been sounding the alarm for years — even decades — that a pandemic like the coronavirus could devastate humanity, and also that unabated climate change would wreak havoc on the planet.

Reality check: True.

Putting politics aside (an impossible task), our experience with the pandemic should instill more faith in scientists. Yet our hyper-polarized world has fixed a blue and red lens onto the pandemic, just like it has with climate change, Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index and Pew Research Polling data shows.

Comparison: The fact that the predictions from scientific modeling about the coronavirus didn't bear out weeks later shows why climate change models predicting vast ecological harm over decades should not be trusted.

Reality check: False.

This argument, perpetuated by those who question the scientific consensus of climate change, are either purposefully or ignorantly misunderstanding how modeling works.

  • Modeling exists to show what happens if you don’t change behavior. At least with the coronavirus, we are able to view change — flattening of the curve — in a rapid timeline.
  • With climate change, the change happens over generations, making it far more difficult to see and react to in real time.

Whether the subject is climate change, pandemics or anything else, modelers aren't trying to predict exactly what will happen, but instead possibilities of what could happen as inconvenient as that may be for our polarizing debates.

The bottom line: Coronavirus and climate change are both complex, terrible risks the world is facing today. Making them out to be more or less than what they are does a disservice to anyone looking for solutions.

Go deeper