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.

America Should—But Probably Won’t—Take Responsibility for Promoting Violence in Central America

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No one is here to defend MS-13, but the United States government’s approach to combating gang violence and illegal immigration from Central America, as well as its refusal to take ownership of its role in perpetuating poverty and unrest in the so-called Northern Triangle, may be counterproductive to its aims in these regards. (Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation)

When you are Donald Trump or one of his surrogates and regularly divorce cause and effect—or are simply divorced from reality—you are free to distort details and expel falsehoods to support your narrative. Though it has been repeatedly observed, it’s worth stressing that Trump started his presidential campaign spewing inaccuracies about Mexican people as criminals and rapists, without revealing any master plan to fix this “broken” immigration system. It was outrageous. It was reprehensible. What’s more, it worked.

Since then, Trump and Co. haven’t exactly gotten more accurate or presidential over time. While concern for the separation of immigrant families, how and where they’re being detained, and how and when—if at all—those already separated will be re-united have dominated headlines, the Trump administration hasn’t softened its rhetoric any. Outside of relenting on the issue of separating children from their mothers, President Trump has authorized the creation of a “denaturalization” task force, one that seeks to remove naturalized citizens on clerical or other “technicalities” and which has evoked comparisons to the Red Scare.

Critics of the White House’s immigration policy have taken to referring to it in rather dark terms, labeling it “ethnic cleansing.” They’re not wrong, either. Amid the elaboration of a white nationalist agenda which has seen senior advisor Stephen Miller and Department of Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen emerge as figureheads of the ongoing crisis and, at that, perpetrators, Trump has engaged in more than his fair share of scaremongering in public speeches, at rallies, and on Twitter.

A particular source of animus—and deservedly so in light of their actions, let’s be clear—is Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13. The international gang, associated with various acts of criminality and violence, has served as a go-to bogeyman for Trump in his attacks on Democrats. As Trump would have it, a vote for the Dems in November is a vote to “let MS-13 run wild in our communities.” ICE, meanwhile, is “liberating” communities every day from the organization whose motto reportedly is “kill, rape, control.”

Indeed, MS-13 and other gangs that recruit from Central America and Mexico are a real concern, but Trump is using the specter of past incidents involving its members and existing fears and urban legends about gang violence to try to drum up support for his “zero tolerance” immigration policy and enhanced border security measures. Even belaboring the use of the word “animals” to describe MS-13 has a dog-whistle underlying meaning, as Trump’s indiscriminate employ of this pejorative has been interpreted as a general dehumanization of immigrants and people of color. If Trump hadn’t kicked off his presidential bid denigrating an entire country and its people, we might have a chance of giving him the benefit of the doubt. By now, though, many of us know better, and that Trump knew exactly what he was saying when he used the word “animals” with all its vagaries.

It’s bad enough that Donald Trump and his flunkies embrace an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to undocumented immigrants as a subset of the larger conversation about who is or isn’t considered a “true” American. You know, largely because of that whole “being a decent human being” thing that Trump seems not to be able to understand. What makes this stance yet more problematic is the notion it fails to recognize—unconsciously or willingly—the United States’ complicity in the conditions which have led to a refugee/asylee crisis in Central America, notably in its “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras).

Cole Kazdin, writing for VICE Media, outlines how the U.S. has had a hand in destabilizing Central American nations long before the era of Trump. Citing Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona, heavily throughout the piece, Kazdin depicts a pattern of American intervention on behalf of its own interests—and usually at the expense of competing interests within those countries.

In Guatemala, back in the 1950s, under the guise of fighting communism, the United States helped organize a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected government and continued to train the Guatemalan army into the 1970s, a civil war that Oglesby characterizes in no uncertain terms as “genocide.” In 1970s Nicaragua, the U.S. government directly inserted itself in the clash between the democratic nationalist Sandinistas and the dictatorship helmed by the Somoza family, later supporting the Contras, a material relationship that infamously saw the Reagan administration fund these contrarrevolucionarios through the covert sale of arms to Iran. In El Salvador and Honduras, meanwhile, the U.S. intervened on behalf of the Salvadoran government in an effort to squelch the socialist group FMLN and held military exercises in Honduras.

