Flattening the climate curve in the post-COVID world

A bloom of wild poppies in Amador County during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Jackson, California, U.S. April 16, 2020.  REUTERS/Kate Munsch - RC256G97SRY8

There are lessons to learn from coronavirus that could help us protect the planet. Image: REUTERS/Kate Munsch

Patrick Verkooijen
CEO, Global Center on Adaptation
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  • Coronavirus has shown how unprepared we are for some of the biggest risks we face.
  • We can learn lessons from the response to COVID-19 in mitigating and adapting to the threat of climate change.
  • We need to head down a path that is kinder to the planet.

We all find ourselves at a fork in the road with a fundamental choice. How do we respond to global threats, both as individuals and as communities?

The COVID-19 crisis sees humans act with unprecedented solidarity. Acts of kindness abound. By mid-April, it was estimated that a third of the global population was staying indoors to help stop the virus spread. The extraordinary efforts and self-sacrifice of medical services and essential workers humbles us. We have learnt that roles in society that were taken for granted – the supermarket workers and van drivers – are the ones that keep things working when the going gets tough.

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As coronavirus runs riot, the climate emergency has not gone away. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked. I am with Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, when she called COVID-19 a "clear warning shot". This is on the basis that 75% of all infectious diseases come from our wildlife. With climate change and the destruction of natural habitats, we are squeezed ever-closer together, creating new dangers.

climate change curve mitigation prevention
The climate curve Image: David J. Hayes, NYU Energy & Environmental Impact Center

So, how should we respond?

If we want to stay healthy, we need a healthy planet. That means we adapt and alter our behaviour – and in the process, build societies resilient to emergencies of all kinds. We were woefully underprepared for this pandemic, just as we are for rising sea levels and the other effects of climate change.


It is abundantly clear now that prevention is better than the cure. This rule applies to extreme weather just as it does a virus. So, it makes sound economic sense to build greater resilience against climate change now, just as health care needs to be better prepared for the next pandemic. The Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing $1.8 trillion in building resilience against climate change over the next decade could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits.

Governments around the world are launching vast stimulus packages to resurrect their economies. This is a golden opportunity to retool our economies for the planet that we are living on, not the unlimited, infinitely stable one we wish we had. It is the time to invest in resilient and sustainable infrastructure to build a new green economy. Renewables instead of coal, grass instead of concrete, re-forestation instead of de-forestation.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

In this, international cooperation is not a nice-to-have. It’s critical. Rather than playing to national interests, we must pay more attention to helping those around the world who need it most.

Developing countries were the least prepared for the arrival of COVID-19, just as they are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. A global fund to help the world's poorest countries cope with the current crisis would be a good start.

Can governments consider a return to business as usual when the virus subsides? Surely it is unthinkable. Let us heed nature's warning and start on a path that is kinder to our planet. Let us invest in a stable climate, fresh air, clean water and natural habitats. The pandemic has revealed some home truths: that disasters do not respect borders, that solidarity brings strength, that science and expert advice matter, and that delay is deadly. The same lessons hold true for our climate emergency.

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