As the 50th Earth Day draws to a close under circumstances no one expected, I find myself reflecting on the state of the climate crisis during the pandemic. With blue skies in China, dolphins in the waterways of Venice, and thousands of flight cancellations, it is easy to see why some people are viewing the Earth as one beneficiary of the virus. History however has an unfortunate tendency to repeat itself, and if we draw lessons from the aftermath of the 2008 crash, we are likely to see a spike in carbon emissions as global economies attempt to reboot. It is crucial that we learn from the virus, and use this pandemic productively in the fight against climate change when life does return to normal. Below are three things that the coronavirus can teach us about the climate crisis.
- Human health and the health of the planet cannot be separated
Although the exact origin of the virus is yet to be confirmed, its source has been linked to a wet market in Wuhan where wild animals are sold. Coronaviruses have been transmitted from animals to humans in the past, as was the case with the emergence of the SARS epidemic. In 2016, the United Nations Environmental Programme pointed to the fact that three quarters of all new infectious diseases found in humans originate in animals. The destruction of natural habitats around the world has brought humans and animals into closer contact than ever before, producing new opportunities for pathogens to spread. Similarly, the loss of biodiversity has created conditions that allow pathogens to survive more easily, meaning we are losing the natural protection provided to us by our environment. Human and planetary health have also been linked in the spread of other diseases such as the Zika virus and malaria. The warmer global temperatures allow the mosquito carriers of these diseases to rapidly reproduce. COVID-19 is just another example of the importance of protecting the health of the Earth in order to protect the health of ourselves.
- Universal responsibility is essential to tackle global crises
With social distancing rules being put in place across the world in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, there has been a real emphasis on the importance of everyone playing their part in order for it to be effective. Although the virus is most harmful to the elderly and immunosuppressed, we are all being expected (and rightly so), to stay at home in order to protect the lives of the most vulnerable. Part of the NHS campaign even asks the public to act as if they already have the virus. This logic must be extended to the climate crisis. All countries need to prove that they are making the essential changes to reduce their carbon emissions, regardless of whether they are feeling the direct symptoms of climate change. Many of the countries most dependent on natural resources or most likely to be swallowed by rising sea levels are amongst the world’s poorest and lowest contributors to emissions. The pandemic has highlighted the interdependence of humans and given prominence to the idea that we have a responsibility to safeguard each other. As global citizens we must all take climate change seriously and act together in order to make changes for a universal benefit.
- Fast action is needed to flatten the curve
The differing response to the pandemic by various governments, has contributed to the virus spreading in some countries more rapidly than others. This is exemplified in the cases of the USA and South Korea who both reported their first coronavirus infection on the same day. Korea jumped into action quickly producing tests but President Trump continued to deny the scale of the threat for weeks. The result is clear, whilst South Korea has managed to flatten the curve and bring cases down dramatically without needing to implement a lockdown, the US is now one of the worst affected countries both in terms of infections and the soaring unemployment. This outbreak highlights the importance of early intervention, and the dangers that can occur if we ignore signs of risk.
There is clear evidence that global carbon emissions are growing at an ever increasing rate and this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The way in which the world recovers from coronavirus will shape the future of the climate struggle, and governments must take this opportunity to invest in clean energy as part of the economic restructuring. We cannot ignore this lesson from the pandemic; the sooner we act, the more effectively we can control the rate of global warming before it is too late.