From a climate change perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic is both a challenge and an opportunity. Earth seems to be getting a planetary respite from human activity during the lockdown. Wildlife wanders through empty urban streets, carbon dioxide emission levels have fallen significantly, and oil prices are at record lows. As governments across the world discuss billion-dollar relief packages to kick-start struggling economies, some, like the EU and Canada, are taking the opportunity of the recovery to stimulate green economies, speed up low-carbon transitions and increase resilience. Extended periods of isolation may have caused individuals to introspect and perhaps rethink individual consumption habits and lifestyles.

Yet, the impacts of the pandemic on human well-being and wider society translate into a temporary dent on society’s adaptive capacity in the face of climate change. Moreover, the possibility of post-COVID-19 global emission rebound is very real, as was the case after the 2008 global financial crash when carbon emissions shot up by 5% as a result of stimulus spending that boosted fossil fuel use. Intense competition among countries to fast-track economic recovery could see more governments relax emission regulations and inject economic stimulus into emissions-heavy sectors. The popular will to address climate change may have received a hit, since many would, for instance, argue that addressing unemployment is more urgent than climate agendas – apparently oblivious of the fact that the two issues are not mutually exclusive.

However, global crises like the current COVID-19 pandemic tend to be watershed moments for societies. They leave lasting impressions, and they enlarge the window of the possible. Perhaps the more profound connections between societal response to the current pandemic and climate action are in the opportunities for learning. Lessons from our response to the pandemic could significantly re-shape public perspectives and experiences in ways that strengthen climate action over time.

We suggest two major shifts through which public climate change discourses and actions may benefit from global experience of the current pandemic. One is that courses of action previously thought to be too drastic no longer appear impossible. The other is that seemingly small numbers in describing crises no longer seem insignificant.

Procrastination, short-termism, free rider benefits and scientific denial have been the hallmarks of lukewarm climate action for decades. But now, virtually the entire globe has witnessed swift and drastic collective action against the COVID-19 pandemic, including a sudden halt of what was previously thought to be unchangeable structures of our economies and entrenched habits that we have linked to our very existence. What if this has left us with a deep impression and collective acceptance of what could all be accomplished when a proximate, serious and urgent threat is identified? Many things we thought to be impossible to this point – dramatic governmental measures despite economic concerns, immediate public support, and social media momentum with a sense of collective and moral urgency despite drastic costs for the individual (e.g. #stayathome) have marked public response to the pandemic. Might this subtle but profound shift be preparing societies for the kind of action that climate change demands?

Such levels of mobilization (by governments, communities and individuals) relied on a strong risk appreciation, which in the case of COVID-19 (like climate change) includes an appreciation of such seemingly small numbers like ‘1.4% death rate’ – numbers that confound our ordinary sense of magnitude. Like COVID-19’s estimated death rates, climate change is expressed in deceptively small numbers such as a 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. Small degrees of change related to COVID-19 have become increasingly explained in public news coverage, creating a broader awareness that very small changes in numbers can still make dramatic differences over time – and cause alarming levels of impacts. Similarly, a world of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming will look tremendously different than a world of 2 degrees Celsius of global warming. The latter, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report 2019 estimates, would expose around 420 million more people to heat waves than the 1.5 degree scenario, up to 270 million more people to water scarcity, and coral reefs would become basically extinct. After the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a glint of hope that these small but important numbers with their vast differences for our planetary future would be a bit easier for the public to appreciate and act upon.

In short, the pandemic can, perhaps, be a learning moment for climate action. We also have a rare opportunity to rebuild and re-structure societies and economies differently. The coronavirus pandemic will likely be remembered as a pivotal moment in modern human history. The 14th century Bubonic Plague pandemic profoundly shook and transformed society, but marked the beginning of the Renaissance. We hope that the tragic COVID-19 pandemic also leaves something good behind, with lessons on how to best act in times of crisis.