What can COVID-19 teach us about climate change? Experts weigh in
While the most urgent challenge now facing the global community is stopping the spread of COVID-19 and mitigating its impacts, the race to fight climate change continues.
And parallels between the pandemic crisis and the climate crisis could even be instructive – pointing toward climate solutions that could help salvage something positive from tragedy.
Here are a few of the preliminary lessons experts have identified.
Health threats and climate change share common roots
There’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19, but researchers have already found correlations between air pollution and COVID impacts. It’s well-established that exposure to polluted air is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases – among the underlying conditions known to increase risk for patients diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. Drawing on data collected in almost 3,100 U.S. counties, Harvard researchers found that exposure to fine particulate matter “is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”
While there is no current scientific consensus suggesting a direct connection between the emergence of COVID-19 and climate change, there is widespread recognition that climate impacts health – and failure to address common root issues could make future pandemics more frequent and more severe.
One of the factors is habitat loss. An estimated three out of four new infectious diseases result from human-animal contact, according to the CDC, and that has serious implications when it comes to activities like deforestation and mass livestock production – both of which not only contribute to climate change but also increase exposure to animal-borne diseases from Lyme to Ebola.
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, pediatrician and interim director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University, makes the connection between agriculture-driven forest loss and West Africa’s Ebola outbreak. “Likely part of the reason why that happened is because bats that carry Ebola had lost their homes,” Bernstein explains. “And so we may be pushing bats into new places by destroying their habitat.”
Underlining the terrifyingly short distance from one exposure to epidemic, Sonia Shah, author of the 2017 book Pandemic, stated, “We know that with Ebola, there was a single spillover event — the first case was a 2-year-old child in West Africa who was playing near a tree where bats live.”
A warming climate is also more hospitable to mosquitoes – and mosquito-borne illnesses, which already kill about 1 million people per year. As Stanford biologist Erin Mordecai, who has forecast the issue, puts it: “It’s coming for you. If the climate is becoming more optimal for transmission, it’s going to become harder and harder to do mosquito control.”
James Holland Jones, associate professor of Earth system science at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, sums up the interconnected dynamic: “We’ve done a lot to engineer a world where emerging infectious diseases are both more likely and more likely to be consequential, just as we’ve engineered a world where wildfires, floods, droughts and other local consequences of climate change are more likely and more consequential.”
Dramatic progress is possible
We’ve all seen the images of a smog-free Los Angeles skyline and clear waters in Venice canals. The emissions reduction statistics are one of the few bright spots in this time of tragedy and uncertainty. Reuters reports that emissions in China have fallen by an estimated 25%. And Stanford University professor Rob Jackson projects that global carbon output could fall by more than 5% year-on-year. That would be “something not seen since the end of World War Two” and “the first dip since a 1.4% reduction after the 2008 financial crisis.”
That last part is the caveat, and it’s a big one: The most significant decreases in greenhouse gas emissions in this century have occurred alongside severe economic distress.
It’s obviously not cause for celebration, and climate specialists like Kristopher Karnauskas know it. “I don’t see any way that this is good news except for proving that humans drive greenhouse gas emissions,” Karnauskas, associate professor at the Department of Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, stated.
Fair point, but even that recognition is valuable. Polls show growing recognition of the urgency of the climate crisis and increasing support for action. With such tangible evidence that human activity causes emissions, maybe a few more skeptics will concede that human activity can also reduce emissions – shifting the focus from debating causes to finding solutions that can generate economic growth.
Early action is key, even if it seems like overreaction
“If you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.”
Of the many parallels scientists have observed between COVID-19 and climate change, that’s one of the most striking.
It’s a reality long understood by climate scientists. And the cascading pandemic impacts experienced around the globe only underline the urgency of action. As Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive, puts it, effective preventive action “looks disproportionate to what the current reality is, because you have to react to where that exponential growth will take you.”
New research on coastal flooding is one of the latest studies to illustrate that point. The report from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researcher Sean Vitousek studied 200 coastal areas in the United States, projecting that 70% of them could see major floods each year by 2050. By 2100, flooding levels typically observed only twice per century could be a daily occurrence in 93% of these areas.
“You take high tide, add on an extra meter, and you’re exceeding thresholds at every high tide,” Vitousek said. While many cities are building flood barriers, Vitousek emphasizes that’s not enough. Using a term we’re now all too familiar with, Vitousek urges that action to cut greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to “flatten the curve” on sea level rise.
Collective action works
“We are flattening the curve.”
With hospitalizations in hard-hit New York City at “the lowest number we’ve had since this nightmare started,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sees cause for reassurance that social distancing efforts are beginning to pay off.
The costs have been painful, and we still have a long road ahead. But it’s heartening to reaffirm a lesson we’ve learning in previous crises: When the stakes are high, communities can pull together and overcome even the most daunting challenges.
From the heroic efforts of frontline health workers, to the more mundane contributions of average Americans staying home, everyone has a role to play in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. For architects, action has taken the form of contributing resources and 3-D printing technology to produce protective masks, and advising local authorities on converting buildings to health facilities.
The crisis is far from over, but when it ends, the collective efforts of countless individuals will be the reason.
Tackling a global challenge like climate change is no different. Even now, leaders are identifying solutions that can positively impact both global health and climate progress. Working together, we can succeed in both fights.