This week, shut in my home away from my friends and family, like millions other around the world, has been one of introspection. We are living through unprecedented times. A global pandemic has swept our world, the likes of which the last three generations has not witnessed. The one question that everyone seems to be asking themselves and others is, ‘Where did we go wrong?’.

Many scientific voices around the world are implying that the coronavirus pandemic is no accident. Like past global epidemics, it’s a warning that nature is fighting back against the dilapidation caused by mankind; climate change is causing the spread of pandemic diseases and the chaos that ensues. According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation since 2017, “As man-made climate change has taken hold over the last four decades, dozens of new infectious diseases have emerged or begun to threaten new regions, including Zika and Ebola.” The authors of the Third National Climate Assessment, produced by more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee, and reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that, “Infectious disease transmission is sensitive to local, small-scale differences in weather, human modification of the landscape, the diversity of animal hosts, and human behaviour that affects vector-human contact, among other factors”.

Denying what is obvious science, many would disagree, saying it might be too early to establish a conclusive link between COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Maybe we will establish it in time, or we might never know for certain. But what is certain is that the year 2020 has brought forth climate related destruction around the world; Australia found itself in the worst-ever bushfire season as the fires burned through more than 10 million hectares, killed at least 28 people, razed entire communities to the ground and killed more than a billion native animals. Meanwhile, Pakistan is experiencing the worst locust infestation in more than two decades, prompting Prime Minister Imran Khan to declare a national emergency to protect crops and help farmers in the poorest regions of the country.

On March 10, 2020, UN Secretary General António Guterres painted a grim picture of the future at the launch of the UN’s assessment of the global climate in 2019. The report concluded that it was a record-breaking year for heat, and there was rising hunger, displacement and loss of life owing to extreme temperatures and floods around the world. “Climate change is the defining challenge of our time. We are currently way off track to meeting either the 1.5C or 2C targets that the Paris agreement calls for,” said Guterres. Scientists followed by insisting that the threat posed to the world was greater than that from the coronavirus, and world leaders must not be diverted away from climate action. However, considering the fear and panic caused by the COVID-19 and the apocalyptic scenario that is currently playing out, none of us are thinking about climate change, not me, not you and certainly not our world leaders, and there is an explanation for that.

The instinctive fear caused by the COVID-19 is frightening on a personal level. Human psychology dictates that people react strongly to mortal threats, putting the body in fight or flight mode. Although the virus appears to have much lower mortality for otherwise healthy people, the bombardment of vivid detail we receive through social media about infections, overburdened hospitals and deaths around the world further intensifies our personal calculation of the risk posed. Climate change has the potential to end up killing more people than COVID-19 in the long run, but the deaths do not seem imminent, do not warrant stockpiling groceries and medicines and are instead viewed as a consequence of an increased frequency of “natural disasters”, making it an unlikely scenario of an unseen future. Furthermore, the slow timescale of climate change allows our expectations to be constantly adjusted to the new reality of a worsening situation. The abstract connections between carbon emissions and these mortal dangers prevent world leaders to accept difficult policy choices and inhibits global climate change from achieving the same urgency that the virus has.

Another reason for this stark difference in response is that officials from groups like the World Health Organisation presented clear strategies to governments and easily implementable actions on a personal basis to slow the spread of COVID-19. Governments and individuals were given direct instructions to compel citizens to wash hands frequently, avoid touching their face as well as others, reduce travel, suspend gatherings of large people and go into a certain degree of isolation. In contrast, the possible solutions to climate change are not as simple, nor as straightforward as the list of do’s and don’ts offered by WHO, and will force people and governments to change the status quo and accept a whole new way of life. Sadly, even experts don’t entirely agree on the most efficient way to bring down carbon emissions while minimising economic loss. This lack of agreement, contending opinions and an absence of an actionable way forward has contributed to confusion and decision paralysis on the part of policymakers.

It must be reiterated however, that we are living through unprecedented times. International travel has all but ceased and borders of many countries have been closed altogether. Keeping this extreme response of a global lockdown in view, the policy changes required to mitigate climate change seem far less disruptive, displaying a glimmer of hope that climate action just might be possible in the future if the threat is deemed large enough. When the emergency of the COVID-19 is over and we emerge a stronger and more resilient world, we should look back at this moment as proof that our societies can overcome extraordinary challenges, that countries can rush to each other’s assistance ignoring political differences and ideologies, that people can heal together and rally collective action, all in the face of global emergencies.