The Climate-COVID19 Nexus

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Will the COVID-19 pandemic make it easier or harder to combat climate change?

Many articles have appeared in recent weeks both comparing the coronavirus response to how people have dealt with climate change –two giant, obvious “gray rhino” crises– and tying the coronavirus reaction to the need for a more aggressive climate action plan.

I was happy to share my thoughts on the links between climate change and the novel coronavirus crisis with Amy Harder of AxiosLaura Paddison of the Huffington Post, and Beth Gardiner of Yale e360 and Granta But these questions are lingering. So I want to address them in more detail here. 

The Costs of Denial

One of the questions I get asked is, “Why aren’t we responding to climate change the way we are to the coronavirus?” The costs of denial are clear and immediate –yet too many people are still not facing reality.

As with many gray rhinos, people respond differently, depending on how alert they are to threats and their awareness of the importance of and commitment to responding. In this respect, though the timeline is different, climate change and COVID-19 are similar. A core -and growing- group of people are acting to head off the problem.

In both cases, those who are acting simply don’t represent enough of us. When a recent news report said that 16,000 New Yorkers are projected to die, Twitter exploded in outrage at the people who nevertheless refuse to respect social distancing.

In Chicago, the first warm spring day recently brought throngs of people to the lakefront trails and beaches, throwing social distancing to the wind. Mayor Lori Lightfoot immediately closed the lakefront. Catchy public service announcements, a brilliant video by the mayor, and a series of hilarious memes brought some humor to the situation, but that Gen-Z hubris has made it harder for many of us –who have been responsible with social distancing– to deal with the virus by getting exercise and fresh air.

Where I live right along the lake a few miles north of downtown, we did not have major crowding problems. Nevertheless, we lost our lakefront privileges too because of the “covidiots” who spoiled it for all of us. Now the sidewalks and small strip of park west of Lake Shore Drive are overcrowded, and walking my dog has become an obstacle course that requires multiple street crossings to avoid other people. Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

The obvious and probable consequences of denial have become particularly clear –the hard way– to 28 Texas college students who are now sick after defying public health warnings and thronged to beaches in Mexico with their friends and other college students flocking to Florida and other beach destinations whose mantra was “If I get corona, I get corona.” Many have since expressed regret and even apologized.

The Importance of Human Agency

The pandemic helps us to see clearly the value of individual actions: how important it is for everyone to play their part.

One of the big reasons people don’t do their part to limit greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is that we tend to feel the problem is too big for any one of us to make a meaningful contribution toward solving. But, as we see with the consequences of denial, above, a single person can make a big difference.

And when many people do something seemingly small, the consequences can be powerful.

That lesson is just as important for climate change as for COVID-19. Hopefully, the public health crisis will lead to people feeling more power that their individual contribution will make a difference for climate change.

Dual Benefit Solutions Are Key

Solutions to climate change problems that also address another problem are powerful.

People with asthma (including yours truly) and other respiratory conditions are more vulnerable to pandemics. Reducing greenhouse gases and pollution are crucial for us –even if it were not for the climate change imperative.

The environmental journalist, Beth Gardiner, has written powerfully about how pollution has made the pandemic worse by weakening people’s immune systems, particularly by causing lung inflammation that makes it harder to clear out pathogens from the respiratory tract. It also increases the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other illnesses –which, since we know that co-morbidity (ie having anotherserious medical condition) increases the severity and risk of death from COVID19.

Gardiner cites research by Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, whose team compared SARS patients living in the most polluted places with others, in the wake of the 2003 SARS epidemic. Their conclusion: People who lived in the most polluted areas were two times as likely to die from the disease as those who lived in places with the cleanest air.

In addition, there’s a clear link between climate change and pandemics — so addressing climate change also can reduce the reach of dangerous disease viruses and carriers. Though SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID19, thrives in colder temperatures, warming temperatures around the globe are supercharging other pathogens. Thawing permafrost in the Arctic is releasing long-dormant pathogens, while the habitat of mosquitos –which carry infectious diseases like dengue, malaria, and Zika—is expanding.

The Double Edged-Sword of Blue Skies

The pandemic has reduced pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, showing us that it is possible to bring blue skies back. But that is a double-edged sword because of the implicit message tying the benefits of combating emissions with severe pain –when in reality, there are many relatively simple things everyone can do to significantly reduce emissions.

The dramatic NASA photos shown above document the drop in air pollution (in this case nitrogen dioxide emissions from cars and factories) over China during the coronavirus lockdown including factory closures and transportation restrictions. People are asking whether we can keep those emissions down.

Gardiner, who also is the author of CHOKED: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution,writes eloquently of the dark side of all of the people calling the pandemic-related emissions reduction a silver lining or bright side of the crisis. “I can’t help feeling there is something wrong with this framing, and our attraction to the idea that widespread human suffering comes with an environmental upside. It seems to suggest that only a terrible scourge can stop us from sabotaging our well-being and our collective future,” she said in a piece just out in GRANTA. “Given our governments’ failure to reverse an inexorable climb in emissions (despite climate scientists’ ever more dire warnings), it can be tempting to think so. But I think this ignores the reality that it is within our power to address the intertwined crises of climate change, air pollution and rising extinctions [emphasis added]. And it goes without saying that an illness that is killing thousands, terrifying millions and hammering livelihoods and the global economy is not the best way to do so.” She’s so right.

I’ve seen articles arguing that as people realize that they can do so much without the same level of air travel and job commuting as before the pandemic, miles traveled and the related emissions will not return to their previous levels when this is all over. I’ve also seen articles arguing that the pandemic will make it harder to reduce emissions because of the economic hit that will take money away from development of new technologies and because of the low oil prices that will make it harder for cleaner energy to compete. So which is it?

First, part of the fall in oil prices has to do with supply issues related to a dispute between Russia and the OPEC cartel. Recent production cut agreements likely will lead to oil prices recovering some of that difference.

Second, I would be surprised if, after an initial surge as people catch up once they are allowed to do so, long distance and local travel do return to a normal long-term level. On a few of the COVID-19 related briefings and calls in which I’ve participated over the past week, several observers expressed that they believe now that more people are getting used to working from home, it will be harder to get them back to the office full time. They are right, especially since our “new normal” merely accelerates a remote-work trend that already was gaining traction.

Everyone Has a Part to Play

There’s a study I’ve been quoting a lot lately from the Center for Climate Change and the Environment at Rare.org. The report, Climate Change Needs Behavior Change: Making the Case for Behavioral Solutions to Reduce Global Warming, analyzes the potential collective impact of 30 behavioral changes on greenhouse emissions. These actions, identified and quantified by Project Drawdown, include things like changing our chosen mode of transport to ride-sharing, bicycling, or hybrid or electric vehicles; switching to solar power and cookstoves; making cities walkable; and composting and reducing food waste. The results are impressive: widespread adoption of these changes can reduce emissions by 20 percent (possible) to 37 percent (ideal) of the amount needed to get the planet back on a sustainable track.

Think about how similar that approach is to the analysis scientists and policy makers have been doing when it comes to the pandemic: What are the impacts of social distancing, testing and isolating, masks, testing for antibodies, and so on? And how much faster can we beat the virus as more and more people work to flatten the curve?

In both cases, we’ve identified the problem and a set of solutions. And in both cases, we need everyone to do their part. With the right set of workable solutions, we can get past this pandemic and do a much better job of slowing climate change –and make the dream of reversing it– attainable.

For more about climate change as a gray rhino, see Chapter Seven of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.

This article is part of my LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

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Michele Wucker
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About Author

Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at http://thegrayrhino.com/about/michelewucker

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