Covid-19 vs climate change? The virus won because votes count
The world’s governments were unequivocal in their response to the pandemic because poverty and climate change aren’t being felt as immediately
Politicians around the world have, by and large, not been able to do enough to stop the spread of Covid-19. At times, virtually the entire global economy was shut down. Millions of people are still (more or less) confined to their homes. Entire sectors of the economy have been wrecked to save lives.
Which is very commendable; but is also very sad. Because it shows what politicians can achieve when they want to. The UN and multiple civic organisations have been lobbying for decisive action on the climate crisis and poverty alleviation for decades. The Paris climate agreement was signed years ago. As far back as 1996, the UN General Assembly declared the eradication of global poverty to be an “absolute global economic and ethical priority”.
Yet virtually nothing has been done about climate change, despite it posing a real threat to the survival of the human species. Of the 185 countries that signed the “legally binding” agreement to very modestly reduce their carbon emissions, multiple organisations have noted that only a handful (and the person doing the holding would need to have unusually small hands) have managed to meet these unchallenging targets.
When it comes to the various wars on poverty, little has been achieved, with inequality getting worse not better and Unicef estimating that poverty now kills 22,000 children every day.
When it came to Covid-19, however, swift and decisive action was taken by governments across the world. Money and economic sacrifice were not an issue. Anything and everything that had to be done, was done. Solemn-faced politicians from dozens of countries exhorted their citizens to unite and accept economic sacrifice to save lives.
Why was this not done when it came to climate change or poverty? The answer is inescapable: politicians don’t really care about those issues. Climate change will kill millions through drought, extreme weather and consequent collapse in food production. But our great-grand children, who will be most affected by climate change, can’t vote now; they haven’t been born yet.
It is also undisputed that poverty kills swathes of people every year. But poor people tend not to vote as much as those who aren’t poor. And because they tend to live in the developing world, they can’t vote at all for politicians in the developed countries that have the money to solve the problem.
It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the only thing politicians care about is getting re-elected. And because Covid-19 kills people right now, and because old people do tend to vote, politicians jumped through almost every hoop they could find. They were desperate not to be the guy who didn’t do enough, because that is a sure way to not get re-elected.
Like a derivatives trader improperly incentivised to take risky bets on sub-prime mortgages, our politicians are incentivised to care a lot about Covid-19, and very little about things such as climate change and poverty, even though they pose a far greater threat in terms of lives lost.
The Washington Post has calculated that reversing climate change would cost a lot less than has been spent in the war on Covid-19. A pittance of GDP is spent addressing this problem, while the US alone will spend more (even adjusted for inflation) fighting Covid-19 than they spent on fighting World War 2.
If the bold and united action taken to fight Covid-19 had been taken to address climate change and poverty, these problems could have been solved too. If anyone cared. Lives are more important than economics. But, sadly, not the lives of our great grandchildren, or the lives of the poor.
• Davenport is chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.
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