This week the Herald is again taking part in Covering Climate Now, a global news media initiative highlighting the need for action against climate change. Today, science reporter Jamie Morton asks why the world has not responded to the global warming crisis with the same urgency as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here's a tale of two public health emergencies - one having stemmed from nature, the other made by man.
One has killed around 150,000 people in the space of a few months; the other has already been killing that many each year.
One will likely be headed off with a vaccine, perhaps within a year and a half; the other will continue to wreak havoc in this century and likely those after it.
The threat of one stopped the world and its economy in its tracks, just a few short months after it was discovered; the other has been worsening each year, despite half a century of warnings from scientists.
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So, why does it take a pandemic to stir humanity to collective action, while our ever-climbing emissions – at this stage, on track to pass the critical point of 2C above pre-industrial times within coming decades – largely remain unchecked?
The televised images of mass graves being dug around the world is ghastly enough.
But so too was the destruction caused by Australia's unprecedented wildfires this summer, or the heatwave that killed hundreds across Europe last year, right?
Perhaps, in our collective consciousness, they're not quite the same.
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"The response to Covid-19 is so dramatic and rapid because we can see things happening, we can see people dying, before our eyes," Victoria University climate scientist Professor James Renwick said.
"The pandemic is a 'clear and present danger'. Climate change is also happening right now and is actually a clear and present danger, but the effects are less direct and less obvious to most people."
All the same, both were threats to social order, to national and global economies, and to life and livelihoods on all continents.
"Coronavirus is playing out in a matter of months, much closer to what we humans are used to responding to, and may ultimately kill hundreds of thousands to millions of people," he said.
"In contrast, climate change is playing out over decades, slower but ultimately a lot more powerful and deadly, if we don't take action.
"Climate change projections, even for 1.5C or 2C of warming, already talk of tens to hundreds of millions of people displaced, put at risk of water or food shortages, and put as risk of death, from hunger or conflict or extreme weather events."
The psychology of risk
Climate change has often been called a "wicked problem" because it's a long-term threat, but with the need for urgent action now.
Efforts to cut our emissions have been slow, uneven and politically divisive – and our economies and infrastructure are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Beyond that, psychologists argue that our collective inability to grapple with climate change may be couched in human evolution.
We happen to be well-evolved to deal with immediate threats to physical safety. If we see a tiger running at us, there's an immediate emotional fear response associated with a rapid reallocation of resources to allow "fight-flee-freeze".
Of course, a virus - and a nebulous threat like climate change - is harder to spot lurking in the bushes.
But even Covid-19 has an enemy in our evolutionary past that manifests in our present, and does so in one of our other five or six "primary" emotions alongside fear: disgust.
Professor Marc Wilson, a psychologist at Victoria University, says a case in point is our newfound inclination to not touch things we otherwise wouldn't have cared about months earlier.
"We're amazingly well-adapted to invest things in the environment with threats of contagion, so when we see someone with a face mask on we don't just think 'that's nice, they're trying to protect themselves from me' but also 'plague, plague, stay away from me."
Research tells us that disgust also predicts anti-immigration sentiment – and our evolved desire to avoid contamination sprouts up in aversion to those who don't look like us and, although we may not appreciate this explicitly, spread infection.
"And face it, footage of body bags, frantic hospital wards, people lying in beds with their faces covered by gear that keeps them breathing, really tweak the disgust receptors," Wilson said.
"Covid-19 really can kill you, and we know this because we can watch the numbers ticking over day by day in the corner of our news feeds. 'Can kill' as far as our amygdales go, means 'will kill'."
Climate change, in contrast, doesn't inspire the same immediate emotional reactions designed to signal to us there is an immediate threat to be avoided or tackled.
"How do we even know there 'is' a threat? After all, it might be hot today but we know that it's been hot before," Wilson explained.
"It's raining now, but it has rained in the past. Climate change is a particularly insidious threat that evolution has not prepared us for by building in warning bells."
That isn't to say we aren't being conditioned by evolution to the threat – yet we remain stuck in an odd halfway space, where we are updating our sense of risk not on what might be coming, but what we've already experienced.
And when given the choice between a reward now, compared to a similar magnitude reward in the future, we engage in delay discounting, we tend to value the cash now over the cash later, and we do so more the further away that "later" is.
"The same also applies to risk. We pay more attention to mitigating a risk in the next 10 minutes versus the same risk in 10 days, 10 years, or more," Wilson said.
