Covid-19 and climate change have a lot more in common than you think

Climate scientists tell us that climate change will not only bring about rising sea levels and more extreme weather events, it also increases the likelihood of epidemics. But despite the clear linkage between the two, our response to the current Covid-19 pandemic is almost completely opposite to our usual response to climate change.

While the coronavirus can be fatal, the risk that one will die from the disease is (still) low. Nonetheless, governments in hard hit areas have acted promptly to declare “war” on the pandemic while societies have made large sacrifices to contain the disease.

With climate change, while the impacts are far greater in terms of loss of lives and risk to the very survival of the human species, mitigating climate change is seldom a priority in a government’s resource allocation decisions.

In short, we respond to epidemics (when they occur) with excessive fear and pessimism, even as we routinely discount the risks of, and are naively optimistic about, the very thing that makes them more likely.

In dealing with low-probability, high-dread events such as dying from Covid-19, we systemically overestimate our risks — much like how people overestimate their risks of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash relative to far more common causes of death.

On the other hand, people and institutions underestimate the high (and increasing) risk of climate catastrophe. How do we explain this paradox?

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Our overestimation of risks linked to the coronavirus and our underestimation of climate risks are two sides of the same coin; they are explained by a bias called probability neglect.

When dealing with risks (whether the risk of an epidemic or of climate change), we do not rely on actual probabilities but on how easily the risk comes to mind (saliency bias), our instincts, and our instant emotive reactions (the affect heuristic).

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The coronavirus is very salient; we are constantly inundated by news of it and daily updates of the numbers infected and dead around the world. It also evokes strong emotional reactions, especially fear. Salience combined with fear causes us to believe that something is far more probable than it is.

Climate change is exactly the opposite. It is usually not salient as most people believe it will occur in some distant future. Climate change also does not evoke strong emotional responses in most people, except possibly for the young. Being an abstraction for most people, climate risks are systematically underestimated.

The result of our collective fear is that governments prioritise the “war” against the Covid-19 pandemic, often at the expense of other priorities.

Read also: Explainer: Why climate change should matter to Singaporeans and what the Govt is doing about it

Global supply chains have also been disrupted; financial markets are roiled by the news of the disease spreading and of rising number of infections.

The different responses to coronavirus and climate change also stem from what is known as present-biased preferences. People tend to overvalue immediate costs or benefits while discounting long-term impacts.

In the case of the coronavirus, people are willing to make immediate sacrifices as there are short-term benefits, that of being protected from a potentially life-threatening disease.

With climate change, people are reluctant to incur even small costs today because the benefits (such as the survival of mankind and preservation of the natural environment) are in the future and, therefore, heavily discounted.

Climate change and epidemics are both problems of the global commons. Effective solutions require cooperation and coordination between governments.

But such cooperation is difficult because every country has an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others.

With epidemics, this free-rider problem is less pronounced as the domestic costs of an epidemic are high enough for most governments to take some preventive measures.

With climate change, the free-rider problem (and the consequent tragedy of commons) seems more insurmountable.

The benefits of not taking any climate action are internalised (that is, the benefits are fully captured by the country not taking climate action), while the costs to the global commons are externalised (that is, the costs are shared or distributed to the rest of the world).


First, there is an opportunity for those of us who wish to see more resolute climate action to use the coronavirus crisis to emphasise the causal link between climate change and epidemics.

Our message to governments and our fellow citizens should be: “If you do not wish to live with more of such viruses, we must take far more aggressive action on climate change.”

Second, there are many things governments can do to highlight the salience of climate risks.

For example, just as the number of confirmed infections and deaths from the coronavirus has been highly visible, governments should also provide regular information on the costs and damages of climate change, as well as how these are expected to rise.

Third, governments can take steps to counter our present bias. With the coronavirus, the benefits of governments taking aggressive action now are clear for all to see.

With climate change, governments need to find ways to create a sense of crisis to persuade their populations that the costs of climate change are already upon us, and that the sacrifices needed to deal with it cannot be delayed anymore.

Finally, the costs of climate change do not have to be fully internalised for countries to take action; they only need to be sufficiently internalised.

That the coronavirus began in China, the fastest growing emitter of carbon emissions, also creates an opportunity for China to play a leadership role in climate change mitigation. By doing so, China would also reduce the risks of future epidemics.

Donald Low is senior lecturer and professor of practice in public policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where Xun Wu is professor and head of the Division of Public Policy. They both teach at the university’s Master of Public Policy programme.

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