• Daryll Griffith

Anatomy of a crisis: how the world reacts to an immediate crisis versus an existential one

“Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies” As history unfolded, stories about gods, nations, and corporations grew so powerful that they began to dominate objective reality” -

Yuval Noah Harari.

The coronavirus (COVID-19), which was recently declared as a pandemic by the WHO(World Health Organization)[1] is certainly a cause for concern and one many would consider being an urgent crisis. The story of the coronavirus, however, has taken on a life of its own casting a large shadow of hysteria over the world in this modern social media landscape. A quick look at how many stories published on coronavirus over the past five months shows its prowess, where in February 2020 it surpassed both the coverage of stories containing Climate Change and the #MeToo Movement.

Source: Media Cloud

This comparison is quite interesting when examined within the context of how we deal with crises as a species. Fortunately, well-learned individuals have weighed in on this topic. An article for BBC Future suggests that the way our brains have evolved over the last two million years we have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats and underestimate long term threats[2]. Additionally, writers at the World Economic Forum built upon this and suggested that “While many agree that science can change the world, the balance of our thinking and action is more focused on the short-term horizon of the (quarterly) earnings cycle rather than being dedicated to the big issues facing humanity in the long term”[3]. In summary, while we accept that long-term challenges exist that threaten our very existence our cognitive biases that ensured our initial survival make it difficult to address these future issues.

The immediate crisis in question here is the threat posed by the Coronavirus while the future crisis is the existential threat that is climate change. By exploring how we as a society have both acknowledged and reacted to the existence of both we may come to a better understanding of ourselves.

The Cultural Impact of the Coronavirus

Given the WHOs recent announcement, #coronavirus is unlikely to reverse as it occupies much of the mindshare of the world at the moment. What I want to focus on is how immediate crises impact our culture much more than long term ones and how that way of thinking does little to prevent crises on a whole. The cultural impact of the coronavirus is best shown in images as that is a better representation of our behavior.

The 2020 NBA Season has been suspended indefinitely

Source: USA Today [4]

Mortgages have been suspended in Italy

Source: Bloomberg [5]

Panic Buying of Toiletries

Source: CNBC [6]

Oil Price has crashed amidst price war and coronavirus fears

Source: Al Jazeera [7]

Ghost Flights in the UK, planes flying without passengers

Source: CNN Travel [8]

Pollution and emissions have been reduced in China due to changes in behavior to contain the virus

Source: Lowered Pollution, Business Insider [9]

Lowered Emissions, Carbon Brief [10]

These images show that the coronavirus has the potential to transform our world if it hasn't already. While I applaud the immediate action by persons to wash their hands and undertake other forms of hygienic practices to prevent the spread of the virus, it is only when a threat materializes is when we realize the potential impact, with the risk that it may be too late and we will face much higher costs to deal with it.

Source: Twitter

As the number of coronavirus cases grows with each day, it forces us to discuss common questions asked within recent times, such as working from home, addressing internet equality and universal healthcare...that if implemented previously may have prevented or slowed down this current crisis. In 2015, The WHO identified some factors that may have led to the re-emergence of Ebola in Africa and among those were the failure to recognize the importance by institutions and lingering cultural practices and beliefs [11]. While this isn't a direct comparison since both are different diseases it is a recent example of how our cultural and institutional norms impair our ability to prepare for future challenges.

Short Term thinking and Climate Action

The magnitude of the response to the coronavirus raises another question: Will we wait until the last moments to take dramatic action on climate change? While there has certainly been behavior change since climate change hit the mainstream media, i.e more use of renewable energy, creation of electric vehicles, educational activities and the work of advocacy groups like Climate Tracker. Evidence still shows that we haven't made significant progress despite our many historic agreements as emissions have continued to increase by 1.5% per year in the past decade[12]. The consensus has been that Government commitments have been insufficient and none of the top five emitters have committed to the goal of achieving net-zero carbon[13]. What I would like to know is where is the sense of urgency?

The advent of the 4th industrial revolution, the age of data, promised us a fundamental change in the way we live and work. Data provides us with the opportunity to make informed decisions and have a greater ability to influence leaders and policy-makers to make better, more informed decisions[14]. Yet despite the data presented to us we have yet to see dramatic action to prevent an almost certain future.

“In 2018, natural hazards affected nearly 62 million people and were mainly associated with extreme weather and climate events, with floods affecting more than 35 million people. Intense heatwaves and wildfires in Europe, Japan, and the US led to more than 1,600 deaths in 2018.”

-World Meteorological Organization [15]

“Even after accounting for adaptation, an additional 1.5 million people die per year from climate change by 2100 if past emissions trends continue”

-Climate Impact Lab [16]

The one who would become king and save us

Spoiler, there is no king, or rather we are all kings and queens. The culture change that's not happening may not be happening because we aren't doing enough to change our culture into one that will prevent the incoming crisis. While our governments are slow to adjust to the incoming crises consumers have some power to shape the future of the industry. Data shows that buildings generate nearly 40% of annual global GHG emissions while transportation consumes roughly around 23% as seen in the graph below [17]. This means that we as consumers have some influence on the level of emissions through our purchasing.

