The COVID-19 pandemic is the largest public health crisis in recent history. Many states have taken unprecedented action in responding to the pandemic by restricting international and domestic travel, limiting economic activity, and passing massive social welfare bills. This begs the question, why have states taken extreme measures for COVID-19 but not the climate crisis? By comparing state responses to COVID-19 with those to the climate crisis, we identify the crisis characteristics that drive quick and far-reaching reactions to some global crises but not others. We inductively develop a conceptual framework that identifies eight crisis characteristics with observable variation between COVID-19 and climate change. This framework draws attention to under-considered areas of variance, such as the perceived differences in the universality of impacts, the legibility of policy responses, and the different sites of expertise for both crises. We use this structured comparison to identify areas of leverage for obtaining quicker and broader climate action.