Covid-19 and Climate Change: Lessons to Learn, Reasons to Act

NO2 over China, satellite view

Climate change activists could learn from and utilise the current covid-19 crisis, to make this short-term environmental windfall become a lasting victory.


By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS

Unfortunately, there is no “easy” climate change solution equivalent to coughing into your elbow or washing your hands for 20 seconds. So what’s the winning strategy for climate activists now?

Introduction

As everything familiar in human society comes to a grinding halt in the face of Covid-19, there’s no better time to ask: Where do we go from here on climate change?

Some climate activists may be puzzled by this question. Certainly, it appears that significant drops in pollution levels all over the world as carbon emissions plummet from a stumbling global economy is a good thing. But, carrying out this logic to its brutal end means that we should welcome — even introduce — more coronaviruses into human civilization from wild animals living in remote regions of the world.

No one, except maybe a few modern-day social Darwinists, would want a future punctuated frequently by long periods of social distancing and lockdown directives.

To be clear: I don’t advocate for more pandemics as a solution to climate change. Nor should you.

However, there is a brighter side that can emerge from 2020’s lethal certainty and uncertainty. If we choose to put the wheels in motion now, humanity could seize this opportunity to transform civilization and make it coronavirus-proof. The intended consequence of doing so will be a significant reduction in carbon emissions leading to a permanent and lasting halt of our climate crisis.

Without taking the following three steps outlined below, our fate will be summed up in this cartoon:

Let’s face it. Climate change isn’t going away. Nor should it take a backseat to Covid-19. 

The best part is: It doesn’t have to.

Building a Coronavirus-Proof World

There are many parts to creating a coronavirus-proof world that will at the same time reduce carbon emissions and, consequently,  curb climate change. Here are the three major ones.

Universal Healthcare

A coronavirus-proof world requires massive international cooperation and global-scale public health infrastructure. Given the recent experiences of millions around the globe fighting for their lives, there is no question about this.

To prevent future catastrophes, a look at how human civilization got here is instructive. 

The world got smaller through millions of people — especially employees of multinational corporations — taking international flights regularly. Capitalist globalization took off in the stark absence of a global public health infrastructure. In a March 25, 2020 TED talk that has already received over 1.9 million views within 72 hours, Bill Gates made this point. (Recall that in 2015, Gates presented a chilling warning to the world to get prepared for a viral pandemic (i.e., viral war), to the same degree that countries prepare for a military-based war. Nothing at all has been done.) 

The drive for more money led to calculated corporate decisions that orchestrated systemic profit-driven cutbacks in medical supplies, personnel, hospital beds and ICU units at medical facilities. Poorer communities, especially in rural areas, suffered the most with hospital and clinic closures.

Likewise, pharmaceutical companies, in the quest for billion-dollar profits, focused most of their R&D on the big sellers: heart medicines, painkillers and male impotence drugs. Research in antivirals against tropical diseases and vaccines to combat them took a backseat. Since the biggest benefactors in those cases are poor people living in countries unable to pay the skyrocketing prices, drug companies had no financial reason to invent such products.

So, clearly, part of the solution to global pandemics is nationalized medicine in every country, like Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All, that will ensure healthcare, including life-saving pharmaceuticals, to rich and poor alike. 

A complementary governmental directive that guides Big Pharma’s drug development will ensure that antivirals (and other antimicrobials) aren’t neglected. Doing so will protect us from being totally unprepared like we are now.

So where do climate activists fit into the Medicare for All movement?

It may not be readily apparent, but there are a couple of connections between single payer healthcare, pandemics and climate change. 

As the climate warms and the tropics expand into temperate zones, like the United States, disease-carrying mosquitoes and bats migrate along, too. Exposure to pathogens increases among human populations who have no defenses. This is a recipe for disaster as Covid-19 is revealing.

Also, the human immune system is weakened in warmer climates. So, for example, when a coronavirus outbreak occurs, humans won’t be in the best shape to fight it off.

Further, when an economic downturn in the face of a pandemic results in job loss, employer-sponsored healthcare is eliminated. In a single payer system, this will never happen. Deaths of uninsured people denied care for Covid-19 would never occur as it does under the current system and is happening today in some countries like the United States.

Climate activists, when conversing with others on the phone or through social media, could take the time to connect the dots for people who may not see the relationships between climate change, pandemics and universal healthcare. 

