In the midst of this international public health crisis we should treat the novel coronavirus as a loud wake-up call for us to rethink our priorities—for the sake of public health and to protect our life-sustaining environment. Grappling with COVID-19 forces us to reflect on several pressing points of concern: the Trump administration’s inadequate response to the current health crisis, how climate change will exacerbate future pathogen problems, and what we must do to protect the planet and its inhabitants from catastrophe. These are connected because alongside widespread droughts, food shortages, and unpredictable weather patterns, the coronavirus is another symptom of climate change.
The administration was incapable of swiftly responding to the growing pandemic because they previously defunded essential public health agencies. The past progress made in disease detection and prevention, such as the success of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) involvement in helping to stem the spread of Ebola in West Africa in 2014, was lost because of sharp cuts to the CDC’s funding according to Dr. Paul Spiegel, who directs the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University. Weakening these agencies devastated our ability to quell the spread of a virus, leaving us woefully unprepared to address the outbreak in the United States, and uncertain as to how this will ultimately end. Beyond the incalculable harm inflicted upon our nation by the negligent defunding of agencies by this administration, future inaction can cause even more damage.
As we consider solutions to the coronavirus pandemic, we should also bear in mind that unpredictable impacts will continue to increase in occurrence as climate change remains insufficiently addressed. Warning signs like warming weather, rising sea levels, and worsening wildfires build gradually over time, and the longer we wait to act, the worse will be the impacts. Previous outbreaks, like SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and others were warning signs of COVID-19, and COVID-19 is a warning sign of what’s to come if we fail to act.
The World Health Organization recognizes that climate change and public health are intrinsically linked, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University makes the case on disease exacerbation due to global climate change:
The WHO has warned that contagious diseases are on the increase as a result of “the combined impacts of rapid demographic, environmental, social, technological and other changes in our ways-of-living. Climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrence.” A number of diseases well known to be climate-sensitive, such as malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, cholera and Lyme disease, are expected to worsen as climate change results in higher temperatures and more extreme weather events.
Climate injustice also leads to disproportionate impacts. For example, as a direct result of past redlining into environmentally damaged neighborhoods, unequal access to health care, and other similar factors, Black Americans are more likely to struggle with the underlying health conditions that make one more vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as obesity, hypertension, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
That’s why climate justice means strategizing for our future—including solutions that offer equitable outcomes to those affected disproportionately—such as the poor—who are not only impacted by the public health crisis we all face, but also will endure economic obstacles like being unable to find work, being unable to afford health care if they get sick, and being unable to afford basic necessities if they are homebound. Climate justice offers important safeguards for the most vulnerable among us.
If there’s a silver lining to the current public health crisis, it’s that it foretells the future impacts of climate change—potentially motivating us to adopt real climate solutions. Plans such as the “green stimulus” offer ways to combat climate change and inequality.
Encouragingly, due to the pandemic we have begun to see what collective action can accomplish to reduce pollution. Thanks to stay-at-home orders, broad business closures, and production slowdowns over the last couple months, nitrogen dioxide levels dropped across Europe, and China’s carbon emissions dropped by at least a quarter. Such improvements will only be temporary unless changes are made to prevent resumption of our previous pattern of environmental degradation. So how can we combat climate change?
There are many personal ways to live more sustainably. Our current experience shows us how we can survive with much less plane travel, how we can reduce industrial waste, and how much things improve when we stop bad tourist behavior such as pollution. Going forward we can curb excessive travel, not just on planes, but using other petroleum-guzzling machines. We can be better tourists, leaving nothing behind. And we can engage in other practices that reduce our carbon footprint while appealing to our elected officials to make lasting changes that conserve wildlife and foster clean energy to power our future.
Last year the American Humanist Association (AHA) launched the Humanist Environmental Response Effort (HERE) for Climate to empower humanists and others with social change tools. Many of us are concerned about climate change, and HERE for Climate helps us advocate for a cleaner environment, make the world safer from outbreaks, demand action from decision-makers on climate, and take steps toward sustainable living.
The AHA also developed the Ten Commitments to offer guidance—whether one is religious or not—in order to demonstrate compassion to neighbors and encourage participation in paths to better futures. It’s therefore imperative—not just for humanists but for everyone—to be mindful of personal decisions to help make positive environmental change.
The coronavirus is an example of how climate change is making our world more volatile, and it shows us that our world is suffering. Now, more than ever, we should recognize our mistakes, repair past damages, and actively work to heal the world together.