Governments weren’t prepared for Covid-19, but should anticipate climate change

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the vulnerability of the human race into stark focus, with APHR's Kunthida Rungruengkiat arguing that this current crisis should serve as a warning to governments around the globe about our inaction on climate change

Kunthida Rungruengkiat
May 29, 2020
Governments weren’t prepared for Covid-19, but should anticipate climate change
A young boy holds a sign outside a park during a climate change strike in Bangkok, Thailand, 29 November 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/Diego Azubel

Kunthida Rungruengkiat is a member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), and former Member of Parliament in Thailand for the now-dissolved Future Forward Party. The views expressed within this piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Globe.

Increased prevalence of typhoons caused by heightened sea temperatures. Whole villages forced to move because of rising sea levels. Devastating and prolonged heat waves that have killed hundreds, and led to chronic water shortages.

For years, the planet has been warning us about an upcoming climate change crisis, and the disastrous impact it will have on our lives. Yet, these have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Despite seemingly endless negotiations, declarations, summits and plans, the world’s temperature is already one degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels, and is on track for a 3.2°C increase by 2100. This is more than double the 1.5°C degree limit recommended by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Until now, there has always been a convenient reason to dismiss these concerns: it is not immediate, will slow economic growth, or is too much of an inconvenience for the large investments safely secured in fossil fuel industries. The imaginary catastrophe could wait. 

But the excuses don’t wash anymore. The coronavirus crisis has suddenly made the term “catastrophe” much more tangible: hospitals inundated and unprepared, medical staff dying from a lack of protective equipment, widespread panic buying, governments reverting to drastic measures such as lockdowns and emergency powers and, to top it off, an unprecedented economic downturn.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought immediately into focus the havoc that climate change will create if we don’t tackle it immediately. 

Climate change will impact health systems in a similar way Covid-19 has. Environmental degradation and rising temperatures will increase the occurrence of deadly diseases such as coronaviruses, malaria, cholera and dengue fever. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a global temperature rise of 2-3°C will increase the number of people at risk of malaria by “several hundred million”, putting greater strain on our healthcare systems. 

Kunthida Rungruengkiat speaking. Photo: Kunthida Rungruengkiat’s Facebook page

For years, experts have been warning that the next big pandemic was right around the corner. On multiple occasions they raised the alarm, describing the threat of a pandemic that could kill tens of millions

Human-driven development has contributed to the coronavirus pandemic.

Research shows that the number of emerging infectious diseases, such as the coronavirus known as Covid-19, has grown considerably since the 1940s. Human invasion of wildlife habitats through increased deforestation and urbanisation has resulted in us living increasingly close to species carrying viruses that could be fatal to us.

When we cut down forests, bats for example don’t disappear, they live in our gardens instead, increasing the risk of infections. Environmental destruction and climate change are bringing with them promises of future pandemics.

There is another striking similarity between the coronavirus and climate change crises – for years, experts have been warning that the next big pandemic was right around the corner. On multiple occasions they raised the alarm, describing the threat of a pandemic that could kill tens of millions around the world. 

Yet governments didn’t listen. They didn’t act to secure their national emergency health stocks in a globalised supply chain that weakens during times of crisis, or ensure their health systems and hospitals were adequately funded and prepared. Instead, all we heard were calls for the need to save money and to think of the economic impacts. This all seems rather ironic now that we know what the crisis has done to the global economy. 

The same approach is happening when it comes to climate change; governments are not listening. Too worried about the impact divesting from fossil fuels could have on the economy, they are allowing a crisis that will lead to the next economic recession and cause millions of deaths, to get worse and worse. 

They must take action. Governments only have until the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, now delayed until 2021, to turn things around and submit ambitious national climate change action plans (called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) to ensure the world does not warm beyond 1.5°C.

The submission of the plans is part of countries’ obligations under the Paris Agreement, and lays out the measures governments will implement to limit the global rise in temperature. Yet currently, these are largely unsatisfactory and are putting us on track for catastrophic global warming.

Still, some nations are starting to answer the call for increasing their commitments. More than 100 countries have stated their intention to enhance the targets of their NDCs by COP26. This includes countries such as Morocco, Kenya and Bhutan that are already showing ambition in their climate plans, and have committed to doing even more.

Yet these 100 or so nations only represent 15% of emissions, as top polluting countries, or blocs, such as the United States, China, Japan and the European Union are showing insufficient ambition, and few signs of changing course

Here in Southeast Asia, government commitments have been nothing short of disappointing. According to the Climate Action Tracker, Indonesia and Singapore’s plans are highly insufficient and Vietnam’s is deemed “critically insufficient” to meet the Paris Agreement goal. Another report identifies the action plans of all Southeast Asian countries to be “insufficient”.

In fact, it has been the smaller countries that have offered the most promise. So far, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Timor-Leste have pledged to enhance the ambitions of their plans. With this in mind, what will the big players do, not only here in Southeast Asia, but globally? Step up and show they’ve learned from the coronavirus crisis and submit enhanced climate actions plans by the COP26? Or continue as they have done, deal with crisis after crisis, lose lives and never anticipate the next catastrophe?

Let’s make sure that for all our sakes, they choose the first option. 

Read more articles