The COVID-19 Response as a Dress Rehearsal for Dealing with Climate Change

How we ultimately respond to the coronavirus pandemic could tell us a lot about what will happen when the climate crisis hits in full force. (Photo Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Public domain)

If you think the ongoing global pandemic is bad, wait until I tell you our planet is hurtling toward an environmental disaster.

It’s been about two weeks or so since Americans across the United States have been hunkering down en masse to try to limit the spread of coronavirus, and in that time, numerous people have made the connection between confronting the wrath of COVID-19 and addressing the deleterious effects of climate change on our planet. In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times, energy writer Sammy Roth outlines what a coronavirus-like response to the climate crisis would look like.

Roth’s article is not a strict explanation of what large-scale future intervention to tackle the climate emergency would entail, but rather a compendium of responses from activists, clean energy company executives, energy advisers, legal experts, organizers, researchers, and scientists. The following are some of the common observations made between the eight authorities surveyed for the piece:

Science is important

As it turns out, studying and working within scientific frameworks tends to lead to better outcomes because people tend to understand things. (Who knew!) It can’t be emphasized enough that listening to scientists and placing value on medical/scientific consensus is of critical value to our survival.

Much as epidemiologists had been sounding the alarm about the havoc a global pandemic could wreak prior to coronavirus becoming an imminent threat across the world, the vast majority of the scientific community has been sounding the alarm on climate change, warning that drastic action needs to be taken to avert a catastrophe, assuming anything we do now will be enough.

These people know their stuff, to put it mildly. It’s time to put them front and center in helping marshal an appropriate public response to looming disaster.

Emergency responses need to address systemic flaws, not just the symptoms

There are obvious clear and present dangers concerning COVID-19 and its symptoms. Older individuals are particularly vulnerable herein, but younger adults not only can be carriers, but can be killed outright as a result of infection. We’re talking 30s, 40s, and younger with no co-morbidities. In other words, even if you’re not a senior or an infant and in good health, you could die from this disease. It’s a sobering thought.

Even for those who haven’t been directly impacted by COVID-19’s ravages, however, the ripple effect is no less substantial. With widespread closures of businesses and public gatherings effected in attempts to “flatten the curve,” the economy has plunged into a tailspin, resulting in record numbers of Americans filing for unemployment and otherwise unable to meet their obligations, esp. on the medical and homeowner/rent side of things. Fears of recession are giving way to resignation that this is an inevitability.

Our coronavirus response, lacking as it has been, has laid bare the holes in the social safety net that have been visible as cracks leading up to this current precarious state. Accordingly, any substantive approach to handling the climate crisis must involve provisions like guaranteed paid sick leave, jobs, and livable wages for workers, not to mention affordable and reliable health care for all. In addition, and with high relevance to investment in “green” solutions to public dilemmas, infrastructure-based solutions to transportation and utilities shortfalls will be essential to meeting the needs of everyday people.

Act early and in solidarity

As of this writing, the United States is number one in presumptive COVID-19 cases in the world. That’s a rather dubious achievement and owes much to evidence Donald Trump and his administration were aware of the nature of the coronavirus threat and the potential scope of the problem as early as January but failed to act in deference to this forewarning. Reports suggest, moreover, that pandemic response protocols were either in place or suggested, but that President Trump and Co. ignored the risks and did not take the exercise seriously.

As Shane Skelton, former energy adviser to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan observes, “Confronting a crisis is far more difficult and expensive when it’s already on your doorstep.” Preventive measures will thus mitigate our losses, and following our reaction to the spread of coronavirus, he proposes that we use federal stimulus money to address shortcomings in clean energy infrastructure.

Alongside proactive measures to confront the climate crisis, the reality is that we’ll also need to work together to achieve ambitious goals. This includes young and old alike making lifestyle changes to benefit the other’s welfare, demanding policy with teeth from our lawmakers and other political figures, and pressuring industry leaders to commit to carbon taxing and other forms of remediation specifically designed to limit emissions and curb our reliance on non-renewable fuel sources and products.

As these past two weeks have illustrated through approval of trillions of dollars of stimulus spending by Congress and a loan injection into short-term markets by the Federal Reserve, what is lacking for progressive solutions to economic and societal problems to succeed is not the money to do so, but the political will. To the extent we can influence corporations and officials to act in the public interest, we are responsible too.


You might have guessed that while America’s theoretical climate change response might be modeled on how we’ve engaged the current global pandemic, the topics are more intertwined than we might otherwise realize.

As Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, a national organizer for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action cited in Sammy Roth’s article explains, a warmer planet is more conducive to the spread of disease, particularly because it makes Earth more hospitable to insects like mosquitoes that are known disease transmitters. In turn, a hotter planet with reduced air quality could force more people inside akin to what people are encouraged to do now to avoid spreading coronavirus. These matters are related.

The connection between infectious disease and climate change becomes all the more apparent when examining possible origins of novel coronavirus and its rapid proliferation across states, regions, and international lines. In a piece for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh and Vasco Cotovio, while bats are potentially a source for the coronavirus as pathogen carriers that possess specialized immune systems based on their level of activity, humans’ destruction of natural habitats and people spreading out and moving from place to place faster than ever have brought our species closer together, exposing us to diseases normally only found in bats or among other animal groups. Perhaps most significantly, infected bats may be more likely to shed viruses when they are stressed. This may occur in situations such as when they are hunted, their habitat is destroyed, or they are held captive in markets.

What does all this suggest, to Paton Walsh and Cotovio? Bats are not to blame for coronavirus. Humans are. By this token, we need to reassess how we care for our planet. Deforestation, exploitation of animal species, and faster travel have made life convenient in many respects for us, but these changes come at a cost. COVID-19 may be but the tip of the iceberg regarding the ill effects of climate change. Other infectious diseases may be just around the corner and harder to fight, at that.

Amid the world’s collective response to the global pandemic, there are signs of encouragement as well as reasons for concern. Sure, our self-consciousness is high now and platitudes conveying the notion “we are all in this together” are pervasive. What happens when things return to relative normalcy, though? And what about the bad actors undeterred by apocalyptic conditions? The Trump administration has used the current emergency as a pretext for further rolling back environmental protections and for moving ahead with slashing CDC funding once more. If how America handles the climate crisis in the coming years is anything like how it’s dealing with coronavirus, we may be in for a world of trouble.

Clearly, political leadership at various levels of government will have to accept responsibility for ensuring Earth is habitable for decades to come and longer, and that includes holding countries and corporations liable for putting profit over the public welfare. We have a say in this, too, however, and not just with respect to whom we vote for, though that is significant.

As it must be stressed, few would or should wish a plague like COVID-19 on the world’s population. In rising to this challenge, on the other hand, we can observe the clear silver lining to be found: that we might be better prepared to do so the next time, when it counts even more. Some data obtained from this early quarantining points to a reduction in emissions as a direct result of behavioral changes. Let’s hope more of us make this connection and that it jump-starts a movement to foster a more equitable and sustainable world for all.

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