Now is the perfect time since many people are beginning to see the cruel injustice caused by private health insurance and may wonder how they can help change it. Bringing more people to the cause, whether it be those concerned about the environment, or public health or their own health insurance coverage, will heighten the effectiveness of people power. Then, political change will be more likely to happen. That’s real climate action!

Renewable Energy

Another way to make the world coronavirus-proof must involve energy. Energy, after all, makes the world go ‘round, so to speak.

The scientific consensus is clear: Burning fossil fuels for energy adds millions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalents to the atmosphere every year. In turn, an increase in average global temperature results. This rise predictably leads to heat waves and mild winters. Unknown viruses, frozen for centuries, “wake up” in melting permafrost. 

Climate change also exacerbates bizarre weather patterns like the polar vortex bringing frigid air to temperate parts of the world. Extreme weather events like powerful hurricanes, extended drought and prolonged wildfire seasons are also associated with and worsened by climate change.

The solution, as climate activists like Greta Thunberg proclaim, is simple: When your house is on fire, stop burning fossil fuels.

Granted, in our current fossil fuel economy, this is impossible to do overnight.

However, over a ten-year period, it is more than feasible. This is exactly what a Green New Deal will do.

History testifies to the fact that it is possible. World War II, for example, required massive and immediate changes – both social and economic – to build up a military fleet capable of destroying Nazism. In the USA, this was made possible in large part by FDR’s New Deal in a matter of only 2-3 years.

Think of a Green New Deal as a 21st-century New Deal.

Listen to writer and activist Naomi Klein explaining why this happened and why today’s pandemic provides another opportunity for transformative change:

There’s more evidence suggesting a clean energy revolution has precedent. In fact, nationalizing energy isn’t new. U.S. history has many examples of successful initiatives to nationalize utilities and private industry in times of crisis. The only thing preventing the transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy right now is the lack of political will to confront the oil, gas and coal industries and say that short-term profits cannot and will no longer outweigh the long-term health of people and planet. 

While these industries have spent billions of dollars over decades buying politicians to support their agenda and spreading misinformation about the climate crisis, it may seem insurmountable.

This is where climate activists come in. In the time of a global pandemic which makes public protests unsafe, activists can use social media to generate support, make phone calls, and text people about how to contact their representatives and how to vote by mail-in ballot. 

Now more than ever, climate activism must become political.

Many people worried about job security, loss of retirement savings, or lack of health insurance coverage may feel powerless. It is high time to channel this frustration, disillusionment, or outright anger into political change. Climate activists have a clear mission now to accomplish these goals — especially when so many people are at home practicing self-isolation and possibly jobless.

First, climate activists must work on expanding the electorate. States and other municipalities offer mail-in voting options that are critical to the democratic process during a public health crisis when people are instructed to stay at home. Many people may not know that this option exists, or how convenient it is. Plus, it leaves a paper trail, important in times of easily hackable electronic voting machines.

Second, climate activists can shift the needle of social discontent and ever-mounting anxiety into constructive change. Expanding the social movement for climate justice by informing people how to vote from home is just the beginning.

While reaching out to people on the phone or through texting, encourage them to contact their representatives. Here are some topics to discuss:

  • Integrate Green New Deal policies into all stimulus packages. This includes, for example, offering tax breaks and interest-free loans to solar and wind companies. Training oil riggers, fracking workers and coal miners experiencing job loss for eventual work in the renewable energy sector is another way to jump-start a sustainable economy based on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
  • Require all industries receiving a Covid-19 bailout to include climate-related safeguards in their business practices going forward. For example, the airline industry must tell customers how much carbon dioxide is emitted for their trip. They could suggest alternative routes that have smaller carbon footprints. Some other ideas: Oil and gas companies must invest at least 50% of their profits into renewable energy development. They must not receive tax breaks or subsidies. Private utilities must offer 50% of their energy for purchase from renewable sources.

An economy rooted in carbon-free energy will mitigate negative consequences of climate change and may even cause the climate to stabilize. Given the predictions that unless carbon emissions are reduced by half within a decade to keep average global temperatures under 1.50C above pre-industrial levels, 2040 may usher in major climate catastrophes which will worsen after that. That’s less than 20 years away. Inundated coastal cities and mega-droughts leading to ferocious wildfires, even worse than what Australia recently experienced, will become our new reality.

