The “Wicked Problems”: Parallels between Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

(c) Image: Lawrence Makoona on Unsplash, 2019

As part of my PhD at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, I research the role visual artists play in addressing issues of climate change. Now that the world faces the COVID-19 crisis, I am noticing interesting parallels – and differences.

This cross-posted article was shortened and edited. The original post including literature can be found here.


4 Minutes

Responses to both climate issues and the coronavirus range far and wide. Climate change triggers all sorts of responses, from understanding, sympathy and the willingness to act, to feeling overwhelmed, panicked or annoyed by its omnipresence. The coronavirus, COVID-19, elicits similar global responses, from concern and panic, to understanding, to downplaying its seriousness, to sympathy for vulnerable citizens. In short: these topics cause quite the stir.

Risks lie not only in the phenomena themselves, but also the communication about them, according to researchers. This is something that also seems applicable to the current coronavirus situation. Listening to experts, scientists, official health and news institutions becomes ever more important in times where rumours and false reports are being shared on a massive scale.

Both crises saw a lack of urgency: Coronavirus was not treated early enough with the necessary urgency on a global scale. As a global community, we aren’t treating the climate crisis with its needed urgency, either, despite having known about the science for a while now.

We know, for example, that there is overwhelming and strong scientific evidence for our anthropogenic contribution to climate change, of record ocean temperatures, storms intensifying, glacier mass declining, and sea levels rising.

What causes the lack of climate action?

So, unlike the response to coronavirus, why haven’t we announced a global state of emergency to create climate justice worldwide – a system change that will transform our society, economy and environment for the better?

COVID-19 has developed into a crisis for everyone that is right in front of us – right now, right here. Climate change is also being treated as a crisis by many, yet some of its characteristics seem to make it hard for our global community to act upon it.

Some researchers – notably Harriet Hawkins, Anja Kanngieser and Susanne C. Moser – have argued that several mechanisms apply in explaining this dilemma. Among them are the following:

“Stay Home.” (c) Picture by Logan Weaver on Unsplash (2020)

1. Climate change can be abstract: Some of the causes are literally invisible or hard to imagine. For example: What’s a “ton” of CO2 – what does that even mean literally?

2. Climate change is temporarily distant: Some of the effects will only be felt fully in the future. It’s this time lag that we are struggling to take into account in the present moment.

3. Climate change is spatially distant: Those most responsible for causes are not necessarily those feeling its impact. On the other hand, those areas that contribute little to climate change are already among the ones hit the hardest right now, or will be in the future. Think about, for example, smaller islands or the Amazon.

As humans, particularly in urban areas, we can also be separated from nature. These human-environment relations contribute to how the climate is understood – or misunderstood.

Climate change is also a so-called ‘wicked problem’: it’s so complex that even defining the exact problem is difficult.

All of this then contributes to psychological defenses. For example: the famous “knowledge-action gap” which states that while we can know about an issue, behaving accordingly is a whole different matter.

We see other defense mechanisms all around us: psychological defensiveness of businesses, governments, people not taking the issue seriously enough for fear of losses that would come with climate action; a lack of trust in science, often backed by high-ranking political actors; and of course, a general annoyance at the omnipresence of the issue.

Communication is essential

This is where communication about climate change has a particularly large role to play. Even the terms that we use need to be reconsidered: Does “climate change” reflect what we are facing? Shouldn’t it also include the social dimension that goes hand in hand with the environmental dimension? “Climate justice” is already used by multiple actors, such as the World Resources Institute, and reflects the vital role played by people.

Communication also plays a large role in addressing questions including: How can hope and empowerment be promoted instead of mainly fear? How can we effectively show positive change that is being made to promote even more positive change? How can we tackle these crises with empathy and in unity?

How can we give proper praise that the heroes of our society deserve, fighting for environmental and social causes? Because very often, these heroes include essential work done by nurses, caregivers, doctors, cashiers, cleaners, volunteers, neighbours, shop operators, community change-makers, responsible business men and women, activists, sustainable policy makers and more.

A role for everyone

For these complex and global topics such as climate justice and Covid-19, ignorance, levity or downplaying can be deadly. Initially maybe not for those who are ignorant, act with levity or downplay, but more for those who are vulnerable to climate crisis impacts because they are located in certain geographical locations prone to flooding, droughts or wildfires; because their governments don’t have the resources to protect against environmental crises such as temperature increase and rising sea levels – or social crises such as Covid-19; because they are part of the older population or those with compromised systems.

Instead of ignoring these issues or taking them lightly, empathy and action might present more constructive solutions.


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