Corona and Climate – April 29, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic has led to economies worldwide shutting down these last few months and stay-at-home orders going into place, clearing our cities and streets. Pollution levels in the air have dropped drastically, as observed by people and satellites alike. Yet 2020 is still on track to be either the warmest or amongst the 5 warmest years on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The climate continues to change.

Despite major reduction in pollution worldwide, temperatures will continue to rise because of the cumulative greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere. It will take great effort – rapid “decarbonization” – to actually slow the effects of climate change. We talk about slowing the spread of COVID-19 and, for obvious reasons, this should remain our focus. But as economies open back up and we look to the future, consideration should be given to how we do this. Is it really necessary for people to commute long distances to work, or will virtual meetings and teleworking suffice? Whatever we do, it must be contagious and fast-spreading in the realm of social and technological change to have any long-term benefit for the planet.

In a warming climate, more diseases are likely to emerge and spread – not just from wild animals but other vectors like mosquitoes and ticks as well. This is not just because we are encroaching into wild habitats. As habitats change with a changing climate, more animals are trying to adapt to new environments, seeking relief in places where people live, thus increasing the chance of contact.

There is a perception that climate change isn’t as urgent as other crises and this may be due to misunderstandings about how these changes will occur. In climate change, the rate is not constant. There are “tipping points” where small changes in nature can shift into rapid and irreversible damage. Even if we take aggressive action to curb emissions and halt rapid change, some of the effects are already locked in. The good news is that positive tipping points exist as well – when society organizes into action to avert crises.

The coronavirus response shows that this kind of rapid response IS possible – we are doing it. Both the corona and the climate crises require large-scale intervention, in addition to individual actions. More sustainable infrastructure, transportation, renewable energy, and alternate working arrangements are the ways of the future.

This pandemic caught us off-guard globally. The US response was absolutely unacceptable, given the information at hand. COVID-19 was an abrupt and rude awakening. If we continue on our business-as-usual trajectory after this is all over, we may experience something similar with climate change – another abrupt and rude awakening that will affect us for years to come.

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