A view of an iceberg near South George island, November 18, 2020. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/Handout via Reuters
As we grapple with India’s COVID-19 epidemic, we can’t afford to lose sight of the larger crisis that lies in wait: climate change. Several voices worldwide, ranging from celebrities to academics, claim that the global collaboration observed to address the COVID-19 crisis could help us prepare better to face the impending climate crisis. Although the collaboration achieved so far is undoubtedly a ray of hope to cope with a climate-affected future, we were reminded of a question by one of our students, “can climate change be fundamentally addressed as long as the top 5% of the world’s population (or even a smaller fraction) can bail themselves out from the worst impacts of the climate crisis?”
Drawing a direct parallel, when India is reporting the world’s highest daily cases of infection, and people here are fighting their battle to breathe, many wealthy Indians fled from the country in private jets paying ten times the regular fare, just in time before several foreign countries imposed a ban on arrivals from India.
This raises the obvious question of whether 5% of the world’s population could always be saved, be it from COVID-19 or climate change? And more importantly, are we evaluating the situation correctly if we expect the same level of cooperation and concerted effort, as observed towards managing COVID-19, to combat climate change? The fact of the matter is that the uncharted pathways of COVID-19 are much more fearsome to the top 5% of the world’s population than the threat of climate crisis. And howsoever politically incorrect this may sound, this section’s active involvement in this capitalist neoliberal world does play a critical role in inducing cooperation on a global scale.
So comparing COVID-19 and climate crisis is like comparing apples and oranges. Both share a first-order similarity: both are fruits, or both these crises are rather unprecedented global ones; there is hardly any further major similarity. The reason we are falsely equating the two is that both are bound to adversely hit every human irrespective of their human strata, at least in principle. However, there are some crucial differences.
Biological parameters of COVID-19 demand a massive global collaboration to end the crisis. COVID-19 is caused by a highly contagious RNA virus (SARS-CoV-2), which owing to its genetic makeup, can mutate quite easily. This ability to mutate is what makes it difficult to find a potent vaccine that can offer long-term protection against the virus. Thus, the key to fighting such a virus is to vaccinate as many people as concurrently as possible so that the virus does not get the scope to mutate and eventually get eradicated in the best manner possible. Although vaccines developed so far are found to be efficacious against all the new mutants (Brazil and the UK) discovered, it may not be true for all the mutants of the virus that are expected to emerge out of India.
Apart from this biological factor, it is always going to be difficult for anyone to remain unscathed from COVID-19. Being a respiratory virus, it is highly contagious, and the pathways through which it impacts are difficult to track and contain. In spite of this, the wealthy and the influential sections of the world are looking for a COVID-19 haven. However, to think or plan for a COVID-19 haven or a bio-bubble is a next-to-impossible task. Even when the BCCI tried its best to implement ‘bio bubbles’ for the smooth operation of one of the world’s most lucrative sporting leagues, it failed.
On the other hand, a climate haven in principle can be planned as there are places that are least likely to be impacted by the climate crisis. This will surely include colonies on other planets or in space. Although experts opine otherwise and argue against the idea of a climate haven, the rich and the influential (the top 5%) of the world are already considering climate vulnerabilities while making real-estate investments. Moreover, the temporal spread of the impacts of climate change (generally over 50-100 year timescale) will always allow sufficient time to find a climate haven which is not possible during an imminent pandemic. The possibility of a climate haven deters the super-rich from contributing to a common goal, i.e., combating climate change. The impossibility of a COVID-19 haven exposes this population to shared risks and makes them part of the battle the masses, and even middle classes are fighting.
A recent New York Times article says that despite the best-coordinated efforts and necessary support from the privileged layer of the global society, we witnessed a great deal of ineffectiveness concerning COVID-19 vaccine distribution; the distribution also disproportionately impacted the poorer countries. It is a no-brainer that socio-economically marginalized populations are usually the most vulnerable section in any major crisis, be it a pandemic or climate change. People in power do acknowledge the need to safeguard everyone from COVID-19, find it hard to act ethically and rationally during such a humanitarian crisis. Letting go of private security or comforts for the public good has never been an easy task. Clearly, it is not the social collaboration but this dismal response to COVID-19 that would be a precursor to how the world is going to respond to the impending climate crisis.
It shows that, if anything, the response to the climate crisis is going to be even less coordinated, and the resulting circumstances are going to be far worse as the richer sections and countries can always have the option to bail out. As they say, any pandemic or global crisis can only expose the fault lines present in the society and is going to magnify the existing vulnerabilities to a different order. The grim reality we are witnessing in terms of addressing the COVID-19 crisis can only be considered to be the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg will fully emerge only when we are faced with the climate crisis.
Soumyajit Bhar is a visiting assistant professor at Krea University, Andhra Pradesh, and an instructor with Terra.do, a global online climate school. Kalpita Bhar is an assistant professor of philosophy at Krea University, Andhra Pradesh.