Coronavirus tops 'perfect storm' of climate challenges, says Prince Charles

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The growing global coronavirus outbreak is making already complex efforts to speed up action on climate change more challenging, Britain’s Prince Charles said on Tuesday.

The spread of the virus has led to the postponement or cancellation of many meetings around the world, including climate change negotiations and diplomacy efforts, as Britain prepares to host a key U.N. climate summit in November aimed at ramping up ambition to cut still-rising emissions.

With environmentalists demanding swift climate action and scientists warning little time remains to shift global systems onto a low-carbon path, the virus “makes it all much more complicated”, said the heir to the British throne.

“We end up in a perfect storm now, with threat multipliers in all directions,” he told a gathering of water and climate experts in London, hosted by charity WaterAid.

Charles, patron of the agency which works on global water and sanitation issues, called climate change “the greatest threat humanity has ever faced”.

It often plays out as water impacts - from floods and droughts to rising seas - and is hampering efforts to improve clean water access and support farming and better health, speakers said.

Beatrice Caroline Phiri, a 22-year-old Zambian radio reporter and climate change activist, said her country now suffers 10-hour power cuts as too little rain falls to keep the hydroelectric dams the country relies on running.

In some communities, girls wake as early as 4 am to fetch water from distant sources for their families, which means they miss school or “are too tired to focus”, she said.

“Climate change is making it too hard for us to survive, much less lead successful lives,” Phiri said.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, said worsening drought was destroying harvests in her country and driving farmers into unplanned city settlements.

Expanding slums lead to losses of trees and mangroves, which leave water catchments bare and worsen flooding and water pollution, she said.

To address the problem, the West African city has launched a campaign that aims to plant a million trees this year and is working to create a storm-drain network, the mayor said.

But stopping development in hazard-prone areas is difficult, and with building permits still being issued, efforts to cut risks are happening “with one hand tied behind my back”, Aki-Sawyerr said.

Nicholas Stern, chairman of the London-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said economic changes, from cheaper renewables to surging electric car sales, mean progress toward climate goals is happening.

Growing pressure also means “it won’t be easy now for financial institutions to put their money behind the technology of the 19th and 20th centuries instead of the technology of the 21st century”, he said.

But still, in many parts of the economy, “the sense of urgency, the sense of crisis we now face is not well enough understood”, he added.

The next 10 to 15 years would be “absolutely decisive” to ensure new roads, buildings and other infrastructure is climate-smart and green, he said.

As the global population grows and more people move to cities, huge amounts of new spending will happen, and if that is not climate-friendly, “we’re in deep, deep trouble”, he added.

Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit