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By Sherry Listgarten

Coronavirus and Climate Change

Uploaded: Mar 7, 2020

“Coronavirus and Climate Change”. How’s that for a depressing headline? In some ways I see the former as a mini version of the latter. Both are serious problems with potentially far-reaching health and economic impacts whose mitigation demands global coordination. One important difference is that we can see the end of the coronavirus. We will have a vaccine in about a year, and we can make plans with that in mind. We also have experience with similar issues, and can generally anticipate how this will play out. Climate change has many more unknowns, with potentially graver risks to our entire ecosystem. There is no end in sight, and we have no analog for it. It is also slower moving. Despite the differences, we can look at our response to coronavirus and consider whether our experience with it will change how we think about addressing and preparing for climate change. I think the learnings below apply to both.

Science takes time and money. The coronavirus process has made us more aware that we don’t magically “know” things about viruses, like how long they persist in different environments, how easily they pass between people, or even the fatality rate of the diseases they cause. This takes time, people, and diligence. We also see that we can’t instantaneously come up with safe vaccines. Good science takes long-term, sustained investment. It can’t just be trotted out when you need it. We should not muzzle, hollow out, de-fund, or redirect the agencies and organizations whose work this is, whether it is personal or environmental health.

We need to pull together as a community. The response to coronavirus is, in many ways, a plea to people to do the right thing. If we each take steps to improve our hygiene and stay home when sick, it will protect the most vulnerable members of our community. The solution isn’t something that only a few people can do, or that only a few people need to worry about. We all need to chip in.

Little things matter. In that same vein, we see that little things matter, and in fact little things are the big things, until a vaccine can be developed. It is not enough to engage in “business as usual” while waiting for the vaccine. Technical remediations take time. The small actions, whether it is washing your hands or eating less beef, are important steps to take in the interim.

Government plays an important role. Government health agencies are informing us about what matters and what we can do to help. People, organizations, and businesses are listening. Effective, science-driven policies and communications from our government work. Without that, rumors, misinformation, and uncertainty lead to inaction and discord. And that is exactly where we have been with climate change in the US for decades.

Transparency is key. We make better progress when countries share accurate and timely data. If countries let national pride or other politics get in the way, it hurts the effort by masking the truth. We should come to these globe-spanning problems with a spirit of cooperation, addressing a common need, and keep a lid on casting blame or touting one’s superiority. As one example, the current lack of testing and misguided focus on having “good numbers” in the US is a travesty. We should have no tolerance for this, whether it is coronavirus or emissions data.

Planning reduces instability. The fast-changing nature of coronavirus has meant that elements of our economy are changing very quickly. We haven’t seen this play out yet, but it is worrying. Some might say that this has been good for the climate. On the contrary, it’s a lesson on what we don’t want to do. When we are reactive and panicked, the impacts are distorted and worse than they need to be. Last-minute emergencies can move attention from root causes to quick fixes. Planning aggressively in advance for events like this is not alarmism. It is smart.

We are not immune. (1) Finally, we learn that when science says we are all at risk, it pays to listen. As early as February 24, Dr. James Hamblin wrote an essay for The Atlantic titled “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus”. That was an eye-opener for me. Sometimes we see things happening in far-off places and think it won’t happen to us. We may similarly write off one or two things that do happen locally. If we all acted as though this would impact us, directly, we might pay more attention.

This has been an anxious few weeks, and I expect there will be more to follow. I hope everyone is finding ways to stay healthy and hopeful, and to help those around them do so as well. Our strength and resilience in the face of this challenge will inform how we address similar challenges in the future. We can and should step up.

Notes and References
1. Pun intended...

Current Climate Data (January/February 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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