While, in a matter of months, COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it, climate change has been transforming our world for decades. One can’t help but draw parallels between the two threats.
Here are some of the sad similarities between COVID-19 and climate change:
Warning: We were warned about both crises. The climate warning was issued most dramatically in “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s 2006 documentary that showed the effects of global warming and the correlation between greenhouse-gas emissions and the heating of our planet. Yet the United States is poised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and our government continues to subsidize the fossil-fuel industry.
Response: The world is responding to the virus because its effects are so shocking. Curing the climate is more difficult. The damage from a slowly warming atmosphere is sometimes tough to recognize. To prevent further warming, it is imperative that we get to net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible. We must transition away from fossil fuels and move to an economy based on 100 percent clean renewable energy.
This transition will require bold action such as the Green New Deal. At the bare minimum, we must fully restore the Environmental Protection Agency and reinstate regulations that the current administration has rolled back. And if action is slow at the global and federal levels, we must persuade local officials to do what they can to slow the damage and prepare us for what lies ahead.
To protect ourselves, infrastructure adaptation is key, whether to address sea-level rise, storm intensity or rising temperatures. Unfortunately, as some places become uninhabitable, people will have to be relocated, an expensive and traumatic undertaking.
We must eliminate carbon emissions. A 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for us to limit the increase in global temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We are already 1o warmer and the rise accelerating.
It is as if we are speeding toward a brick wall that is also moving toward us. Not only do we need to brake, but we need to go in reverse.
Private sector: Business is responding dramatically to COVID-19. It has a lot at stake. We need a similar response to our climate challenges. Government, alone, does not have the capacity for the research and development of clean renewable energy and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some businesses are beginning to recognize the threat and the opportunities it also presents.
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Economic impact: The damage from the virus is clear when you check your investment accounts. But the cost of climate change can be calculated, too. We are paying a bill for property damage from storms, flooding and fire. Even loss of business goes into the equation.
But how do you calculate value of the secondary impacts such as physical and emotional well-being? How much is food and water scarcity, and the spread of mosquito-borne and water-borne disease, costing society?
Low-income families. They are the least able to protect themselves from the virus and they are disproportionately at risk from the impacts of climate change. They are more likely to have jobs that require them to work outdoors, putting them at greater risk for heat illness, which increases each year with rising temperatures.
They are less likely to have the resources and capacity to prepare for and recover from extreme climate events. Although their homes may be less resilient in the face of a natural disaster, they may fear evacuation because of the expense.
The careless: We have seen the pictures of people who refuse to maintain a safe distance during this COVID crisis. The world is filled with people who refuse to reckon with climate change. In most cases, they either do not understand the situation, do not believe the science, or simply are frozen by the gravity of what we face.
Threat to human existence: COVID-19 hints at how vulnerable we are. But the climate crisis if a far bigger danger. Our children and our grandchildren will need to face it. Each day that goes by we spew more damaging gases into the atmosphere, warming our planet. We must act now by modifying our behavior and by electing officials who will pass legislation and implement policies to help us “go into carbon reverse.”
There is hope: As more and more people become aware of climate change, they are calling for action. If we Americans are willing to elect the right leaders, make lifestyle changes, and possibly even learn a new trade, we will lead the global charge to address this threat. Ironically, COVID-19 has pushed us in this direction. Globally we’ve reduced emissions by reducing our travel and manufacturing. Going forward, let’s eliminate emissions because we choose to, not because a pandemic has caused us to.
Susan Steinhauser is co-chair of the Climate Reality Project, Boca Raton Chapter, political chair of the Broward Sierra Club and a volunteer with the Coral Restoration Foundation.
“The Invading Sea” is part of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.