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Another catastrophe: What coronavirus can teach us about climate change before it’s too late

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Experts’ advice going unheeded. A president deliberately misleading a nation. A dangerous lack of preparation revealing an apparent inability to learn from the past. A system failing to protect the most vulnerable from a foreseen crisis.

Is this COVID-19? Perhaps. Is this climate change? Just as likely.

Given how the pandemic has progressed, the similarities between the current global disaster and the ongoing climate crisis are extremely concerning. Just as we were able to model the quick spread of a very contagious flu-like disease pre-pandemic, we have been modeling the catastrophic damage of climate change for decades. Unfortunately, in spite of America’s opportunity to avoid botching another epidemic response, we were woefully unprepared for the coronavirus. And, despite similarly foreboding predictions on the climate front, policymakers have abstained from taking action to effectively address the issue.

The U.S. government has known for a while that something like this was coming. Since 2013, the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” from the U.S. intelligence community has warned every year about the threat of a pandemic. The 2013 report seems to have even eerily predicted the current situation: “An easily transmissible, novel respiratory pathogen … is among the most disruptive events possible. Such an outbreak would result in a global pandemic … probably in fewer than six months.” Multiple simulations have drawn similar conclusions. 

Despite these warnings, our government has tended not to take action until we’re in crisis mode. When President Obama took office, he closed the White House Health and Security Office, which worked on international health issues. Granted, after the H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks, he recognized the threat of more deadly or contagious diseases and established the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense at the National Security Council in 2016. Unfortunately, in 2018, the day after Director Luciana Borio warned, “The threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern,” National Security Advisor John Bolton closed the unit. In February of this year, the Trump administration proposed a billion-dollar budget cut to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before reversing course due to the pandemic.

Similarly, the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change and its effects have been studied for decades. Almost everything we know now about climate change from a scientific standpoint has been known since 1979. Since then, in addition to gathering and presenting additional evidence for man-made climate change, scientists have continued to quantify its far-reaching impacts on society, including GDP losses, higher mortality rates and deepened social inequality.

Although our knowledge of the effects of climate change is ever increasing, politicians  still seem to not understand the grave consequences of climate change. Reagan attempted to dismantle environmental regulations to appease anti-statist voters, George H.W. Bush opted for inaction on the advice of his climate change-skeptic chief of staff, and Clinton’s efforts were stymied by a fossil fuel-funded Senate. More recently, the Trump administration has initiated the United States’ withdrawal from the historic Paris Agreement, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rolled back national fuel economy standards. Government refusal to take serious action will needlessly cost dollars and lives, much like how the U.S. could have prevented at least 60% of deaths from COVID-19 if preventative measures had been in place even just a week earlier.  

Aside from being unmitigated catastrophes, coronavirus and climate change have another thing in common: exposing the shortcomings of the status quo, especially for the most vulnerable populations. Preliminary data released by the CDC and New York City show that African Americans and Latinos are suffering disproportionately from the illness. Due to historical racial inequalities, they work in lower-income jobs that do not afford them the luxury of prioritizing health on a regular basis or having adequate access to healthcare, leading to underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 exponentially more dangerous. Additionally, these jobs tend to put their workers at higher risk of exposure. Many essential jobs are low-income and require regular contact with others. In these jobs, working from home is out of the question, as illustrated by movement data that shows that wealthier people are staying at home while lower income people are still going to work. 

This exacerbation of preexisting socioeconomic inequalities will worsen with the advent of climate change. The American South, which already has a high concentration of low-income households and a large black population, will suffer from even higher temperatures as its crop yields dwindle, air conditioning costs skyrocket and heat waves cause spikes in mortality rates. In contrast, wealthier New England may reap economic benefits from milder climate, thereby increasing regional and racial inequality, a phenomenon scholars call the “climate gap.” Global warming will hit the most vulnerable the hardest, just as coronavirus has.

With the world falling apart, our future seems bleak. However, much as this pandemic will be defeated by cooperation between government leaders, public health officials, scientists and regular people, climate change is also stoppable, and everyone has a part to play. First, we need people in office who will listen to expert advice. To help, these scientific experts need to learn how to communicate well, without losing the urgency of the message in the small details. We need better dialogue among scientists, policymakers and people across party lines, ideological beliefs and generational divides. This is the biggest challenge humanity has faced, and while it may seem invisible, it is no less real than the microscopic virus that has fundamentally changed the lives of everyone on this planet.

So, what can we do? Well, right now, we can stay at home and wash our hands. Yes, it’s an inconvenience, but we choose to make this sacrifice so that other people can live. Stopping climate change will also require sacrifice. The sacrifice of time to go vote for candidates who will introduce green legislation. The sacrifice of lowering meat consumption to lower your carbon footprint. If you can afford it, the financial sacrifice of a hybrid or zero-emissions car (which will save money in the long run). Even the (large) sacrifice of patience during Thanksgiving to bring up the subject with relatives who think differently can go a long way in spurring action to stop climate change. 

The consequences of this pandemic were anything but unforeseen. Today, there is still time to make sure climate change doesn’t catch us off guard, too. 

Contact Caroline Kim at ckim99 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Caroline is a junior majoring in Chemical Engineering and minoring in Modern Languages. Some of her hobbies include baking (vegan) banana bread, dancing and thinking about how to make scientific knowledge more accessible to society.