Source: Architecture2030

We as consumers have found it easy to resist the temptation to buy sustainable building materials, build regenerative homes and stop purchasing fossil fuel vehicles compared to lower-emission electric vehicles (EVs). While, In most places, these cost more or are less convenient than conventional cars or houses. The market share for EVs is less than 2 percent in the United States, for example [18] and even fewer regenerative houses exist globally. If we maintain the same consumption pattern it continues to justify new oil and gas projects, which when subsidized make it economically impractical to invest in cleaner technology. In the short term world, this financial decision by us is a long term cost for our planet. It is understandable that most don't consider the lifetime value of a product when making a purchasing decision, the same way a politician doesn't consider the long term impact of their decisions beyond their election cycle but if we are to make a change, changing what we can control is a good way to start. Exercise caution by washing your hands and taking off the lights to save some power after reading.


Daryll Griffith

Sustainability Analyst

Co-Founder of REgenTT

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daryllgriffith/


[1] "'Covid-19 Characterised As A Pandemic' - WHO". 2020. BBC News. Accessed March 12 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-51842838/coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak-can-be-characterised-as-a-pandemic-who.

[2] King, Matthew. 2020. "How Brain Biases Prevent Climate Action". Bbc.Com. Accessed March 12 2020. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190304-human-evolution-means-we-can-tackle-climate-change

[3] "Our Minds Are Wired To Fear Only Short-Term Threats. We Need To Escape This Trap". 2020. World Economic Forum. Accessed March 12 2020. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/how-to-thrive-with-long-term-solutions-for-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/.

[4]Nesbitt, Andy, Andy Nesbitt, II Mike D. Sykes, Nate Scott, II Mike D. Sykes, Nick Schwartz, and Charles Curtis et al. 2020. "The NBA Suspends Season After Rudy Gobert Tests Positive For Coronavirus, Twitter Reacts". For The Win. Accessed March 12 2020. https://ftw.usatoday.com/2020/03/nba-suspends-season-rudy-gobert-coronavirus.

[5] "Italy To Suspend Mortgage Payments Amid Outbreak". 2020. BBC News. Accessed March 12 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-51814481.

[6] Taylor, Chloe. 2020. "Here's Why People Are Panic Buying And Stockpiling Toilet Paper To Cope With Coronavirus Fears". CNBC. Accessed March 12 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/11/heres-why-people-are-panic-buying-and-stockpiling-toilet-paper.html.

[7]"Look Out! Stocks Nosedive On Oil Price War And Coronavirus Fears". 2020. Aljazeera.Com. Accessed March 13 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/nosedive-oil-price-war-coronavirus-hammer-stocks-200309131458257.html.

[8]Paul Sillers, CNN. 2020. "Ghost Flights: Why Our Skies Are Full Of Empty Planes". CNN. Accessed March 13 2020. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/airport-slots-ghost-flights/index.html.

[9] "China's Air Pollution Dropped Dramatically After Coronavirus Lockdown". 2020. Business Insider. Accessed March 13 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/satellite-images-air-pollution-drop-china-coronavirus-2020-3.

[10] "Analysis: Coronavirus Has Temporarily Reduced China’S CO2 Emissions By A Quarter". 2020. Carbon Brief. Accessed March 13 2020. https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-coronavirus-has-temporarily-reduced-chinas-co2-emissions-by-a-quarter.

[11] "Factors That Contributed To Undetected Spread Of The Ebola Virus And Impeded Rapid Containment". 2020. World Health Organization. Accessed March 13 2020. https://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/one-year-report/factors/en/.

[13] 2020. Www3.Weforum.Org. Accessed March 13 2020. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Net_Zero_Challenge_Part1.pdf

[14] "Fourth Industrial Revolution". 2020. World Economic Forum. Accessed March 13 2020. https://www.weforum.org/focus/fourth-industrial-revolution

[15]Hub, IISD's. 2020. "WMO Statement Details Accelerating Climate Impacts For 2018 | News | SDG Knowledge Hub | IISD". Sdg.Iisd.Org. Accessed March 13 2020. https://sdg.iisd.org/news/wmo-statement-details-accelerating-climate-impacts-for-2018/.

[16] 2020. Epic.Uchicago.Edu. Accessed March 13 2020. https://epic.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Research-Summary.pdf.

[17] "Why The Building Sector? – Architecture 2030". 2020. Architecture2030.Org. Accessed March 13 2020. https://architecture2030.org/buildings_problem_why/

[18] "What’S Missing In The Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Picture?". 2020. Linkedin.Com. Accessed March 13 2020. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/whats-missing-greenhouse-gas-emissions-picture-scott-nyquist/.

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