Democratic Crisis Response: COVID-19 and Climate Change

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As warm weather made its way back to New York, Americans in even one of the most progressive cities in the country grew restless with regards to mask mandates.

In reflecting on what has unfolded since January 2020, it is worthwhile to assess the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us about global action against climate change. We know that despite early claims of economic slowdown, decreasing carbon emissions were incorrect, and GHG emissions continue to rise at record-breaking levels. Parallels, however, between the global scale of COVID-19 and our climate crisis beg several questions about how democratic societies fare in times of crisis as effective mechanisms for upholding societal wellness. 

How have democratic societies responded to the COVID-19 global pandemic? What conclusions can we draw about how these reactive processes might unfold in a worsening climate crisis? What level of death and economic loss finally triggers meaningful reactions from democratic governments? Will the scale of loss due to climate change materialize in a collectively obvious enough manner to trigger similarly drastic responses? 

Even if governments react to the climate crisis with legislation similar in intensity to COVID-19, how optimistic can we be about the impact of this response when 5.31 million people still died of the virus? Based on reactions to COVID-19 restrictions, to what extent are citizens willing to compromise freedom in the name of the common good? 

COVID-19 was the first event in recent history to challenge every society around the world simultaneously. While the impact of the virus varied due to differing access to healthcare and vaccination, it largely infected the human body in the same way. Globally, people experienced the same bodily issues; the same swift confrontation with mass death. People in wealthy countries were struck by images of their own hospitals and morgues overflowing. A veil of dystopia seemed to fall upon states largely inexperienced in dealing with unstable institutions, collapsing health systems, and restricted mobility. 

Governments experienced a challenge: slow the spread of the virus while maintaining economic vitality. The pandemic drove a rise in nation-first mentalities, worsened existing inequalities, and weakened the multilateral system.Turning inwards, borders closed to foreign travel and domestic movement froze to the greatest extent possible. COVID-19 presented an issue pervasive and threatening enough that democratic governments — titans of freedom and individual rights — scaled up rule of law in ways with which their citizens were not familiar. 

Even between democracies, the strictness of shutdown enforcement varied. In the United States, our federalist structure resulted in un-unified responses to the pandemic — with some states never even fully implementing mask mandates. Other democracies were able to consolidate power at the executive level to increase the effectiveness of the response. In March 2020, for example, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban was given the ability to rule by decree — an action touted by the Washington Post as the death of their democracy. In South Korea, the democratic government deployed wristband trackers to hold quarantine defiers accountable — a concept many Americans would find an inconceivable violation of their freedoms. Interestingly enough, however, 77% of Korean citizens agreed with the policy. In contrast, in October 2020 only 48% of Americans were comfortable speaking with health officials about the virus, sharing contact tracing information and quarantining. 

The democratic governments in Europe and the US are more perceptive to public opinion than authoritarian ones —raising the question of whether the structure of democratic rule-making during a crisis is streamlined enough to ensure an effective response. In China, an undemocratic society, the first lockdown began on January 23rd, 2020 when the country had a death toll of just 17 people. Lockdowns began in the democratic countries of Spain, Italy, France, and the UK, however, at 288, 463, 148, and 335 deaths respectively. While this sensitivity to individual rights is a fundamental part of what makes democracies free, it also inhibits leaders' abilities to respond quickly and preemptively to threats the general public has not yet fully comprehended. Had governments acted more quickly to the existence of a highly contagious, unknown virus, the extent to which restrictions were placed on citizens in the long run, perhaps, could have been avoided.

The dialogue surrounding climate change focuses primarily on the quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere as it relates to the physical impact on extreme weather, agricultural downturn, disappearing wildlife, refugee crisis, and coastal sea-level rise. In the United States, while 65% of Americans agree protecting the environment should be a presidential priority, when framed in the context of climate change, only 52% agree. How often during dinner table discussions of climate, however, is the connection drawn between resource depletion and genuine potential democratic backslide? 

The horrors of COVID-19 have awoken people to the realization that routines and institutions they consider permanent are not only not guaranteed, but are highly vulnerable. Citizens of democracies, particularly the United States, need to shift focus to the very real possibility that, if unaddressed, climate change may become a crisis too great to be tackled without restrictions and a complete overhaul of the way of life we presently enjoy. During the pandemic, countries that held them saw democratic participation skyrocket. Meaning, with a backdrop of increasingly restrictive policies and a frightening increase in death, populations strive in record numbers to participate in democracy. 

By 2060, climate change will bring about the same quantity of death as COVID-19. Even further, by 2100 we can expect it to be as much as five times worse. While COVID-19 showed us that overall, the global population is capable of dramatically shifting their lifestyles in the face of an imminent crisis, we need to learn from our failure to minimize the scale of loss. Addressing the threat of climate change sooner rather than later decreases the possibility of dystopian lifestyle changes.

While climate change requires adjustments in an effort to be more sustainable, if democratic societies can work more swiftly they can avoid authoritarian backslides when other options have come and gone. Further analyzing both government and citizen response to global COVID-19 crises is an important analogy from which governments should be learning. Aggregating data on response time, public opinion, and the influence of democratic structures on response effectiveness might help pave the way for increased willingness to fund climate action.

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