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COVID-19 strategy shows us how (not) to tackle climate change

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Across the globe, today’s leaders in all industries are occupied with one thing: combatting coronavirus. As of May 11, COVID-19 has spread to over 90% of the world, killing hundreds of thousands over the past few months. This is a jarring fact, considering that a pandemic of this scale would have been thought to be largely preventable by those living in the developed world mere months ago. Even when news came of COVID-19’s rapid spread throughout Asia and Europe, American attitudes — and government action — remained focused on the idea that minimal mitigation efforts were needed because the virus had not yet run its course in the United States. Once it became apparent that COVID-19 would not spare the U.S., local and state governments across the nation rushed to make up for lost time, enacting harsh lockdown measures in an attempt to “flatten the curve” and minimize deaths. Many U.S. residents now face an indefinite lockdown and highly restrictive shelter-in-place orders. Many more have lost money, employment or even loved ones due to the virus and its repercussions across the country. 

However, while the novel coronavirus is undeniably the most visible problem at hand, it is not the only emergency we face in 2020. For decades, public health officials have warned of an even greater, equally pressing issue: climate change. Climate change is largely the result of using fossil fuels as a source of energy. These fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas, present massive threats to public health from rising carbon (CO2) emissions. Fossil fuels are responsible for huge amounts of deadly pollutant particles emitted each year, yet relatively little has been done to mitigate their disruptive impacts on human health and the environment. Though humanity will eventually overcome the coronavirus pandemic, the outcome of global warming and climate change, if left to chance, is less certain. 

Transitioning to a cleaner, more sustainable energy system may seem like a daunting task, but the problem of fossil fuels has a fairly simple solution. Instead of relying on fossil fuels, we must use renewable energy sources such as wind, water and solar energy. These sources account for no CO2 emissions after the production stage, and they are available everywhere and in abundance. However, this transition will not come without pushback. As was the case with COVID-19, policymakers and the public alike will most certainly question the efficacy and necessity of any drastic change to life as we know it. An article published earlier in The Daily by Caroline Kim outlines that policy directed at climate change in the U.S. has been lacking thus far; the best interests of big businesses reliant on fossil fuels have often come before the best interest of the public at large, even if it meant both would suffer in the long run. 

Also alarming is the fact that the negative effects of air pollution disproportionately impact minority communities such as persons of color, low-income communities and LGBT+ communities, all of which are more likely to live in areas with high pollution. People of color inhale over 50% more pollutant particles than their white counterparts in the U.S., largely due to the fact that minorities are more likely to live in areas closer to large sources of pollution, such as factories or dense urban areas. However, members of minority groups generally have less disposable income, meaning that they are less likely to participate in activities that have large carbon impacts, such as driving a car, flying or purchasing items that create heavy emissions in their production. 

This means that minorities bear the brunt of the negative impacts of pollution, despite having contributed less to the problem. Though COVID-19 is too new to truly measure the disruption it will cause to these communities, evidence shows that minorities are disproportionately impacted by the virus in a similar manner. As Kim notes in her article, these communities are more likely to live in densely populated areas in close contact to others, and have comparatively less access to healthcare, meaning that they are likely to suffer most from the effects of pollution and pandemics alike. By minimizing emissions that cause global warming and pollution, we can reduce needless deaths and minimize disproportionate impacts to minority communities. 

In terms of saving human lives, shifting energy production is even more necessary than combatting coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone causes 7 million premature deaths worldwide each year — over 140 times the number of U.S. residents who have died of coronavirus to date. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 100,000 deaths can be attributed to pollutant particles annually. Each year, we are losing twice as many Americans due to pollution as we have lost to coronavirus to date.

Transitioning to a cleaner form of energy also offers another benefit — minimizing the risk of future outbreaks like COVID-19. Viruses like the one that causes COVID-19 spread from person-to-person through droplets expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. In polluted areas, these droplets can rest on pollutant particles in the air, meaning that the virus could potentially be caught by someone who comes in contact with these particles even if they maintain the recommended 6-foot distance from others.

Additionally, high levels of pollution are known to weaken the immune system, making those who contract any illness more likely to need hospitalization. This is especially concerning in the case of a respiratory illness such as COVID-19. Though we do not yet know exactly how many cases of the virus can be attributed to pollution, research suggests that polluted cities such as New York and Los Angeles may be experiencing a high concentration of COVID-19 cases partly due to pollution. This also appears to hold true in other countries such as Italy, in which more polluted northern provinces have had a noticeably higher mortality rate than southern provinces have. By working to eliminate climate change, we can also help prevent future pandemics like COVID-19.

Over the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that the best option we have to protect the American public from the long-term effects of climate change is to use policy to help shape public action. After the novel coronavirus first appeared in the U.S., it quickly became clear that small actions, such as hand washing and keeping the sick at home, would not be effective on their own. However, these smaller actions on an individual level can be very effective when paired with larger policy measures, such as city-wide lockdowns and restrictions on all but essential businesses. On March 17, seven Bay Area counties were ordered to shelter in place except for essential activities such as grocery shopping and caring for loved ones. Though these measures were drastic, they also appear to be effective. After Bay Area shelter-in-place restrictions were first enacted in March, traffic became nearly nonexistent in the seven impacted counties, showing that people were staying at home without much protest. 

As of today, the average number of cases in these seven counties appears to have peaked, and is now back to levels seen in early March — the curve is flattening as a result of action against COVID-19 at the state, local and individual level. This benefit of combining individual action with public policy also holds true in the case of global warming prevention. Though small individual actions, such as recycling and using less water, are meaningful in our fight to save the environment, they do not change broader outcomes on their own. However, when combined with policies that reduce emissions — such as limiting the percentage of electricity that can be sourced from fossil fuels and mandating that the majority of energy be produced using wind, water and solar sources — the effects of climate change can be mitigated. Similar to our actions against COVID-19, we can work to “flatten the curve” of carbon emissions and help save lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on massive health and economic challenges to the United States. Yet, it offers hopeful insight into how we might approach upcoming large-scale problems, including future pandemics and climate change. In the U.S., the public has proven to be incredibly responsive to necessary but unpleasant policies related to containing COVID-19, including social distancing measures, mandatory quarantine periods and shelter-in-place restrictions. Similar results have been observed across the country and globally as the world entered an indefinite lockdown in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. 

This cooperation is encouraging from an environmental perspective — in a matter of months, factory shutdowns and stay-at-home orders have rapidly reduced pollution across the globe by as much as 80% in some cities. This is an unintended consequence of public health measures, but it demonstrates that the effects of fossil fuel emissions are far from irreversible. Though the answer to mitigating the effects of global warming is obviously not to shelter-in-place indefinitely, the public’s willingness to follow uncomfortable policies when given reason demonstrates that, when it counts, we can rely on one another to recognize and prioritize the needs of our communities as a whole. 

As we begin to reopen our economy and transition to some semblance of life before the virus, it is important to remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only challenge we will face in the months to come. If nothing else, the pandemic has demonstrated that preventative action is far more effective than reparative measures in saving human lives. Though the effects of climate change are less visible than the effects of the virus on our health, economy and overall well-being, they are no less pressing. COVID-19 has proven that, when united with a common cause, our actions can have huge impacts for the betterment of society. The time to take action against climate change is now — not when we cannot wait any longer. 

Contact Stephanie Gady at sgady ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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