How does the coronavirus intersect with climate change? Part 1

Over the past few months I’ve been blogging, speaking, and writing about some of the largest issues concerning the future of higher education: demographics, inequalities, international academia.

I’ve also explored climate change, possibly the largest challenge facing colleges and universities, not to mention humanity as a whole. And, of course, I’ve tracked the recently emergent and globe-spanning coronavirus.

In this post I’d like to scale up and connect some macro concepts. Specifically, how does the COVID-19 outbreak intersect with climate change?

It’s daunting to address this intersection. Each is large and deep, fraught with technical and social complexity. Both are also sources of dread, based on real damage to humanity. Connecting them ramps up these challenges, but I think it’s useful and actually necessary.

There is no single way to grasp the intersection. There are several ways of understanding it already in the world, starting with a causal link. Climate change can drive the spread of diseases into new domains by rearranging parts of the ecosystem. For example, rising temperatures change animals’ migratory habits, then yield secondary effects. Aaron Bernstein observes that “animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”

Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people.

Another example can be found in the gentler winters in America’s north country. These might relieve drivers and snow-shovelers, but they also tend to kill fewer ticks, which increases the spread of Lyme disease. On top of that, warming weather could also weaken the human body’s thermal and immune defenses.

There doesn’t seem to be a direct arrow between climate change and COVID-19. WHO is pretty clear on it: “There is no evidence of a direct connection between climate change and the emergence or transmission of COVID-19 disease.” Yet we can imagine similar disease incursions to come. We can think of the current pandemic as a dry run for more to come.

A related climate-coronavirus connection concerns the reverse, how climate change impacts our response to the virus. WHO advises us that: “climate change… undermines environmental determinants of health, and places additional stress on health systems.” A good number of humans are weaker, or poorer, or more marginalized thanks to climate change, which makes them more vulnerable to COVID. This in turn stresses both medical and public health systems, which makes it harder to them to accomplish their functions. In short, the climate crisis makes the coronavirus worse.

Another way of thinking about this vast pairing of viral and planetary crises is that one might show humanity how to weather the other. It’s clear that scientific authorities are crucial for leading us away from the pandemic’s worst. To the extent we recognize this (as Bill Gates calls on us to do), we may be better prepared to understand and respond to climate change.

Further, some commentators (for example) observe that certain coronavirus responses entail economic slowdowns which reduce carbon emissions. Factories produced fewer widgets, cars drove less, planes flew less, etc. According to one study. spring 2020 economic shut-downs and physical confinements cut back emissions

by –17% (–11 to –25% for ±1σ) by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by –26% on average.

This gave us a practice run on what it means to deliberately turn down our carbon output. That could then help us adjust to a post-carbon lifestyle. In fact, it’s possible we’ll connect the COVID slowdown with consumerism and become more accepting of anticonsumerism. One futurist thinks “It might just turn the world around for the better.”

“The virus will slow down everything,” [Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort] notes. “We will see an arrest in the making of consumer goods. That is terrible and wonderful because we need to stop producing at such a pace. We need to change our behavior to save the environment. It’s almost as if the virus is an amazing grace for the planet.”

Edelkoort takes this further, drawing on localism, transition towns, and what sounds like small is beautiful:

Covid-19 could open new avenues for innovation, akin to how the bubonic plague ushered in an era of labor reforms and improvements in medicine in the Middle Ages. Being confined to our own towns or cities could foster a revival of cottage industries and an appreciation for locally made goods, she says. “There are so many possibilities,” Edelkoort says. “I’m strangely looking forward to it.”

The inequality of COVID’s pain — felt disproportionally by the poor, by people of color — and the growing consciousness of this injustice could inspire us to act against similar inequalities wrought by climate change.

It’s not clear to me that many people view spring 2020 in this light. Many instead view it with horror based on damage cause by virus and recession. Moreover, recent estimates suggest the carbon draw-down was less than expected. The IEA estimates a decline of only 8%. Forster et al found that the spring cutback actually sparked a short term heating. “As a result, we estimate that the direct effect of the pandemic-driven response will be negligible…”

In fact, the pandemic might have the opposite pedagogical or heuristic impact. David Wallace-Wells argues that COVID is “a white-noise machine, drowning out what would be, in any other year, the unmistakable signal of a climate emergency.” This makes intuitive sense, given how much the pandemic occupied (and occupies) our attention. How might it function?

First, it’s a question of relative speeds. The virus blitzed society, experienced by many as a sudden black swan, while climate change proceeds incrementally, very slowly. “The sudden arrival of the pandemic, and its likely medium-term disappearance, makes a powerful emotional case for rapid and dramatic response, one that the slower-boil, permanent threat of climate change doesn’t.”

Second, there’s normalization. We may be getting used to climate disasters as they become less novel. We may also be accepting, generally, climate change activism as part of contemporary politics. Baselines shift and each generation grows used to a different world without much comparison. In contrast, the pandemic is novel, shocking, “unprecedented” (to use that overused, often incorrect word).

In a different way, COVID could actually set climate activism back. Andreas Malm argues that left movements have been wrong footed, taking issue with Edelkoort’s vision:

Nevertheless, we have to be honest about the situation we find ourselves in. COVID-19 has brought about the sudden obliteration of the climate justice movement in terms of everything that had been built up by the end of 2019. Since early 2020, COVID-19 has completely paralyzed all the most promising developments in the environmental movement — Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Ende Gelände, and so on — this is a situation of grave disaster. Prior to this, there had been a growing momentum toward aggressively disrupting business as usual…

In short, according to this view COVID masks or neutralizes in the short term our long term ways of growing accustomed to living in a climate emergency.

There’s another way of linking corona and climate, one where the pandemic might be a planetary dress rehearsal for civilization’s confrontation with an epochal struggle. We’ll explore that in the next post.

(cartoon found on Kaiser site; thanks to Tom Haymes for cartoons and conversation; cross-posted to my blog)

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.