Why we treat the climate crisis differently than the COVID-19 crisis – and why this needs to change

An essay by Kathrin Ruhnke from the Universität Hamburg, who is currently in her second year of the master’s programme International Business and Sustainability. She also works for the non-profit organisation Das macht Schule as a project manager for the E-Waste Race, a nation-wide school project on e-waste, recycling and environmental education.

The global community is currently facing an unprecedented crisis. Countless people have already been killed and many more are expected to fall victim to it. It is a health crisis as much as an economic crisis as it threatens the lives of humans and the existence of companies and whole economies alike. It spotlights insufficiencies in our infrastructures and our systems. It amplifies inequalities as those living in poorer and less developed parts of the world suffer the most. It is the climate crisis – a crisis that is currently overshadowed by another one, namely the pandemic caused by the novel COVID-19 virus which has taken over the world since its outbreak in late 2019. Both represent grand challenges, meaning they are “complex, uncertain and evaluative” (Ferraro et al., p. 365). However, while they both pose serious threats to humankind and have many similar effects as the boundaries between these interconnected challenges are fluid,  the two crises are perceived and engaged with very differently: Only one of them has been the primary subject of the world’s newspapers, media channels and public discussion and only one of them has caused disruptive change and radical political action. Advocates of climate action are demanding the same urgency and extensive measures for our global climate crisis. This essay will dismantle the manifold reasons that underly the perception differences and subsequent disparity in engagement and action with regard to these two grand challenges. The aim is to contribute to the discourse on climate action, to illuminate relevant aspects that need to be addressed in order to achieve a similar status for climate change as for the current pandemic, and to argue for why this needs to be achieved.

One of the key aspects that cause us to perceive the COVID-19 crisis and climate change differently is the language we use when discussing these grand challenges. Framing, i.e. the “reformulation of a message and its consequences” (Keren, 2011, p. xi), plays a crucial role in the way we perceive the world. This relationship – the interplay between language and cognition – has been studied by linguists, neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers for centuries. By now, numerous studies have shown that the selection of words affect “our memories, judgements, and reasoning” (Harley, 2010, p. 111). Therefore, the way an event is framed shapes how it is perceived. COVID-19 and climate change are perfect examples for this: While the current pandemic has been framed by politicians and the media as a ‘crisis’ from the outset, we still use the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ to describe the human-caused heating of the earth’s surface that is going to cause (and is, in fact, already causing) catastrophic events. The term ‘change’ is not inherently negative as it describes “the result of something becoming different” (Cambridge University Press). Seth Godin, an author and entrepreneur, put it like this: “Global is good. Warm is good. Even greenhouses are good places. How can ‘global warming’ be bad?” (Godin, 2006). Hence, many are claiming that the narrative around climate change needs to be shifted. A study by SPARK Neuro tested the emotional responses to different terms for what is commonly referred to as ‘climate change’ and found that the term ‘climate crisis’ caused over three times as much emotional intensity in the participants – a critical fact as emotion is known to be a key determinant of our perceptions and actions. Others are questioning whether climate change really a crisis the way that the current pandemic is one. While defining ‘crisis’ is not trivial, the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary describes it as “a time of great danger, difficulty or doubt when problems must be solved or important decisions must be made” – a description that inarguably fits climate change. Another reason why ‘climate crisis’ should be the chosen term is that the it infuses a sense of urgency that is vital to trigger action. The terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ “do not demonstrate how urgent and catastrophic our environmental position is” (Whiting, 2019). Some have started to recognise the grand power language has over our perception with regard to climate change, like the UK newspaper The Guardian which, in 2019, announced their preference of the terms ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ over ‘climate change’ (Carrington, 2019). While this is a first step in the right direction, describing the heating of the earth’s surface and its consequences as the crisis that it is will need to seep into common discourse in order to change the way it is perceived and to make it as much of a crisis in the public’s mind as COVID-19. As Greta Thunberg put it: “It’s 2019. Can we all now call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?” (Thunberg, 2019). From this point onward, ‘climate crisis’ will therefore be the chosen term in the course of this essay.

