How Covid-19 and climate change mirror each other
Coronavirus could be an opportunity for the young and old to start taking each other’s concerns more seriously, writes Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Nicholas Agar.
17 March 2020
As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across the world, it is worth thinking about it in the context of another global threat—the challenge of climate change.
Attention to who bears the burdens of these challenges helps us see that Covid-19 and climate change are mirror images of each other. Recognising this may enable us to respond better to both.
Many are comparing Covid-19 to the 1918 influenza pandemic estimated to have killed 50 million people globally. There is an interesting twist in the demographic pattern of these deaths. The young were disproportionately affected, leading some to conjecture that older people had some protection due to exposure to an earlier, similar influenza strain. Covid-19 is a virus towards which we were all immunologically naïve—this is our first encounter with it. As a consequence, its deaths are weighted toward the over-60s. Younger people are comparatively protected.
I quizzed 80 or so students in a course I’m teaching about their attitudes toward Covid-19. The dominant view was we are overreacting. I sensed these young people just wanted things to get back to normal and were happy to take their chances. They understood there is a good chance they will be entirely asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. If they get Covid-19 then their immune systems are very likely to fight it off, preparing them for future exposures. The room contained no over-60s to challenge this confidence. I wondered about my prospects as a 55-year-old with type 1 diabetes, one of the pre-existing conditions listed as worsening prospects of surviving a Covid-19 infection.
A 2018 analysis conducted by the Gallup polling company identified a “global warming age gap” in attitudes towards climate change. Gallup found that 70 percent of American adults aged 18 to 34 expressed worry about global warming compared with 56 percent of Americans 55 or older. The majority of people 55 or over were worried about climate change, but there was less worry than among younger people. One explanation of this pattern points to an awareness among older people that they may be gone before things get really bad. This has implications for how we collectively confront climate change. If you’re a politician courting votes then perhaps you should soft-pedal talk of sacrifices to slow global warming. You should bear in mind the observation of the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde that “young people tweet while old people vote”.
We currently see this response in Australia. After the recent ruinous bush fires, the reality of climate change is broadly accepted. But there remains a politically popular option that imposes minimal demands—do nothing now and await a technological solution. Australia can continue to burn and export coal, confident there will be a cheap technological fix that spirits excess carbon out of the atmosphere. This attitude seems not to be shared by the many young Australians vigorously protesting for climate justice.
We could continue to play an intergenerational version of chicken, with the young caring little about the vulnerabilities of the old and the old insisting that, bad though climate change may be, it’s wrong to rush into changing things.
Or we could take the opportunity for an intergenerational compromise. This would involve young and old agreeing to take each other’s most cherished concerns seriously. Both groups would have to look beyond satisfying immediate desires. The young can appreciate they will grow old and need support that responds to their frailties. The old can agree to worry more about the world they are leaving to their kids and grandkids.
Nicholas Agar is Professor of Ethics in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.