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Climate change and coronavirus require us to apply the brakes – but we must also dare to press ahead

‘Leaving the economy stranded on the shore for a long time is unprecedentedly expensive,’ says Professor of Economics Matti Liski.
Kuvassa näkyy taloustieteen professori Matti Liski.
Photo: Roope Kiviranta / Aalto University.

Already early on this year, coronavirus nudged in ahead of climate change as the top concern of many. However, the two problems also involve many common factors, and one of them is the need to quickly apply the brakes.

The faster the impacts of climate change come, the higher the economic costs will be. If Greenland's ice cover melts in the coming decades, the global sea level rise could be between 6 and 7 metres, which would be a disaster for a large portion of the world. If the melting takes place over the next 1000 years, the impacts can be prepared for and the financial and human costs will be smaller.

Likewise, in the case of the coronavirus epidemic, it is beneficial to slow down the spread of the disease if suppressing the disease is not an option. This will allow society to adapt to the disease.

The no significant common denominator for coronavirus and climate change is that some decisions are being made in unknown territory, terra incognita. Coronavirus disease was unknown to begin with: we did not know how many people had contracted the disease, we did not know if we had already passed the critical point after which the healthcare system would not be able to handle all the patients. Similarly, with climate change, we do not know what temperature, for example, will melt the glaciers. Maybe the melting is already irreversible.

In the management of disasters, the fear of such critical points justifies strong measures, such as those now being carried out by the government. As far as coronavirus is concerned, we now know that the critical point has not yet been passed in Finland and the health care system can handle the situation. The information obtained justifies the gradual dismantling of economic restriction measures, which is also the policy the Government has now chosen.

The policy now chosen could be compared to skating on thin ice. Coronavirus forced us to head for the shore, but because leaving the economy stranded on the beach will lead to unprecedented costs, we must brave the thin ice. Fear of breaking the ice will steer us back towards the shore, but if the ice holds it is worth trying to step out a little further. Cracks in the ice will force us to turn back, but while the ice holds, we must keep stepping out again, further and further on. That is what the government has understood correctly in the current coronavirus crisis.

In the climate crisis, the first turn towards the shore has not yet been made. Measures to cut off greenhouse emissions are not considered essential, in contrast to the lockdown measures imposed because of the coronavirus crisis – and even though such measures are indeed justified when we face new phenomena that we do not yet understand.

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