Another factor that greatly impacts the way we perceive grand challenges such as COVID-19 and the climate crisis is psychological distance, i.e. the “subjective mental formation of how close an object or an event is perceived” (Chang et al., 2015, p. 160). Construal level theory suggests that this distance exists on different dimensions, namely time, space, as social distance as well as in the form of hypotheticality (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Zooming in on these dimensions of psychological distance individually aids in explaining why COVID-19 and the climate crisis are perceived so differently. With regard to time, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic already affects our daily lives. The climate crisis, on the other hand, is perceived as something that will mainly affect future generations and therefore appears less relevant at the time being and consequently more distant. The spatial dimension supports this difference, too. While the consequences of the climate crisis that are already visible mostly affect people in poorer and less-developed countries (United Nations, 2016), the current global pandemic is affecting industrialised nations just as much as other countries, with the US currently having the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths worldwide (John Hopkins University & Medicine), thus bringing the COVID-19 crisis closer to people’s own front doors. Similarly, social distance relates to the aspect of whether an event has “an impact on people similar to [our]selves” (Spence et al., 2012, p. 962). This is linked to the previous dimension in that from a Westerner’s point of view the climate crisis, at least currently, mainly affects people from far-away countries who are perceived as different and therefore socially distant. COVID-19, on the other hand, is affecting our families, friends and neighbours, and is therefore socially very close to our own homes. The fourth dimension of psychological distance, i.e. hypotheticality, relates to the extent to which someone believes an event is happening. With new reports on the pandemic on the news every day and the political actions taken to combat the spread of the virus drastically changing our everyday life, COVID-19 seems as certain a crisis as can be. The climate crisis, on the other hand, still has an aspect of uncertainty with possible scenarios of a hypothetical future described by scientists that is unimaginable to many. Hence, for most people the climate crisis is far more psychologically distant on all four dimensions than COVID-19, and because of this they also engage with it to a far lesser extent. “Climate change is an abstract statistical phenomenon, namely a slow and gradual modification of average climate conditions, and thus a difficult phenomenon to detect and assess accurately based on personal experience” (Weber, 2016, p. 125). This phenomenon of psychological distance seems not only to explain why the general public perceives the two grand challenges differently but may also elucidate reasons for the actions (and inactions) of world leaders.

Besides framing and psychological distance, media coverage on the COVID-19 crisis and the climate crisis is a relevant factor in explaining the varying perceptions and engagement levels as “[m]edia coverage sets the agenda for public debate” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2020). While there are additional sources that prompt discussion, it is prominently the media that determines what is debated publicly and that impacts how people perceive the world. This can also be observed currently: The amount of media coverage on COVID-19 is unprecedented as the pandemic is “being mentioned in 80 per cent of stories some days” (Hannam, 2020). The extensive media coverage on the pandemic clearly overshadows the climate crisis. A graph by the Media and Climate Change Observatory shows that the world newspaper coverage on ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ plummeted from nearly 800 articles per source in November 2018 to less than 300 in June 2020. This corresponds with Whitmarsh and Capstick (2018) who found that media “plays a key role in shifting public concern away from environmental issues toward other (e.g., economic) ones” (p. 24). The amount of media attention is not the only aspect that is relevant with regard to public perception and engagement, however. Important is also the sentiment in which the crises are depicted. The coverage on COVID-19 seems to mainly include two messages: one promoting a sense of togetherness and one promoting fear. On the one hand, media puts the individual into the spotlight by stressing the importance of considerate behaviour and emphasising that we “have to stick together” (Sherman, 2020). On the other hand, “fear has played a particularly vital role in coverage of the coronavirus outbreak” (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2020) as the media refers to it as ‘killer virus’. This sentiment, however, appears to be welcomed because of people’s “thirst for information — and entertainment” (Molla, 2020). Either way, both togetherness and fear are addressing people’s emotions, which is a catalyst for action. With the climate crisis, the sentiment is different as it is “still reported as an overwhelming problem for which solutions are not being developed and implemented” (Mellet, 2020). This goes hand in hand with the aspects of framing and psychological distance discussed above because of a “journalistic bias toward distant and consequence framing in which the civil society remains dismissed from climate change adaptation” (Mellett, 2020). This abstraction of the climate crisis is contrary to the media coverage of COVID-19 in which individuals play a central role and therefore can explain in part why these two grand challenges are perceived and engaged with differently. It remains to say that media has great influential power with regard to people’s behaviour as the example of panic-buying during the outset of the pandemic showed, which is often said to have been caused by (social) media. This power of impacting people’s perceptions and actions should be utilised for the climate crisis which poses just as much of a risk to humans as the current pandemic does.

