Eight Things COVID-19 teaches us about climate change

Tim Morse, Hartford Courant
·4 min read

The unexpectedly rapid impacts seen in both COVID-19 and recent hurricanes and fires reveal deep-seated problems in governmental response and the systems of health care and disaster management. The following lessons show the parallels between the pandemic crisis and the environmental crisis and suggest some common courses of action.

1. Scientific models are crucial to action. The models showing the spread of COVID-19 helped us understand spread and preventive actions such as masks and distancing. Climate models predicting increased temperatures, violent weather, droughts, and climate refugees have been mostly ignored for too long.

2. The poor and minorities suffer more in a crisis. Environmental inequity and health disparities are two sides of the same coin. Overlapping factors include limited housing options (that is, small spaces near to environmental hazards), dependence on mass transit, the lack of savings contributing to the need to continue work to survive (with less chance to work remotely), and less access to health care. Climate change impacts such as droughts, food shortages and flooding in low-lying areas (such as New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina) also fall more on the poor and minorities. Plus, there is less likelihood of low-income housing getting rebuilt after disasters (as happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria).

3. Tracking changes in the environment can help guide our actions. The work of scientists on temperature increases, loss of polar ice, and atmospheric carbon dioxide can help us see whether we are hitting targets for reductions in greenhouse gases and whether we need to increase our interventions, just as the tracking of infection rates does for COVID-19.

4. A few degrees of temperature are the difference between life and death. The elevation in core body temperature by a few degrees can distinguish fatal illness from recovery in the tightly controlled range of human physiology. In the same way, a difference of one or two degrees in global temperatures can have dramatic consequences for sea rise, severe weather events, and mass dislocation.

5. Early preparedness can prevent disaster. Just a two- to three-week delay in intervention on COVID-19 had a dramatic three- to four-fold impact on the number of sick and dying. We have already waited too long to prevent the current climate disruptions. The failure to react 30 years ago has resulted in decades of increased future environmental load. Although severe mitigation rather than prevention becomes the main option, it is now even more crucial to take decisive action on climate to ensure a habitable future.

6. Human activity (and inactivity) can have a profound effect on the environment. People, not insects or other animals, are the instruments of the spread of COVID-19 as well as climate change. Just a few weeks of lessened auto use and industrial production from shutdowns resulted in dramatic improvements in clean air in cities and reduced carbon dioxide emissions. COVID-19 has shown that people can change behavior very quickly if necessary, and climate change does make many changes necessary.

7. The lack of effective government controls on large corporations can have dramatic negative consequences. The shortage of respirators, masks and other protective supplies are due to our reliance on large corporations that have shifted production to lower-wage countries. The deference to large companies also supports a fracking industry (and coal and oil subsidies) that are environmentally damaging.

8. Looking only at the short term can lead to profound economic disruption. Social distancing measures were delayed due to concerns over the economy, which led to even greater economic dislocation. Gutting climate initiatives by, for example, encouraging coal-plant use, relaxing auto-mileage standards and withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to benefit carbon producers will undercut longer term economic development in electric cars and solar and wind technology and cause more economic disasters from extreme weather events and sea rise.

The world is profoundly interconnected. We need the cooperation of all countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, just as we need all countries to work to eliminate COVID-19 outbreaks. Moving beyond the Paris Agreement to even more effective, verifiable controls across the world is crucial to lessening what we might call Climate-19 in the not-distant future.

Tim Morse is an emeritus professor at UConn Health specializing in occupational and environmental health. While mostly retired, he continues to produce an annual report on occupational illness in Connecticut for the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission.


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