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What Do Climate Change and the Coronavirus Have in Common?

Oct 15, 2020

At first glance, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic might seem like two entirely separate global disasters. When you consider the root causes of both crises, it’s clear that climate change and the coronavirus are both symptoms of humanity’s general disregard for the environment.

Intersecting Disasters 

The world is entering an era of increased outbreak activity, in no small part because of habitat destruction, global warming, overpopulation, and mass consumption. As the world’s population increases, farmers continue to raze forests for agriculture, developers clear land for more homes and roads, and in the process we destroy the habitats of countless species. Some of those species have been forced to migrate and, as a result, come into increased contact with other animals and humans. Our need for additional food is also increasing the types and quantity of animals at open food markets for consumption. COVID-19 is zoonotic, which means it passed from animals to humans. If we continue to destroy animal habitats and consume a wider array of animal meat at the current rate, the likelihood of viral transmission from animals will only increase in coming years.

Climate change and deadly viruses are intertwined in many ways. While the world continues to warm as a result of rising CO2 emissions, arctic ice is melting at alarming rates and, in some cases, causing old viruses to reemerge that modern humans don’t possess immunity to. Warmer weather also provides a favorable environment for the spread of many diseases, such as Lyme disease, malaria, and dengue fever. 

Taking a Breath of Fresh Air

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and much of the world shut down, the Earth’s environment could take a breath from CO2 emissions, even if it was short-lived. The pandemic has had both positive and negative impacts on the environment, and it remains to be seen whether the good outweighs the bad.   

Some countries have initiated green recovery initiatives, including Germany, France, and South Korea. Shutdowns have also significantly reduced air travel and increased remote work, and early research suggests 2020 could see the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions. The pandemic also increased interest in walking, biking, enjoying the outdoors, and living simply, all of which decrease our daily demands on the environment.  

Unfortunately, the areas benefiting from environmental respite will likely be temporary. To make matters worse, some governments, corporations, and individuals have used the pandemic as an excuse to pause or reverse existing sustainability policies. International negotiations for environmental protection, including the World Conservation Congress and The Convention on Biological Diversity, have been delayed. At least 464 square miles of the Amazon rainforest were leveled between January and April, a sharp spike compared to previous years. 

In the US, President Trump signed a series of executive orders that rolled back environmental regulations, including one that hobbled the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by effectively allowing agencies to skip an environmental review for new projects. And although the decrease in international travel and daily commutes have likely lessened emissions, the sharp increase in disposable personal protective equipment, single-use plastics, and online shopping might mean we’ve broken even in terms of environmental impact. 

Connecting the Dots 

When we consider all these interrelated events, it’s clear that climate change and coronavirus have quite a bit in common. Both climate change and COVID-19 have similar root causes, they both radically impact our daily lives, they disproportionately impact minorities and low-income populations, and they will get worse if we fail to take effective action immediately. 

Both have similar root causes

As mentioned above, many of the root causes of climate change are also exacerbating infectious disease outbreaks. If we fail to halt deforestation, pollution, population growth, and fossil fuel extraction, both climate change and disease outbreaks will worsen. On the opposite side of this coin, addressing root causes improves both issues at the same time.    

Both radically impact our daily lives

The coronavirus pandemic has radically changed our daily lives, especially in the US where a large portion of the population is working from home and many schools, bars, and restaurants remain closed. Climate change has also transformed the world around us. More than 5 million acres have burned across the US west coast this year. The truth is that we are battling apocalyptic fires on one front and a deadly pandemic on the other.

Both disproportionately impact minorities and low-income populations

Although corporations and high-income individuals have the largest carbon footprints, lower-income populations often suffer the consequences. Lower-income minority residents are much more likely than wealthy residents to live near sources of pollution such as power plants and landfills. This disproportionate exposure to pollution is part of the reason African Americans are experiencing higher mortality rates from COVID-19. 

Both require immediate action

Climate scientists have been sounding the alarm about climate change for decades now, but many leaders around the world have been dragging their feet. The COVID-19 pandemic has pulled to the forefront the consequences of failing to take immediate action. Countries like New Zealand that quickly recognized the threat, listened to scientists, and implemented effective policies, have served as an example to the rest of the world. Climate change demands a similar urgency, and approach, if we want to maintain a livable planet for future generations. 

The pandemic presents an opportunity to shift our priorities and rebuild in a way that incorporates environmental conservation. Once a vaccine becomes available, the temptation will exist to revert back to business as usual, but doing so will doom us to repeat the same mistakes, and a worsening future.

Humans need to see themselves as embedded in a whole ecosystem that is far greater than our own civilization. We must acknowledge that both climate change and COVID-19 are signs that humanity needs a new mindset and approach to managing our demands on the environment, keeping them within the natural limits of what the planet can sustainably provide. To learn more about the impact you can make and where PMC uses donation funds, check out our blog