As Kazdin notes, this is before we even get to the “war on drugs,” an ongoing situation set in motion as part of Richard Nixon’s political agenda that pushed cartels out of Colombia and into the impoverished, unstable Northern Triangle. Going back to MS-13, while its activities are relevant to the war on drugs and their criminality is certainly not to be lauded, Kazdin, via Oglesby, stresses that while the group has strong Salvadoran roots, its origins are traced back to Los Angeles, not Central America.

Furthermore, dwelling on MS-13 overlooks the larger issue of government-linked crime networks that come directly out of the counterinsurgency experience of the 1980s,” according to Oglesby. The American government may not be directly encouraging the rise of gang numbers, but by indirectly paving the way for their growth, its influence looms large. As it is in the Middle East and elsewhere, regime change can produce some unfortunate unintended consequences.

With all this in mind, and getting to the issue of migration and asylum-seeking, despite its hand in catalyzing unsafe, untenable situations in Central America, the United States has made it a habit of refusing asylum to applicants from south of its border, particularly those coming from El Salvador. Now with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement that domestic violence and gang violence are no longer grounds for asylum, there is every concern that people will continue to try crossing the desert and relying on criminal networks to help smuggle them north, which presents a new set of dangers. Trump and Co. are keeping with the historical trend, but in a way that is seemingly even more overt in terms of racism and xenophobia, and holding to the idea that these additional perilous hoops through which to jump will prove an effective deterrent to illegal immigration, and a disincentive to would-be gangbangers near and south of the border.

Here’s the thing, though: these methods may not be having their intended effect, or may be even serving to exacerbate the situations they profess to fix. On the migration front, Elizabeth Oglesby indicates that militarizing the border serves only to increase migration. Not only has the price of smuggling people north soared commensurate with the uptick in danger, but since it is that much more difficult to return, more families are migrating together to try to keep the unit together.

Another point worth considering: what people are trying to escape in Central America might be as bad or worse than what they face trying to immigrate illegally into the United States. Andres Oppenheimer, writing for The Miami Herald, agrees, and believes the problem will keep getting worse as long as parents have to fear for their lives and those of their children.

Oppenheimer cites Roger Noriega, who served in the State Department under George W. Bush, and who points to gang violence and organized crime—fed to a large extent by a demand for illegal drugs in the States—as destructive forces to economies and state institutions, not to mention individuals who run afoul of bad actors. For too many families in Central America and Mexico, there is a real risk of their children being forced into the employ of gangs and/or having to pay these gangs off for “protection.” Moreover, governments and officials are too often corrupt, powerless to diminish the influence of gangs, or both. Such is not a recipe for substantive positive change.

Trying to put a bandage on the illegal immigration situation in the form of fences/walls and more Border Patrol agents, as Oppenheimer and others would argue, therefore does a poor job of stopping the bleeding when the underlying health of these source countries for asylum-seekers is suspect. In terms of possible solutions, therefore, it would seem prudent, if not necessary, to invest in these countries in a humanitarian capacity and to help fund and mobilize efforts to help combat corruption and crime. Instead, Congress has reduced assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras by almost $85 million since 2017, which almost certainly won’t help willing governments combat the influence of criminal organizations. In other words, isolationism isn’t the answer.

As for MS-13, treating its influence with a “firm hand” may limit its effectiveness and bring up a new set of ethical and moral issues about the procedures used to combat gang violence. In El Salvador, the U.S. government has thrown millions of dollars at curbing the influence of Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs, and the brutality and corruption associated with the Salvadoran government’s approach may be proving counterproductive. A detailed special report for CNN by Nick Paton Walsh, Barbara Arvanitidis, and Bryan Avelar on the link between U.S.-funded police and illegal executions in El Salvador provides a sense of perspective on this note:

While the US program is aimed at improving the effectiveness and legality of El Salvador’s fight against gangs, narcotraffickers and human smugglers, the “Firm Hand” strategy being deployed now by the country’s government — against a gang culture so widespread it amounts to an insurgency of sorts — runs counter to lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to some analysts. In those US-led conflicts, corrupt security forces and brutality exacerbated the ferocity of the insurgency.