While the international discourse on the climate crisis is often characterised by apportionment of blame, the current pandemic is accompanied by new levels of international cooperation – a difference that impacts perceptions of and engagement with these two grand challenges. One causes the global community to feel closer as they take on the role of victims (“humanity faces a common enemy in the Covid-19 pandemic” (RT International, 2020)), while the other is mainly portrayed as being certain nations’ fault (“Who’s Most Responsible for Climate Change?” (Lynn, 2015)). From a crisis communication point of view, COVID-19 can be classified as a ‘natural disaster’, meaning that companies and nations can adopt the role of victims (cf. Adkins, 2010). Even though the consequences of the climate crisis are technically speaking also natural disasters (floods, droughts, wildfires, etc.), there is a stronger sense of responsibility as scientist spent the past decades explaining that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases are the reason for the heating of the earth. While some scientists (including Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier) argue COVID-19 is also man-made, the global community still feels that they have fallen victim to this disease that is entirely out of their sphere of responsibility. “Coronavirus is a simple, scary threat — and we’re not the villain” (Paddison, 2020). This makes it easier for political leaders to take action as they will be regarded as heroes for combatting this crisis to which they, too, have fallen victim. With the climate crisis, however, any action that is taken by nations could be perceived as an admission of guilt. The unprecedented levels of international cooperation during the current pandemic that have resulted from the common victimhood seem to have caused more openness to innovative ideas. New forms of organising that emphasise social purpose (Mair & Rathert, 2019), such as crowdsourcing and ad-hoc networks are introduced by governments (e.g. the #wirvsvirus hackathon in Germany) in order to quickly find solutions for the issues at hand. Similarly, open science seems to play an integral part in how solutions for the current pandemic are sought. “The intense communication has catalyzed an unusual level of collaboration among scientists that, combined with scientific advances, has enabled research to move faster than during any previous outbreak” (Kupferschmidt, 2020). Such openness has not been displayed and encouraged by political leaders with regard to the climate crisis. However, we can now see how quickly innovative approaches for tackling the manifold effects of a grand challenge can be developed if nations, scientists and the public work together. This kind of approach is what is needed if we want to circumvent a climate disaster.

The reasons for the climate crisis being perceived and engaged with differently than the current pandemic are manifold and all of the aspects mentioned are somewhat interlinked. The way we frame a grand challenge impacts the extent to which a crisis is psychologically distant to us. Media coverage plays a major role in determining the language the public uses to talk about a crisis. The way we spin the story, i.e. whether we are victims or offenders, seems to majorly affect the actions taken. What are the implications of this for climate action? We need to frame the climate crisis in the same urgent manner as COVID-19. We need to understand that the climate crisis is not abstract and distant but already impacts the daily lives of many and will soon determine all our lives as the COVID-19 virus currently does. The media needs to ensure extensive coverage on the climate crisis that engages the audience emotionally to trigger action. We need to collaborate globally and work innovatively to find effective solutions. Imagine political leaders speaking to their nations in special addresses on the climate crisis like this: “But we must now reduce everything that could put people at risk, everything that could harm not only individuals, but also the community” (Merkel, 2020). Adapting the words of Merkel’s speech on the COVID-19 outbreak, it remains to say that we are not condemned to accept the heating of the earth as an inevitable fact of life – we have the means to fight it. The COVID-19 outbreak shows that it can be achieved.


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