Coronavirus and Climate Change: What You Need to Know

Coronavirus and Climate Change: What You Need to Know

Could lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis help us fight climate change?

The COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) pandemic has changed our day-to-day lives.

Many are working from home for the foreseeable future. Amazon suspended “nonessential” shipments from its warehouses. Medical staff are working at full capacity to manage the onslaught of suspected and confirmed infections. Service workers face long lines and barren shelves to restock in the midst of customers stocking up on staples.

Vaccine tests are in the works (and one has been trialed on human volunteers, rather than animals). While the shot itself may take more than a year to be made available to the public, the quick action shows how capable we can be when facing a crisis. What if we treated the climate crisis the same way?

This isn’t to say that we should be cavalier about the coronavirus outbreak and care more about the planet instead. It’s possible to care deeply and urge action on multiple issues.

coronavirus climate crisis
Many city streets are empty as residents to stay at home to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

A Global Pandemic

There are currently more than 535,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide. More than 24,000 have died and over 124,000 have recovered.

China banned the wild animal meat trade last month to mitigate the spread of the virus, which is believed to have originated from a “wet market” in the city of Wuhan. Vietnam is considering similar measures.

Italy, one of the worst-hit by the pandemic, is on lockdown. It was the first democratic country post-World War II to take such a stringent measure. Confirmed infections there have climbed past 80,000 with a death toll of more than 8,000. A number of countries have followed Italy’s lead. India, the UK, France, and Belgium are among the countries that have now ordered citizens to stay at home unless leaving is for an essential reason (like going to the doctor or to buy food) or for exercise.

Schools across the world—including New York City’s, the largest public school system in the world—are closed. As the city’s infections are in the thousands, Mayor Bill de Blasio is urging Governor Andrew Cuomo to implement a shelter-in-place order.

Anxiety is easy to come by in times like these. We worry over discerning mild coronavirus symptoms from seasonal allergies. We wonder if we should stockpile toilet paper and hand sanitizer before anyone else gets to them. Many are losing their only source of money as businesses cut hours or shut down completely, sparking discussions of how universal basic income could help people survive crises.

The climate crisis causes anxiety, too.

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Change is needed to prevent climate change-caused global environmental disasters.

Where Are the ‘Unprecedented Changes?’

In 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the world has 12 years to make “unprecedented changes” to all aspects of society.

So why do we still treat climate change like a concept, something from a distant, speculative-fiction world where the world has been decimated by heatwaves and resources are scarce? Clean air, water, food, and shelter are all affected by it.

According to the World Health Organization, climate change is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths between 2030 and 2050 due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress.

The effects of the human-caused climate crisis is already a reality for thousands. The July 2019 European heatwaves killed more than 900 in England and 1,500 in France last summer. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused a humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti, which suffered nearly 600 deaths and $2.8 billion in damages. Around 175,000 were left homeless. Globally, sea levels are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.

coronavirus climate crisis
Youth activists call for urgent action on the climate crisis. | Greta Thunberg

‘We Cannot Wait Any Longer’

Youth activists such as Greta Thunberg, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, and co-founder of climate change-focused nonprofit Zero Hour, Jamie Margolin have directed anger at authorities for not taking action on the climate crisis.

“We are getting bigger and bigger and our voices are being heard more and more, but of course that does not translate into political action,” Thunberg told a panel in Madrid at a UN climate summit last December.

Thunberg sparked a global movement that culminated in more than four million people worldwide marching in climate strikes last September. But, the 17-year-old pointed out in her speech, there has been little action on the part of leaders. She noted that young people skipping school to protest the climate crisis is “not a sustainable solution.

“We don’t want to continue. We would love some action from people in power,” she said. “People are suffering and dying from the climate and ecological emergency today and we cannot wait any longer.”

coronavirus climate crisis
Carbon emissions are down as more people stay at home.

The Environmental Effects of Lockdown

As millions across the globe limit their face-to-face social interaction, the planet and animals are responding. Without daily traffic, the typically murky canals of Venice are clear enough to see fish. And, carbon emissions are down—for now, at least.

Air pollution and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in some cities and regions have dropped significantly since the virus began impacting travel, according to researchers in New York City.

“New York has had exceptionally high carbon monoxide numbers for the last year and a half,” Professor Róisín Commane, from Columbia University, told the BBC. “And this is the cleanest I have ever seen it. It’s is less than half of what we normally see in March.”

Similar changes were discovered in China and Italy as commuting slows and more people work from home. Experts estimate that this will bring China’s overall emissions for the year down by 1 percent.

Corinne Le Quéré—a professor of climate science at the University of East Anglia—believes we could see an overall reduction in emissions for the year.

“It will depend on how long the pandemic lasts, and how widespread the slowdown is in the economy particularly in the US. But most likely I think we will see something in the global emissions this year,” she said. “If it lasts another three of four months, certainly we could see some reduction.”

climate crisis coronavirus
Experts say the reduction in emissions is only temporary.

Is a Drop in Carbon Emissions Temporary?

Many believe the reduction is only temporary.

“I won’t be celebrating if emissions go down a percent or two because of the coronavirus,” Rob Jackson—an environmental scientist at Stanford University who chairs the Global Carbon Project—told the Los Angeles Times. “We need sustained declines. Not an anomalous year below average.”

Martha Dina Argüello—executive director of the environmental health and justice group Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles—pointed out that reductions are happening as people make individual changes. But it is still up to big industries to take action.

“I’m a boomer and I’m learning how to use Slack,” she said, referring to her switch to working from home. “We will learn that some habits we can change. But I worry that while my individual footprint is one thing, the practices of the oil industry are another. Will they get out of the way of us doing better climate policies?”

UN environment chief Inger Andersen told The Guardian that taking better care of the environment is also taking better care of ourselves.

“Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” she said, adding that 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.”

The destruction of nature for mining and other resources drives wildlife into closer contact with humans. This puts humans at risk for new diseases. The immediate priority is to protect people from coronavirus, but the long-term goal is to “tackle biodiversity and habitat loss.”

“There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give,” she continued. “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”