The Lens Shifting Letter: Equity in Climate Change and Coronavirus Responses


climate change Coronavirus crisis disadvantaged people disasters environmental justice inequality inequitable lesson pandemic socioeconomic status structural inequality

Hello! We at LensShift hope you are staying safe in these challenging times. It’s been awhile since we last wrote, and much in the world has changed. In the past several months, we’ve all become even more aware of our health, and how our actions and lack of action can affect people all across the globe.

Originally we were going to take the opportunity, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, to introduce some new resources on how societal inequities and injustices are exacerbated by the global responses (or lack thereof) to climate change. Then the novel coronavirus started to quickly disperse around the globe, focusing the world’s attention on combating the spread of the disease. Unlike climate change which is more chronic and insidious, with multiple culprits and a variety of local and global outcomes including illness, natural disasters like flooding and fire, and heat exposure; the coronavirus pandemic is an acute global catastrophe with a single, easily-identifiable primary causative agent. Yet, coronavirus is unlikely to kill as many people this year as the 7 million, as estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO), who are killed annually by air pollution, only one aspect of climate change.

On the other hand, we could not ignore the similarities between the two crises, and wonder if valuable lessons learned through the tragedy of the pandemic can be used to offer instruction in the longer term response to climate change. We hope so…

The effects of climate change are not distributed equally around the globe, and even in local communities the population does not suffer equally. Research has shown that disadvantaged populations suffer disproportionately, compared even to wealthier people in the same community, due to greater exposure and greater susceptibility to negative events, as well as less ability to recover. Governments and economists may be starting to recognize that top-down solutions created to mitigate global warming are ineffective if the less affluent need to shoulder a greater burden of sacrifice. A good reminder of this is the gilets jaunes movement in France where protesting working people eventually forced the government to revoke greatly increased taxes on fossil fuels among other reforms.

While wealthier nations have been the biggest producers of climate changing carbon and other pollutants, and have experienced some negative effects of global warming; many countries facing the greatest economic and social challenges have felt far greater impacts. The rate and scale of climate change are particularly extreme in regions that suffered the greatest environmental and societal degradations from European colonial imperialism. In addition, climate change has already widened the economic inequality gap, hitting especially hard for those countries that have experienced mass relocations due to extreme weather events. 

In recent weeks, some commentators have pointed to inequalities in the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the disproportionate burden of the disease it causes (COVID-19) on economically, geographically, and socially disadvantaged people. These inequalities must be addressed if we hope to tackle coronavirus in an effective and just way.

The coronavirus pandemic is teaching us that we can act together to change the way we live and curb the effects of the climate crisis, while also reminding us that we need to make sure we continue to challenge the entrenched systems that act to exacerbate inequalities around the world. These systems, if left unchanged, will continue to threaten entire communities in the face of climate change. Global challenges require systematic changes. This global pandemic is offering us a chance to glimpse the upcoming changes needed in order to include and protect all individuals in the fight against climate change.

In closing, we’d like to offer a hearty welcome and many thanks to Helen, our newest research fellow! She bravely dove headfirst into these topics to find some compelling opinions on how the coronavirus pandemic could act to change our collective global trajectory.

Please stay well and safe.
With much gratitude,
The LensShift Team