"And that's if the risks - or rewards - are equivalent. How do we weigh the 7 per cent chance of risk of dying of Covid-19 if diagnosed with the 150,000 deaths that the World Health Organisation attributes to climate change each year?"
The parallels also aren't lost on another prominent psychologist specialising in sustainability, University of Auckland's Associate Professor Niki Harre.
"You've got to remember that it is relatively easy to contain a virus, and quarantine is a well-established method for doing so," she said.
"Climate change is far more complicated and we've had time to develop arguments and counter-arguments for just about every possible approach."
Notably too, Harre adds, the appropriate response to Covid-19 isn't seen as a political issue, so much as a health and safety issue.
"So people didn't jump into their usual political identities and have strong, competing group-based opinions on the right approach. This also allowed for decisive action."
Interestingly, many of the changes in day-to-day life under lockdown are similar to those needed to tackle climate change – although clearly much more extreme.
Just a few months ago, she said, an almost total shutdown of international air travel would have been inconceivable - yet it's happened.
"If we are able to have conversations about how to live differently prompted by our experiences with this virus then maybe it won't seem as ridiculous to propose reductions in air travel, and a bit of 'going back to the basics' – eating, sleeping, being with people, walking, spending time with children, making things and so on."
Is it naive to expect humanity can come out the other side of the pandemic and use this momentum to solve the climate crisis?
In New Zealand, awareness and calls for action have been steadily growing, and one poll last year indicated about eight in 10 felt personally worried about it.
But one environment researcher, Victoria University's Professor Ralph Chapman, doubts there will be a dramatic, global pivot to action amid the current political climate.
"[US President Donald] Trump has repeatedly stymied global action, even G7 announcements," he said.
"The bigger problem, though, is that the US is a very divided nation, with huge inequalities and a major divide between groups of people on climate change and other issues. This has blocked action for years, holding back action at a global level as well."
Just as the Trump administration has pulled US funding from the World Health Organisation over Covid-19 criticisms, it has also pledged to back out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change this year.
Chapman said it was possible that, when the presidency changed, there might be a bold swing in the other direction.
"And that may just save us from the worst ravages of climate change – not the impact of 1.5C of warming, nor even 2C, but perhaps from the extraordinary damage that 3C of warming or more might involve," he said.
"Bear in mind that at the moment the world is on track for more than 3C, and if Japan's 'no-change' announcement recently is followed by other countries, that grim picture could be cemented in."
Regardless, he thinks it imperative that, in New Zealand at least, the recovery from Covid-19 should be as green possible.
Groups ranging from the Environmental Defence Society to Wellington City Council have already pitched a range of projects.
"Ones that I like most centre on a couple of things – make our water systems more sustainable and healthy, and reshaping our transport systems so that we can make better use of walking, cycling, public transport," Chapman said.
"But there are many more. And they all need to remember that we want to build things that can cope with climate adaptation in future."
A long game
Ultimately, however, there still has to be public appetite for it.
There are some strong indications of that: surveys have suggested most Kiwis want New Zealand to act on climate change, even if other nations don't.
They want better laws to allow councils to respond, and feel land use may need to be considered.
Policy researcher Dr David Hall, who explored those sentiments in his recent book A Careful Revolution, thinks a greener recovery is possible – but it isn't going to fall into anyone's lap.
"The status quo has a lot of momentum. Partly it's a matter of habit, where we lapse back to what we know, to the path of least resistance. Partly it's because of vested interests and sunk costs, where people resist change because it benefits them."
But there is no doubt humanity is looking at what could be a critical juncture, to build a better future that isn't just about being green.
"Because what we're talking about is something bigger: it's about making a safer, more secure future.
"A future where we've reduced our exposure to a number of systemic risks, whether it's pandemics, or climate change, or financial crises.
"And a future where we're better prepared to recover from, or adapt to, the shocks we can't avoid."
This means facing up the causes of inequality and vulnerability that make some people more exposed to shocks than others.
"So talking about a 'green' recovery makes it sound like a niche or boutique concern, when what we're really talking about is a safer or more secure recovery."
The risk remains that this chance might be lost, if the collective initiative summoned by the pandemic fades away.
"It's a long game, but states of emergency only last so long – and we're seeing that already with the Covid-19 crisis," Hall said.
"People fear the virus, but they fear other things too, like state overreach and economic catastrophe.
"The longer the emergency lasts, the more its legitimacy seeps away. Eventually, we have to go back to working through these problems together, because we have to live with the consequences."