How Coronavirus Will Impact Climate Readiness and Resilience

The COVID-19 pandemic has knocked the global economy on its heels and drawn attention away from the climate crisis. Unfortunately, the devastating impacts of climate change are not waiting for this pandemic to end, but instead continuing in parallel. Coastal cities in the developing world are at particular risk as their resilience to combat climate change is further eroded in a landscape fundamentally altered by COVID-19. In this environment, decision makers must have the foresight to make climate smart investments.

The responses to this virus in many developing nations threaten individuals’ health and economic security. For the 85 percent of Africans who live on less than $5.50 per day, work stoppages and quarantine are further eroding their livelihoods. For these workers, social distancing and staying home are often impossible. Especially at risk are residents of coastal cities, many of whom are living in densely populated informal settlements along the water’s edge.

Science has shown that climate change is causing hurricanes to become stronger, thus wreaking more havoc on cities and displacing more people. In 2019, approximately 22 million people were displaced by weather events. It was one of the worst years in recorded history. Last month, Cyclone Harold tore through several countries in the Pacific, and there are growing concerns that COVID-19 could disrupt efforts to help the survivors and rebuild livelihoods. As the pandemic draws financial resources and human capacity away from climate resilience efforts it will further exacerbate long-term economic and food insecurity. This may also increase the risk of political instability as leadership vacuums, popular resistance, and debt crises converge.

At this time, governments, financial institutions and NGOs who lead in risk mitigation and climate innovation are also seeing their resources squeezed as the world moves to contain the spread of COVID-19. In this resource-scarce environment, investors need tools that can help them prioritize their actions. Future climate funding will need to be laser-focused to deliver smart investments and build resilience in this fast-changing, vulnerable landscape.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on coastal climate resilience strategies is threefold:

1.  COVID-19 will harm the economies of those countries most vulnerable to climate change. The World Bank estimates that COVID-19 will stop almost 24 million people from escaping poverty in East Asia and the Pacific and will drive sub-Saharan Africa towards its first recession in 25 years. This increases the vulnerability of the poorest and threatens to overwhelm public services in many coastal cities, reducing finances needed to cope with the impacts of climate change.

2.  The effects of climate change pose a major challenge to peace and security in the coming decade. A survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, named climate change and resource scarcity as a growing concern which could lead to increased tension and conflict. COVID-19 may exacerbate this by increasing pressure on public services and increasing tension in areas already being impacted by the climate crisis.

3.  COVID-19 could impact climate resilience funding by reducing the investment needed to combat climate change. By some estimates, the economic fallout could include recessions in the U.S., Europe and Japan, the slowest growth on record in China, and a total of $2.7 trillion in lost output. Overall, these impacts will limit the ability of governments, financial institutions, and NGOs to invest in climate resilience solutions.

Hurricane season is just weeks away for the Atlantic and Pacific. The countries most vulnerable to the impacts of extreme storms are the same communities whose health care and emergency response systems are currently being stretched by the pandemic.

The vulnerability caused by COVID-19 and climate is interlinked, and any resilience strategy to address climate change must take into account this changed landscape. COVID-19 has weakened economic systems, disrupted social systems and diverted finances that could otherwise be used to build resilience against climate change. As pressure on social and political systems increase, viewing climate resilience through an integrated, holistic lens is more important than ever. Without integrated, forward planning, there is a high potential for suboptimal investments, wasted resources and reactive rather than proactive decision making.

The 2020s need to be the decade of climate action. COVID-19 will increase the vulnerability of those at the forefront of the climate emergency and suppress economic investment needed to combat climate change. It has also demonstrated significant fault lines in the preparedness of global healthcare delivery systems and the difficulty of addressing these shortcomings in the midst of a full-blown crisis. But, COVID-19 represents an opportunity to reshape the global economy and create a better system and structures to respond to the climate crisis. It is now more important than ever that climate resilience investments go where they are need most.


Sally Yozell is a senior fellow and director of the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center and Jack W. Stuart is a research associate with the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center. 

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