These are grim numbers from the World Health Organisation, the actual human suffering is impossible to measure.
By comparison, the WHO predicts that climate change will kill 250,000 people every year between 2030 and 2050.
A total of five million people. Starting in ten years’ time.
Given those figures, why does the global response to the climate crisis compared to Covid look like a tortoise versing a hare?
One of the crucial differences – Covid has been with us just over a hundred days. Climate Change became front page news more than 30 years ago.
Over that time the climate crisis has become highly politicised, dividing along left and right lines.
Oil corporations stand to lose the most from the transition to a zero carbon world.
They’ve had all that time to build up layers of PR protection, in an attempt to confound people about the science.
Organised resistance and disinformation by wealthy and powerful fossil fuel companies is the primary reason why humanity has failed to act decisively on climate.
Psychology also plays a role.
Human brains are not designed to easily react to large slow-moving threats.
As Professor Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University says, “Our brain is essentially a get out of the way machine.”
And we’re much more likely to get out of the way if the danger is clear and present.
Writer Jonathan Safran Foer points out that “we are aware of the existential stakes and the urgency, but even though we know a war for our survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it.”
The pandemic is much easier to see and visualise. It doesn’t affect us, it infects us. Watching those awful scenes of coffins piling up in Italy and mass graves in the US, you need little imagination to grasp the threat to you and your family.
By contrast we may feel that climate change is unlikely to kill us. A dangerous misconception.
You may never see it written on any hospital chart, but every day climate change is facilitating the circumstances for mass human fatalities.
Wildfires, droughts, intense storms. Reduced food and water supplies, which will exacerbate hunger, disease, violence, and migration.
They used to be long term risks, not any more.
The UN says if all countries don’t make significant changes over the next ten years, then the underlying climate nightmare will be upon us.
Columbia Journalism Review says, “It is bizarre that the climate crisis has never been accorded comparable importance, even though it too stands to upend, impoverish, and even end the lives of countless people the world over.”
Climate change may feel far away when you’re self-isolating in a house in Te Awamutu, but it’s very real for millions of people in the developing world.
These countries are where the first effects and the worst effects are being felt – a terrible injustice, given that they are least responsible for causing it.
On a brighter note, the experience of responding to a global threat may give the world something of a “muscle memory” when it concentrates fully on tackling climate change once more.
Among the very real horror, Covid is teaching us stuff.
It’s shown how people and governments can get their act together if they really want to.
That nothing is fixed, and in an often cruel world, collective will can prevail. That people power is real.
Once the smoke of Covid clears and we descend the alert levels, there will be many experiences, lessons and even phrases which will prove useful.
We can talk about “flattening” the climate curve, and “eradicating” emissions growth.
And we can be confident about asking our governments to think boldly and expansively to protect our futures, rather than just timidly tinkering around at the edges.
The neoliberal argument against society acting collectively via the government is dead. As the Financial Times editorial put it recently: “Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table.
Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy.”
Transforming agriculture, electrifying transport, embracing wind and solar power. We can do this.
Best of all we can start now. If we are going to spend 20 billion dollars stimulating the economy, let’s spend a bunch of that money on a Green Covid Response – infrastructure projects that hasten us towards a zero carbon future – rather than landing us slap bang in the middle of another existential crisis.