Illustration by: Julia Shen

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news cycle lately. If you turn on the radio, flip through a newspaper, or even just listen to a conversation, you’ll hear nothing but vaccines and variants, social distancing and school reopenings. The same single-mindedness pervades government policy, with much of Canada’s 2020 spending going towards COVID-19 relief. But what both the media and the government seem to have forgotten is that we are in the midst of another crisis, a crisis that far eclipses the COVID-19 pandemic in both danger and unprecedentedness, and one that has the potential to disrupt human society at an unimaginable scale. If we can sacrifice so much to stop the spread of a comparably short-lived pandemic, shouldn’t we be willing to sacrifice much more to stop the complete disruption of global ecological and climate systems?

Over the past year, more than 2.5 million people have died from COVID-19. This is, of course, a staggeringly high death toll, but it pales in comparison with the death toll of fossil fuel burning. It is estimated that up to 8.7 million deaths were caused by air pollution in 2018 alone [1], with another 150 000 annual deaths from global warming, and these numbers are swiftly increasing. In total, there have been more than 100 million fossil fuel-related deaths in the past fifty years [2], which is forty times the deaths from COVID-19, and many millions more have been displaced due to extreme weather and natural disasters. Researchers have projected that, without any COVID-19 restrictions, a maximum of 40 million people would have died from the virus, whereas more than a billion people could die due to fossil fuels by 2100 if current trends continue. 

You would think that a problem with so much more potential for death and destruction would receive that much more attention and funding. However, in 2020 the Canadian government spent $240 billion on COVID-19 relief [4], while only setting aside $15 billion for environmental spending [5]. If we want to respond to climate change as aggressively as we have the pandemic, we should be willing to invest trillions of dollars. The fossil fuel industry is often touted as an essential part of the Canadian economy, but in reality it only accounts for 6% of Canada’s GDP ($110 billion) [6][7] and employs 200 000 people [8]. This is still a lot of money and people, but it is less than the 38% of GDP [9] and 3 million jobs [10] that have been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, and much less than the amount of money and jobs that could be lost due to climate change. Importantly, as with the pandemic, these jobs will not be lost forever, as the renewable energy sector can fill in the economic gaps left by fossil fuels. It is not fair to sacrifice thousands of lives just to prolong the demise of an industry that is profoundly unsustainable.

I’m not saying that governments are responding too aggressively to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has shown us that governments (some of them, at least) are able to make the necessary economic sacrifices to stop a crisis, if they feel that the crisis is an immediate threat. What needs to happen is a shift in mentality. People, and governments, need to realize that the climate crisis is an immediate threat, not some hazy threat in the far-off future. The climate crisis is here, right now, and is already killing millions of people. Governments around the world have made a heroic effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, and to mitigate the impact of this once-in-a-century crisis. Now they just need to do the same for the once-in-history crisis.