Will COVID-19 Lockdowns Generate Public Support for Climate Change Mitigation?

Many cities are experiencing a dip in pollution levels due to lockdowns. But this may not necessarily translate into support for mitigation policies.

In the article published in The Wire Science on April 4, Siddarth Goel presented a good analysis of the initial impact, including the response of business and government, of the ongoing global pandemic on the environment, particularly climate change. The article ends with a note suggesting that heightened awareness and support among the general public might determine whether the current crisis will provide a more conducive environment in the future for improved climate action. In the context of the prevailing uncertainty around the pandemic, it is foolhardy to attempt any predictions; nevertheless, in this article, I will examine extant academic research to understand the likely impact of the pandemic on public support for environmental protection in general and climate change mitigation in particular.

Also Read: Public Awareness of the Pandemic Is Our Chance to Enforce Better Climate Plans

The economic impact of COVID-19

While the world is trying to come to terms with the rising infections and the death toll, which is close to 217,674 (as of April 29), the mass lockdowns announced across the major economies in order to flatten the spread of the virus has brought to focus the potentially huge economic impact of these containment measures. One of the most visible impacts has been on jobs. The US data on unemployment benefit claims shows a loss of 16 million jobs in three weeks since the onset of the crisis. In India, the already bad unemployment numbers are made worse with the urban unemployment rising to 31% and the overall unemployment rate to 23%. Globally, the International Labor Organisation expects a job loss equivalent to 195 million full-time workers in the second quarter of 2020. It is not clear how many of these jobs will return and how quickly after the pandemic crisis subsides. The International Monetary Fund estimates negative economic growth in most countries and for India, the latest prediction is no GDP growth during 2020.

The economic impact is already reflected in the public sentiment, as indicated by a few opinion polls that have begun to capture the mood of the general public during this crisis. A poll of 10,000 individuals across 12 countries including India, conducted by Ipsos, found that people view COVID-19 as much, if not more, an economic crisis as a public health crisis. Majorities in most countries foresee a personal financial impact. In India, 71% of the respondents perceive personal risk to their health due to COVID-19, whereas 75% foresee a personal financial impact.

Featured image: Blue skies over the Yamuna River in New Delhi, April 5, 2020. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashistclimat

Economy and public preference for environmental protection

What does this mean to public support for environmental protection and climate change mitigation going forward? Prior research does not exactly provide good news. Using both aggregate data (at the country or state-level) as well as individual-level respondent data, this research consistently shows that support tends to be lower during economic recessions. Using survey data from the World Values Survey, I studied the support for environmental protection over economic growth in India over two periods: 2006, when Indian economy was booming and 2014, when the GDP growth was in a prolonged decline. The results were consistent from other countries. The support for environmental protection was significantly lower in 2014 compared to 2006, controlling for other individual characteristics. While a coherent theoretical explanation for this phenomenon is lacking, one prominent explanation relates to the role of media framing, which may amplify economic issues and underplay environmental and climate change issues during economic recessions.

Climate change mitigation post COVID-19

Thus prior research suggests that the adverse economic impact resulting from the lockdowns is likely to reduce public support for environmental protection and climate change mitigation. Strong public support is important for a wide range of environmental policies, especially those policies that provide future benefits but require immediate investments and prove to be costly in the short run. Even during normal economic conditions, climate advocates in many countries, particularly the US, have been struggling to mobilise public support for a more aggressive climate action. Research shows that even when climate change mitigation policies are framed as being beneficial to the economy, enhanced public support for climate mitigation policies is unlikely.

Climate science is unequivocal that we are rapidly building towards potentially catastrophic impacts from climate change in the absence of strong action. Is there a path in which we can mobilise greater public support for climate action using the experience from the COVID-19 crisis, in spite of the adverse economic impacts that most people will experience? An interesting insight from the public opinion polls of Ipsos cited earlier is that a good proportion of respondents are willing to support strong measures such as closing down the country borders even when such measures might affect the economy and in turn their own jobs or financial status.

In the survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in the National Capital Region (NCR), more than 85% of the respondents supported the extension of nationwide lockdown in India by another two weeks, beyond the initial three weeks, although 85% reported losing income and wages during the first lockdown. This suggests that the public is willing to support strong measures to reduce the impacts from COVID-19 even if they are associated with negative economic impact.

Also Read: The COVID-19 Lockdown Can Help Devise Measures to Mitigate Air Pollution

An implication of these findings for mobilising public support for aggressive climate actions post-pandemic might be to use climate science to construct possible scenarios of climate crisis with which the larger public can relate based on their immediate experience during the ongoing pandemic. An opportunity might be to make more salient the potential health impacts of climate change, including the likelihood of the increasing occurrence of infectious disease.

A strand of emerging empirical research has been demonstrating that framing climate change mitigation actions in terms of their health benefits is likely to increase public engagement and support for climate mitigation policies. This could be quite challenging though, given that unlike the pandemic crisis, the health impacts of climate change are likely to be less dramatic and visible and establishing cause-effect relationship between climate change and its impacts is much less straightforward.

In an interview to Wired, the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant said: “The whole epidemiological community has been warning everybody for the past 10 or 15 years that it wasn’t a question of whether we were going to have a pandemic like this. It was simply when.” Clearly our collective failure globally to respond effectively to the pandemic crisis is a reflection of our inability to act on available science. The warnings from climate scientists now are perhaps similar to that of epidemiologists 10-15 years ago. If we do not learn our lessons from this crisis and act aggressively on climate change, we may, unfortunately, end up with a similar crisis sooner than we can imagine now.

Rama Mohana R. Turaga teaches sustainability and public policy at IIM Ahmedabad.