Coronavirus: A lesson for fighting climate change

Nathan Geffen, 3 February 2020

The reaction to the Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak is a marvel of human achievement.

Within days of people in Wuhan presenting with pneumonia in December, the cause was identified as a Coronavirus. Soon after that the virus was isolated and sequenced. Work on a vaccine is underway. Clinical trials have been registered and approved, a large hospital was built in China in just ten days, massive quarantines are in effect, hundreds of cases have been studied in depth, the World Health Organisation provides daily updates of the number of infected people broken down by country and Chinese region. Everyday the number of deaths is updated. Expert public health advice is disseminated via the Internet.

Thousands of health workers, scientists, and administrators across the planet have been mobilised to end the outbreak. It may not be enough; a global epidemic is very possible.

No doubt there has been some bureaucratic wrangling. There will have been decisions that will turn out to have been wrong. China's singular brilliance at organising may be undermined by lack of transparency and its regime's autocracy.

Nevertheless this is a wonderful demonstration of co-ordinated worldwide action. Nothing remotely like this existed during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people. Globalisation means that diseases like SARS, MERS, Ebola and 2019-nCoV have the potential to spread quickly across the world, with devastating effects. Yet we have become so much better at controlling diseases and reducing the risk of them killing massive numbers of people.

If only we could see the same kind of response to global warming. The problem is that although the institutions of global society may have become very good at reacting to short-term crises like 2019-nCoV, they are still inadequate for dealing with long-term, slow developing problems that require sustained co-operation.

We were making progress, sort of, at improving our global institutions. The growing connectedness of the world led to a plethora of institutions of varying effectiveness and goodness: Geneva conventions, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, United Nations, WHO, World Trade Organisations, World Wildlife Fund, IMF, World Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO, IPCC, a myriad multinational trade agreements --- and the European Union, which is quite a bit smaller today than it was a few days ago.

Civil society groups were at least trying, if not always succeeding, at making global institutions, like the WTO, more accountable. We were making progress developing effective global institutions and rendering the nation state less important.

But something went wrong (or perhaps something was fundamentally wrong from the beginning), and across the world people have rebelled against the move to globalisation. Global institutions are seen as serving elite interests. Immigrants have become the scapegoat of people who feel materially insecure and alienated. Nationalism is on the rise and nation states are strengthening again at the expense of global institutions.

Now we have a bunch of elected nationalists: Trump, Johnson, Duterte, Modi, Orban, Erdogan, Netanyahu, Bolsonaro, Putin and several more. Not all of them are always opposed to combating climate change, but they all share a disrespect for international institutions.

And the turn towards insulation by nation states means there is insufficient pressure on China or the US to take the lead in fighting climate change. Both have regressed, at least at the highest political level. Unless these two countries show intent there will be no substantial progress on the climate emergency.

The global co-operation in response to 2019-nCoV is an inspiration for the fight against climate change. But to combat the latter the rise of nationalism of the past decade probably has to be reversed.