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Climate change, COVID-19 pandemic


Environmental Law | Health Law and Policy


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused more rapid changes to the law than most of us have seen in our lifetimes. These changes have remade, and in many cases severed, our social and economic connections to each other, in ways unprecedented except during war.

As many have argued, climate change is also a dire emergency, requiring an equally sweeping legal response. Rising seas, raging wildfires, and dramatic hurricanes have already destroyed lives and communities. We may be a few years away from irreversible devastation.

Yet we have not seen even a fraction of the legal reforms needed to reverse our march toward climate apocalypse. The explanation for our inaction on climate is simple. Unlike COVID-19, the climate crisis will not manifest as one swift, simple, time-limited threat that might generate immediate consensus. Rather, the climate crisis will unfold through a series of crises that may appear, deceptively, to be geographically limited and causally unrelated. Climate change is COVID-19 in slow motion, but with less clarity and far greater destructive capacity.

Lawyers, like legislators and executive branch leaders, are responding to the coronavirus pandemic with creativity and improvisation. We may find that attorneys seeking to address climate change will be able to learn valuable lessons from the legal response to COVID-19.


This article predates the author's affiliation with Cornell Law School.