6 lessons for climate action from Canada’s COVID-19 response

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented public health crisis that demands immediate and decisive action. Governments around the world are taking extraordinary measures to contain the virus to avoid the dire consequences of an uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak.

Those measures, extraordinary as they are, hold important lessons for the other, bigger crisis we face: climate change. And when the dust of the coronavirus pandemic and the associated public policy response settles in the coming months, which it will, it is essential that we heed those lessons in our efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for a warming world.

Here are six key takeaways for Canadian climate action from the COVID-19 response so far.

1. Listen to scientists

In times of crisis we need to act based on the best available evidence. At every stage of this pandemic, the public narrative and the associated policy response has largely been guided by epidemiologists and public health officials. By listening to the experts who understand the severity of the crisis and the options for addressing it, we stand the best possible chance of containing the pandemic and minimizing the social and economic fallout.

Scientists are also ringing alarm bells over climate change. In report after report, an overwhelming majority of experts tell us that we have only a few short years to cut greenhouse gas emissions far enough to avoid catastrophic global warming. Yet climate scientists are still sidelined in the public discourse and climate policy is still guided more by short-term political considerations than physical evidence. The climate crisis demands a more central role for climate science.

2. Implement “whatever it takes” policies

It’s hard to overstate the collateral damage of the government policies put in place to contain COVID-19. Declaring states of emergency, curtailing travel and shutting down significant portions of the economy have led to a stock market crash and almost a million Canadians losing their jobs. Things are likely to get worse before they get better despite billions of dollars in emergency spending by governments across the country.

But governments have correctly adopted a “whatever it takes” approach to containing COVID-19. We may not know everything about the virus, but we know that the risks of an uncontrolled pandemic are unacceptably high. We must do everything we can to contain its spread.

We do not know everything about climate change either; there is a wide range of possible outcomes. But we do know that unmitigated global warming poses an existential risk. Governments must do whatever it takes to rapidly decarbonize.

3. Think long-term, act short-term

Enacting extreme containment measures now, when there are only a few thousand cases of COVID-19 in Canada, feels like an overreaction. But we are not responding to the number of current cases, we are responding to the number of future cases if we fail to mitigate the spread. Acting now may be painful, but failing to act will be more expensive in the long term as the healthcare system collapses and thousands or millions of people die.

That couldn’t be more true of the climate crisis. Whatever the costs of transitioning off fossil fuels, the costs of failing to mitigate global temperature rise will be far, far worse down the road. Governments must take measures that feel disproportionate in the short term to avoid insurmountable challenges in the long term.

4. Mandate behavioural change

So much opposition to climate action is grounded in the belief that people won’t change their lifestyles and behaviours. We won’t stop flying. We won’t change our diets. We won’t stop buying cheap, polluting imported goods. We won’t stop investing in fossil fuels companies.

Yet in a manner of weeks, we have witnessed a government-led transformation of practically all social relations. People are no longer gathering. People are no longer traveling. People are no longer working in offices. And people have made these changes not because of the threat of punitive enforcement, but because they understand the necessity of the measures.

The point is not that these particular behavioural changes are all good ones. Some are not. The point is that supposedly unshakeable social behaviours are surprisingly malleable under extreme circumstances.

And if ever there was an extreme circumstance that demanded behavioural change, the climate crisis is it. Governments cannot be afraid of necessary climate policies that would entail significant lifestyle changes.

5. Mobilize strategic industries

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has strained the supply of masks, ventilators, hand sanitizer and other important medical supplies. In response, governments around the world are regulating the production and distribution of these supplies, working with manufacturers to retool to produce additional supplies, and, where private sector capacity is inadequate, producing these supplies themselves.

It’s a small example of how quickly industries can respond to crises when required to do so in the public interest. Given the central role of industry in the clean economy—manufacturing, construction, electricity generation and more—governments should not be afraid to direct the private sector toward necessary projects or, failing that, taking public ownership of essential production.

6. Support displaced workers

COVID-19 has led to mass layoffs and widespread economic uncertainty in Canada. The social and economic impacts will get much worse in a protracted pandemic where thousands of families can no longer afford food, housing or other essentials. In response, governments have moved quickly to expand the social safety net and introduce policies to reduce economic precarity. Although the measures announced so far are limited to the short term, they are vital steps in the right direction.

Measures to support workers and communities displaced by decarbonization are similarly essential. The shift away from fossil fuels will have massive costs for oil-and-gas-dependent regions of the country. Without more aggressive and comprehensive social support, those communities will not only face undue hardship, but they will also entrench political opposition to necessary climate policies.

Go big, go fast

The overarching lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that we need to act quickly and comprehensively to mitigate long-term damage. Some places, like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, moved decisively and have largely contained the outbreak. Others, like Italy and Spain, did not and faced dire consequences.

While the climate crisis has unfolded more slowly than the coronavirus, its consequences have already been devastating and promise to get worse. We must respond to it quickly and ambitiously, just as governments are in the face of the pandemic.


Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is a senior researcher on international trade and climate policy for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow Hadrian on Twitter: @hadrianmk.