Analysts have noted that brutal police tactics have previously backfired, as the gang members killed are sometimes looked upon more favorably in their neighborhoods, or less guilty than intelligence suggests, causing anger in the community and prompting some residents to turn away from the police and towards the gangs.

Not for nothing, but Afghanistan and Iraq are not the kind of examples you want to lead with as analogs of success in dealing with hostile groups. Even when dealing with a potential criminal element in an environment as conducive to drug-related violence as El Salvador, abuses by authorities are liable to produce a backlash, despite the public’s desire for their leaders to be tough on crime. Simply put, a balance has to be struck, and extrajudicial killings tip the scales the wrong way.

At the end of the day, and at a fundamental level, the questions that should be asked by the Trump administration are as follows: 1) “What are we trying to accomplish regarding immigration and violence as it impacts the United States, Mexico, and Central America?” 2) “Are we accomplishing what we have set out to accomplish?” and 3) “If so, are the solutions worth the costs?” Thus far, however, there is little to suggest the relevant problems have even been adequately defined, let alone sufficiently addressed, and with all the finger-pointing that President Trump has done, you can be sure he hasn’t considered America’s role in perpetuating worrisome trends.


Returning to Cole Kazdin’s column for a moment, while Elizabeth Oglesby’s damning analysis of U.S. relations with Central America features prominently in her analysis, the words of civil rights advocates and other experts carry as much weight—if not more—and succinctly state the case for America’s direct engagement with Mexico and the countries of the Northern Triangle in a more diplomatic and even-handed way.

Per Xochitl Sanchez, TPS (Temporary Protected Status) coordinator for CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, the United States has “a moral and social responsibility to this population of immigrants as they are complicit in the creation of the conditions of forced migration” of these countries, notably El Salvador. Charles Kamasaki, senior cabinet advisor for UNIDOS US, also cited within Kazdin’s piece, likewise believes in acting in accord with a moral imperative steeped in equanimity and reciprocity. As Kamasaki puts forth, “For those who felt strongly that we should intervene in Central America, whether it was to fight communism, or to maintain good conditions for business so American consumers could enjoy cheap bananas or Nicaraguan coffee, I would argue that responsibility’s a two-way street. If we enjoy benefits, then that brings with it some obligations.”

Alas, “diplomacy” in the era of President Donald Trump evidently involves starting trade wars and other confrontations with our presumed allies, railing against the likes of Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel while praising dictatorial leaders like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un. If we can’t get along with Canada, a row with whom comedian Seth Meyers likened to “holding a grudge against a golden retriever puppy,” there’s obviously little room for a spirit of cooperation with countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, nations replete with brown-skinned individuals who speak Spanish and, therefore, must be demonized as part of Trump’s demagoguery.

For Christ’s sake, the man picked a fight with Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was hit by a devastating hurricane. These storm victims are American citizens. Just because they are people of color and can’t vote in congressional and presidential elections doesn’t mean they should be an after-thought, especially not when noting the mainland’s role in loading the territory with crippling debt. Instead, Trump being Trump, he lashes out on Twitter and calls people names—especially when they are women and/or people of color and dare to challenge him. I mean, if one were to visit the Oval Office and find a dartboard with a picture of Maxine Waters’s face on it, would he or she be really surprised? Dude’s got an ax to grind.

While harboring guilt about the treatment of Central America’s Northern Triangle to the extent it stunts our ability to act and move forward would be its own issue, that the United States’ historical culpability continues to go largely unspoken makes the prospects of fixing problems which affect North America too (such as gang violence and mass migration) rather grim. America should take more responsibility for promoting violence in Central America. But it probably won’t, and until it does, it would seem the wounds that mark many Central American institutions will continue to stay open.

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