Imagine a world where there are no trees, no blue skies, no birds, and no animals. If this Earth we live in had indeed been a place like that, we would probably never have seen it, because we would not have existed at all. Humans are very much a part of nature, even though we have distanced ourselves from it. Today the world is witnessing the essence of nature in the shape of lockdowns and social distancing caused by the pandemic which has given humanity a taste of the disruptions to daily life that is caused by climate change. This crisis reveals how fragile our current way of life has become. For the first time, a pandemic has brought many of the world’s major economies to a virtual standstill. Supply chains have been disrupted and the free movement of people restricted. No one knows how long this will last, or how severe a blow it will land on the global economy.

But when the dust clears, the air will be clearer. One of the most striking effects of the global spread of COVID-19 has been the reduction in pollution from nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide. Millions of people around the world have virtually stopped traveling by car, airplane, or even leaving their homes. Factories are shut down. Manufacturing is grinding to a halt.

Many people think of global warming and climate change as synonyms, but scientists prefer to use “climate change” when describing the complex shifts now affecting our planet’s weather and climate systems. Climate change encompasses not only rising average temperatures but also extreme weather events, shifting wildlife populations and habitats, rising seas, and a range of other impacts. All of these changes are emerging as humans continue to add heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Unlike past pandemics, COVID-19 and the climate crisis go hand in hand. There is no scientific evidence that the pandemic was caused by global warming, yet it is too early to rule out that it was not ignited by climate change. There is growing scientific evidence that changing weather patterns are driving species northward, towards higher altitudes, potentially putting them in contact with diseases for which they have little immunity. We have witnessed this in Pakistan as both malaria and dengue have steadily moved towards higher altitudes.

Our ability to manage COVID-19 will show that it can be done A watertight demarcation between these two crises is not desirable. Yet, the parallels between the response to the coronavirus and climate crisis are compelling: we have known about the adverse impacts of climate change for at least four decades, whereas the arrival of coronavirus is sudden, almost overnight. Yet, most governments, including Pakistan’s, have made response plans on an emergency basis – an urgency that is, ironically, still absent from the climate change arena.

While pandemics affect everyone, the most immediately exposed to COVID-19 are elderly people, mostly men, and the middle classes (and those working with them) that are more closely tied to the global economy through international travel, trade, production, supply chain, and public, cultural, religious and sports events — mostly in urban and crowded areas. Climate change, on the other hand, also affects everyone, but immediately vulnerable are the poor, marginalised, women, children, elderly, and people living off nature, in low-lying coastal areas, islands and high-altitude glacial terrains, or engaged in subsistence agriculture. In other words, while the pandemic has a stronger bias against the urban elite that has shared and defined the size of the ecological and carbon footprint over the last half-century, victims of climate change are often those who have contributed little to climate emissions. Climate-induced disasters visit them often, though, and hit them hard through extreme events such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, and seawater intrusion; these people mostly fall in the realm of poverty and adaptation.

Urgent action to prevent COVID-19 is, of course, necessary. While the pandemic poses many challenges and threats, there are hardly any long-term opportunities. On the other hand, systematic response to climate change would provide many co-benefits ranging from green jobs, clean air, renewable energy, affordable transportation, to protected ecosystems and biodiversity. If climate change represents an existential threat, why, then, is the same sense of urgency absent from policy circles?

The global drive to start reducing carbon emissions before 2030 gives a 10-year window to begin decarbonising the world economy. The deepening global recession offers an opportunity for Pakistan to pursue a green economic corridor with China, work with the IMF and other development partners to manage economic and budgetary contraction and to protect itself from climate threats. All government policies will now be seen through the prism of COVID-19. A similar climate lens should be applied to mitigate climate risks.

It is imperative that climate change is considered a deadly threat to the human race, expected to kill millions of people as it acts as a poverty multiplier, induces involuntary migration, exacerbates extreme weather events, spreads diseases, and threatens food security. We need a strict and sustained transition to a carbon-neutral economy, not short-term reductions in emissions if we wish to achieve the 1.5°C temperature goal under the Paris Agreement. Governments should remember green measures they can take, such as tying emission reduction actions to the bailout of airlines or even encouraging large companies to let some of their employees work from home.

Though the pandemic has made a bad situation worse, it has also provided a rare opportunity. Unfortunately, it has taken a pandemic to make us realise that governments, companies, and societies can function differently, and what these lifestyle changes can mean for the planet and human health. Once the epidemic is under control, we must remember these clearer skies, and embrace sustainable and eco-friendly practices.