Published 26 May 2020
Few global phenomena elicit as much fear as pandemics or environmental breakdown. And yet, while we have been grappling with how to stop, change, ignore, mitigate against, and adapt to climate change for decades (through haphazard, politicised governance that has eroded public trust in institutions), the past months have revealed that for governments, dealing with a pandemic is much more appealing than tackling a slow-burn issue like the climate crisis. Last week’s 73rd World Health Assembly has reinforced this growing sentiment in policymaking circles.
Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have, at a governance level, been exceedingly rapid, especially in comparison to how governments and international organisations respond to climate change. This illuminates the underlying and blunt truth that human health trumps climate change. Of course, the irony is that climate change does and is affecting human health.
The pandemic has generated a greater mobilisation of political will across the board, in both local and global contexts, and has successfully dominated the news cycle for the majority of 2020. Australians have become accustomed to listening to our Chief Medical Officer and receiving targeted announcements on social media advising against coronavirus disinformation. And yet, hardly the same can be said for the government’s response to climate change. It was even deemed the wrong time to talk about climate change during Australia’s catastrophic bushfires of the summer of 2019 – 2020. The interesting and troubling dynamic of believing science when it’s convenient and suits the political values of a system has become increasingly apparent; the scientific profession is respected during a pandemic, but not a climate crisis.
“The troubling dynamic of believing science when it’s convenient and suits the political values of a system has become increasingly apparent; the scientific profession is respected during a pandemic, but not a climate crisis.”
Alongside a suite of multilateral initiatives after World War II, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was established in 1948 to create a system of global health governance. The ambition of the organisation, as per its constitution, is to strive for “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health” as a fundamental human right. Much of the WHO’s substantive role in the prevention of non-communicable diseases is ignored, as responses to disease outbreaks of epidemic and pandemic proportions are significantly more attractive, alluring, and most importantly – frightening.
As per its mandate, the WHO responded promptly to China’s alert of a new infectious disease outbreak in Wuhan on December 31, 2019. The WHO has appropriately been at the centre of managing the communications and technical expertise of the pandemic, however, due to the revered principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, the implementation of its health recommendations is the responsibility of member states. It is worthwhile to note that international organisations, such as the WHO, function on the premise of member states agreeing to dilute their sovereignty in the interests of the international community. Although the organisation has become the latest arena of geopolitical tension, the member states were largely able to refrain from politicising health governance during the recent World Health Assembly.
Earlier last week, the World Health Assembly formally adopted a resolution to review the origins of the virus and in turn the WHO’s management of the health crisis. The steps that were taken to achieve this outcome highlight a decision-making process foreign to the climate change sphere. This European Union – Australia motion was passed by 137 countries, including China, showcasing an unparalleled eagerness to hold governments and institutions accountable. What was initially perceived as governments scapegoating an international organisation to distract from domestic system failures has since shifted to a pragmatic approach to uncover the origins and international response to COVID-19. The reality is that member states of the WHO have acted in a fashion, in terms of speed and unanimity, that is vastly different to years of stagnant climate negotiations. It’s plausible that the immediate economic downturn experienced across the globe has influenced such behaviour, yet it has been well-documented that a similar situation will occur if industries fail to transition to a green economy.
In light of this, calls have been made for governments and global institutions focused on climate change, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to mirror any future response on the pandemic model. This presents an interesting scenario as the WHO is often criticised for seemingly overreactive responses to health crises, such as in the H1N1 pandemic, when in fact these preventative measures are necessary in order to curb the depth and severity of the health crisis. The very nature of pandemic management is based upon such preventive principles that, when extracted and applied to climate governance, would be undoubtedly criticised as draconian and an assault on the sacred sovereignty of states. It will certainly be interesting to see whether the UNFCCC is capable of taking a leaf out of the WHO framework– if it does, it will be a key turning point for climate policy and the health of the planet.
“It will certainly be interesting to see whether the UNFCCC is capable of taking a leaf out of the WHO framework– if it does, it will be a key turning point for climate policy and the health of the planet.”
The global governance of health versus climate couldn’t be more dissimilar. The rapid, bipartisan response to the pandemic in Australia occurred at a rate that is at complete odds with current climate policy, despite the latter having decades more warning and impacts that are potentially exponentially more significant for human health, the economy, and beyond. It remains to be seen whether the resolution adopted at the World Health Assembly will maintain its momentum and remain on the international agenda. Considering the extent to which the pandemic has penetrated all aspects of modern life, it seems plausible to conclude that it will. Perhaps a crisis needs to be new and unfamiliar, as the coronavirus is, in order to gain, and more crucially, maintain the attention of governments.
This article is part of our Corona and Climate Series, an ongoing collection of opinion pieces from leading experts in the SEI community. In a time of intersecting planetary crises, this series analyses the parallels between ecological and epidemiological crisis, focussing on questions of resilience, adaptation and justice on local and global scales.
Charlotte Owens is the Executive Assistant and Project Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Charlotte is currently completing her Master’s dissertation in International Security on the World Health Organisation and the intersection between climate change, antimicrobial resistance, and human health. Charlotte is the Policy Manager of Young Australians in International Affairs, a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific region. She is also a former Australian representative athlete and judges Rhythmic Gymnastics.