Climate change continues as a global crisis amid COVID-19—and it’s the greater threat

According to analysts at NASA, 2019 recorded Earth’s second-highest average global surface temperature since 1880, when modern record-keeping began. 2019’s record continues the planet’s warming trend, and marks the fifth consecutive warmest year of the last 140. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Shivani Majmudar
Medill Reports

COVID-19 swept the world, with little regard for anyone who stood in its path. Within weeks, the virus killed thousands, isolated people in their homes and sent economies plummeting.

Not only did COVID-19 overwhelm the United States health care system during the first surge, but our political leaders failed to mobilize alongside health experts to combat the virus together.

Consequently, the pandemic rages on. Today, almost nine months after the first reported coronavirus case in the U.S., more than 220,000 people have died.

“We are the richest country in the world. We have all this knowledge and capability, but it didn’t matter because we did not have trust,” said Joellen Russell, a professor of biogeochemical dynamics at the University of Arizona.

Without serious reform, environmental scientists at the 2020 Comer Climate Conference fear we are risking the same mistakes again with the far greater global threat of climate change.

FV3 Model
The Finite Volume Cubed-Sphere dynamical core (FV3) model is the newest global weather prediction model, designed to be more comprehensive of Earth’s systems. Previous weather models only accounted for the atmosphere, but the FV3 also covers oceans, ecosystems and vegetation. (Shivani Majmudar/MEDILL)

Climate change impacts have accelerated in recent years, triggering more frequent and severe hurricanes, wildfires and heat waves. Conference attendees shared the concern that the heightened mistrust between scientists and many political leaders adds yet another barrier to effective legislative action and renders our communities increasingly vulnerable to the rapidly changing environment.

“Climate change is the pandemic without a vaccine,” said Raymond Pierrehumbert, a professor of physics at the University of Oxford. While biological innovation, including an expected vaccine, will bring COVID-19 under control, scientific knowledge alone cannot slow climate change. We have to act together and we have to act now, he added.

Failure to take collective action quickly may have been the biggest U.S. mistake in limiting the spread of the pandemic. The Trump Administration did not consider the virus as a serious threat until two months after the first COVID-19 case was reported. President Donald Trump left individual states to create their own stay-at-home protocols, which was why some reopened too early. He continues to undermine the recommended health guidelines of wearing face masks and social distancing. As a result, COVID-19 cases continue to surge at over 50,000 new infections a day, with deaths hovering near 1,000 people per day.

But this was not the case everywhere. For example, New Zealand championed rigorous prevention during the first outbreak and effectively curbed the spread of the virus.

“Science won,” said Russell, describing how New Zealand beat COVID-19. “People worked together. It requires a combination of willingness, leadership and science.”

Russell and other conference scientists urged that this balance be emulated around the world, starting with the U.S., to stem climate change. They presented their latest findings on melting glaciers linked to sea level rise and shifting wind and rain patterns, which can mean severe drought and crop failures. Delaying action can be disastrous, as seen with the pandemic, and the consequences of climate change are predicted to be even worse.

With global warming tied to fossil fuel emissions, conference scientists pointed to melting snow caps in the Himalayas depleting freshwater resources that over 1.9 billion people across Asia rely on. The warming climate is creating more dangerous outdoor working conditions in heat millions of workers can’t afford to avoid. Humans meddling with the ecosystem also drives the spread of pathogens and creates new vectors for the transmission of viruses from animals to people, such as COVID-19. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme and International Livestock Research Institute suggests that continued disruption of wildlife and the environment will make large disease outbreaks like COVID-19 more common. Closer to home, California and large swatches of the country are facing drought while the Midwest floods due to extreme rainfall.

As the world manages its reaction to this global crisis and prepares for the larger one at hand, scientists at the Comer Climate Conference identified two important lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to help mitigate the imminent effects of climate change.

First, they called for added urgency to recognize the impact of carbon emissions and offer real-time updates to hold countries accountable for their energy policies that release greenhouse gases. Russell said without this transparency to encourage reform, climate change seems like a “big, endless problem instead of an immediate fight for our grandchildren’s future.”

Second, identify practical solutions. Many people oppose environmental reform out of fear that the economy will collapse even further, heightening the pressures of the pandemic. But veteran geoscientist Richard Alley argues that the shift to clean energy can actually stimulate the economy when viewed as an opportunity for political and technological innovation. Alley, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, was one of the founding mentors of the Comer Family Foundation’s support for climate research and fellowships. He sees energy innovation as a win-win for economic growth, human health, national security and the environment.

“We need to make energy something that is flexible and interactive so that people can use it in the way that is best for them,” Alley said. He suggested turning the electric grid into something like the internet, a platform on which people can buy, sell, and trade shares of resources. This way more people could access the financial and environmental benefits of clean energy without having to worry about investing in the individual resources for their properties.

Alley proposed a hypothetical example of a dairy farmer, struggling to stay afloat due to high costs of operation. Rather than paying for and installing a few solar panels for his roof, the farmer instead could invest in community solar, a power plant whose electricity is shared by multiple properties. The community grid sells solar electric power to homeowners who now no longer need to invest in their own solar panels. It’s cost-effective, and gives the farmer a greater chance at survival because now he has two crops—milk and energy—instead of just one.

In other words, instead of funding policies and lobbies to decide who gets to control our resources, we should be financing ways to make more efficient use of our resources, Alley said.

Solutions like this require a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and economists. At the core of these efforts, however, lies the country’s leadership. Now, more than ever before, we need an administration who will provide a science-backed, coordinated response to climate change while prioritizing the well-being of its citizens.

In an old democracy like that of the United States, we have a mechanism to rectify the perceived lack of responsibility taken by elected officials, reminded Russell. Votes do matter.

Now is the time to trust our institutions and build a society that is committed to our future environment, health and quality of life—that’s the message Russel, Alley and many others conveyed.

Now is the time for individual action to promote collective reform. And it can start as early as November 3.

Shivani Majmudar is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @spmajmudarr.