Five Lessons Learned from COVID-19: How does learning from the pandemic help us fight climate change?
While COVID-19 is currently spreading globally and affecting all of our lives in many different ways, and uprisings of protest across the country righteously call for racial justice, the climate crisis looms.
Compounding crises make addressing all of them more difficult, but also unite and accelerate our movements toward a more just, healthy, and sustainable world. Even though global carbon emissions have experienced a marginal reduction, climate change persists in the face of a global pandemic and economic drop, due to decades of past and ongoing carbon emissions.
Fortunately, some of the lessons from today’s pandemic just might provide the foresight and cooperation necessary to save us from the long-term climate crisis at hand. Here are some lessons from COVID-19 that have striking similarities to Climate Change:
1. If we don’t address a forecasted threat until it is upon us, it becomes too late to divert and the ripple effects widen.
A global virus had been expected for years, with warnings being voiced from both Republicans and Democrats. George Bush in 2005 and President Obama in 2014 spoke at the National Institute of Health, stressing the severity of the threat: act now, prepare our country, educate our communities, and everyone will need to take part. Bill Gates in his now viral Ted Talk on Pandemic Preparedness spells out the threats and plan of action to mitigate impacts and divert the course. Take the case study of a country like New Zealand that urgently implemented strict control measures before case numbers could skyrocket. As of June 5th, there had been no new reported cases for two consecutive weeks and lockdown measures had been drastically reduced.
Early action and better preparation globally would have meant more saved lives and livelihoods.
2. While the impact may initially affect another part of the world or a state on the other side of the country, it will inevitably be at your front door in one way or another.
When COVID cases were being reported in China, with minimal cases in the US, the economic impact in US markets was already being felt. And once clearly in the US, daily life changed quickly — wedding plans, dinner with friends, visiting your elderly parent in a nursing home — the scale of job losses and the persistent fear for health show that impacts are ubiquitous, ranging from personal to economic to societal. It's hard to fathom how an imminent threat can change the way we live so dramatically, until it actually becomes a reality. Let’s use our current reality and apply it to climate change. Climate change will have an uneven global impact, but it will ultimately infiltrate our world. Whether it’s flooding in your town, the loss of industries, or drought, climate change filters into our lives.
3. The solution to a crisis requires cooperation and collaboration globally, nationally and locally — from governments, to NGOs, from private to public sector.
Whether it is sharing critical research to push for a vaccination or sharing data related to trends and new findings from experience with the virus, collaboration and coordination on multiple levels with a singular focus is pushing us towards solutions faster than imagined.
Because of the urgency, we see innovative new uses of existing drugs, retooling of factories, and the shift of resources to where they are most needed — all scaling up quicker than previously thought possible. With this singular focus and collaboration, we just might beat this virus in record time.
The seeds for this type of effort exist for climate change - global organizations, taxonomies, science targets, data, unifying policies that set standards demand appropriate investment and inspire unity and justice, , and innovative renewable energy systems — we need to get singularly focused and feel the urgency.
We know what we need to do here.
4. A crisis brings underlying problems to the surface – like how disasters hit marginalized communities disproportionately. For a truly just, healthy and sustainable world, no one can be left behind.
The current pandemic exposes underlying inequities in the life of our citizens. One example are the healthcare disparities that exist in the U.S with Americans of lower socioeconomic status reporting more cases of chronic illness, long before COVID-19. This has the flow-on effect of these groups being at higher risk for severe illness when it comes to COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Climate change is a similar beast where wealth inequalities and racial injustices are concerned. Climate justice is racial justice. Studies indicate that disenfranchised communities in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America will be the first ones negatively impacted by the warming climate, as sea levels flood shoreside communities with poor infrastructure, cause droughts in already arid regions, and disrupt crop harvests for farmers in the Global South. According to the Global Internal Displacement Database, 24 million people were displaced annually by climate disasters in the last decade. So, much like COVID-19, more Black people, and poorer, disadvantaged folks are unfairly bearing the brunt of the compounding crisis waves, but we’re all implicated and accountable to the ripple effects that follow.
5. And, probably the most personally eye-opening is the importance of and the power of the individual, and their local community to bring immediate and hugely impactful action
In the absence of a vaccine, mitigating drugs and proper testing, the first line of defense has been in the hands, literally, of each person to take conscious action and to work together locally as a community such as sheltering in place, social distancing, handwashing, and wearing masks. We do this not just to protect ourselves but also to protect others. There has been an outpouring of help for one another — people running errands and delivering groceries to elderly, making masks for others, donating to local businesses, school children sending letters to essential workers, brave and righteous protest.
These individual actions have mattered. Yes, we need changes from big corporations and governments but do not overlook the fact that health, justice, and climate solutions, can start with the individual in the choices we make and the votes we cast.
All of these lessons are applicable and significant in the fight against climate change.
COVID and the George Floyd protests have shown us that we as individuals are not powerless. All of us are critical in flattening the curve and saving lives. There is huge power in the individual and the local community to make changes that have collective impact to stop the progression of climate change.
Just as the visualization of data has induced a cooperative movement to ‘Flatten the Curve’ of COVID partly to address the capacity limitations of hospitals, climate science shows us that we can and need to flatten greenhouse gas emissions to limit the destructive impacts of global warming. Think of the atmosphere and oceans as our “global hospitals”. They too will reach their maximum capacity in terms of buffering effects, eventually giving way to catastrophic increases in global temperatures.
Our experiences with COVID must inform the next decade in our joint fight against climate change.
But for all these comparisons between COVID and climate change, there is one important difference: for the climate, there is no vaccine; there is no one solution to eradicate it.
The time to act is now, to get ahead of the curve.
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