It’s time to raise awareness and call people into action before it’s too late.

Regenerative Agriculture

A coronavirus-proof world must be able to feed itself sustainably. What would that look like?

First, it would not resemble today’s industrial agribusiness. 

The reason is that industrial agriculture is a major contributor to global carbon emissions. This includes the effects of deforestation in order to make way for cattle grazing, or to grow corn and soybeans to feed animals in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Scientists predict that at the current rates of forest destruction for these purposes, the Amazon rainforest will become savannah in 30 years. This will lead to more climate disruption especially in rainfall patterns around the world.

Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, is based on farming methods like no-till that do not disturb the soil. Further, its aim is to maximize the carbon sink function of soil. Since it doesn’t rely on fossil fuel inputs like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, regenerative agriculture is one way to reduce carbon emissions.

A type of regenerative agriculture known as agroforestry strives to integrate farming into more natural settings. Whenever wild nature is preserved or restored to some degree, global public health is less vulnerable to attack by viruses. Listen to Alanna Shaikh, MPH, speak on the importance of more wild places and fewer agricultural monocultures to keep viral outbreaks away from human populations:

Now in the time of Covid-19, climate activists can support regenerative agriculture by informing people about it and why it’s a necessary part of a climate change solution. Weather disruptions like drought and extreme heat will make food insecurity a matter of life and death for many, even those in Westernized countries that are on the receiving end of a long food supply chain.

During the pandemic, people may be worried about food security. Field workers, many of whom are immigrants who lack health insurance, may become ill and unable to work. Encouraging people to plant gardens using the principles of regenerative agriculture, much like the victory gardens during the world wars, may foster a sense of well-being and a feeling of control over something at a time when not much feels like it’s controllable. 

Of course, eating more fruits and vegetables will ensure better nutrition and a stronger immune system to ward off viral infection. If nothing else, growing your own food will reduce your food bill in times of economic uncertainty brought about by a global health crisis.

As climate activists engage people on the phone, through texting and on social media during this time of Covid-19, or write letters to local and online news sources, advocating for the inclusion in any stimulus package of interest-free loans to small farmers practicing regenerative agriculture, is one way to take climate action. Another way is to suggest to people that they tell their representatives to ensure that large agribusinesses don’t receive more tax breaks or subsidies. Some other suggestions to pass along: For any stimulus package, large corporations must retain and pay all employees during the economic downturn. Reserving 50% of their research budget for regenerative agriculture should be another bailout condition. 

Covid-19 Paradigm Shift for Climate Action

As people everywhere in real time are coping with the pandemic crisis, it’s becoming clear that the human behavior required to get us out of it is clearly NOT the money-focused, me-first mentality of capitalist globalization.

To the contrary, a “We’re all in this together” approach based on compassion and care for others — relatives, neighbors and strangers alike — is showing itself to be the winning strategy.

An important lesson from Covid-19 directly applicable to dealing with our climate crisis is that individual actions do matter and have a direct impact on human society as a whole.

While it’s important to reduce our individual carbon footprints all the time and lead by example, the time to ramp it up by taking political action, too, is upon us like never before.

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres alluded to these ideas recently when he commented about the climate and health crises facing humanity: “In the months ahead, we need to rebuild trust…We need to demonstrate that international cooperation is the only way to deliver meaningful results.”

It’s long overdue to allow the empathic side of our human nature shine through and guide our personal choices and societal engagements.

On a personal level, this could mean we rideshare or use public transportation. Telecommuting, which may have been considered unrealistic or unmanageable pre-Covid-19, may now be adopted by businesses trying to lower overhead costs without sacrificing group cohesion. A four-day work week seems more realizable now so we don’t drag down our immune systems by overworking and overstressing. Online learning could be embraced as a convenient way to enable more people to complete a higher degree.

Considered on a community-wide basis, the social impact of living a Green New Deal will be profoundly transformative. Creating a society built on mutual cooperation of inter-dependence instead of never-ending competition to make more money in which only the fittest survive will likely lead to greater happiness and robust health and well-being among more people. Moving away from the notion of GNP (gross national product) based on eternal economic growth toward a concept of Gross National Happiness (GNP), that is used to guide policy and the economy, may save us all from future viral outbreaks, not to mention preserving a habitable planet for future generations.

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