The Climate Crisis is the Next COVID Crisis

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Monisha Mukherjee

The state of our world’s climate is in freefall. According to the piece “6 Ways the Climate Changed Over the Past Decade” published with the World Resource Institute,  carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have grown 10% while ice has reached record lows in the past decade. The global average temperature and sea level continue to rise and  detrimental natural events like hurricanes and snowstorms  have become more and more frequent. In September 2020, unprecedented forest fires on the west coast left apocalyptic orange skies across several states for days. In February 2021, Texas experienced a freak blizzard that caused massive power outages and  killed at least 57 people, according to the Texas Tribune. In August, Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana and caused massive flooding throughout the northeast coast. As these freak natural events have become more and more extreme, especially over this last year, I realized that the way the world has handled the climate crisis was eerily similar to how we had been handling another crisis, the pandemic. COVID-19 and the climate crisis are extremely similar, possessing the same characteristics: rampant misinformation, denial of science, blaming rather than impactful action, and the delusion that these disasters could never really reach us. Climate change is becoming the next pandemic, and we are making all the same mistakes.

Although the pandemic and the climate are two entirely different problems they strike the same nerves in society. For years scientists and experts have been warning of the dangers of global warming, fossil fuels, and the damage we are inflicting on the environment, yet many people still regard climate change as an opinion rather than a fact, and so politicians and world leaders don’t feel much pressure to do anything concrete. According to the New York Times on Dec 31st, 2019, there had already been over a dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan. By the end of January, the World Health Organization had declared the virus a global health emergency. By the end of February, several countries outside China – namely Italy and Iran – were facing major infection and death rates. Yet it took till the end of March for the US to recommend that gatherings stay below fifty people. Five days after that came the announcement that the US was already the highest in the world for the number of cases of COVID-19. Earlier in the crisis before America was hit hard, most public figures downplayed the virus, painting it as a disease that couldn’t exist in well-developed countries, giving the people a false sense of safety. This habit of convincing those that aren’t immediately affected by a problem that the problem doesn’t exist extends to the handling of the climate crisis. It’s easy for the war on science  to target climate change as an overreaction by scientists because it currently does affect some people much more than others. Freak weather events make more and more people wake up and take notice; but the everyday effects of climate change are not equal across the world, with most of the damage being concentrated in developing areas. The New York Times published a piece on how certain neighborhoods in Richmond, those that were in the past redlined, are now some of the hottest neighborhoods in the summertime due to a lack of trees, and heat-trapping pavement. The majority of households in these neighborhoods are low-income, predominantly black, and field the most heat-related emergency calls. As the summers get hotter and hotter, these neighborhoods bear the brunt of the worsening climate while it may not be as noticeable in the higher-income areas. This trend of lower-income neighborhoods being disproportionately affected by the changing climate – especially concerning heat – continues across the nation, and climate change discrimination continues worldwide.

The disproportionate effect is extremely reminiscent of the way COVID-19 severely affected lower-income people, African American people, and the immunocompromised. Just like how many people during the height of COVID made it clear they didn’t care about these at-risk populations, the world’s leaders are making it clear that they don’t care for these same populations suffering from the day-to-day effects of the declining climate.

Many people often cite that blaming certain countries and leaders for climate change isn’t fair, specifically countries like America and many European countries. The rationale is that they  are not the ones that should be blamed for the worsening climate because they have instituted climate reform, unlike countries like China and India. However, it’s not a sound argument because of a phenomenon known as climate outsourcing. On a global scale, it might seem like countries such as America and the UK are climate-friendly and CO2 efficient, but these figures are extremely skewed as the majority of companies and products that are responsible for massive CO2 emissions such as Nike and Coca-Cola are from America or wealthier countries in Europe. They get around pollution restrictions by outsourcing their factories to countries where the laws around pollution are looser. In an article in VOX on the outsourcing of pollution from rich to poor countries, they explain how the Global Carbon Project shows how wealthier countries emit a lot more CO2 on a worldwide basis rather than within their borders. This created a problem when the Paris Climate Accord was in play as it held countries responsible for the emissions within their borders, however, those emissions weren’t purely domestic. These reforms and attempts to control climate change by treating it on a country-by-country basis are extremely faulty as it is a worldwide problem. Similarly, when COVID was sweeping through certain areas of Asia and some countries in Europe, unaffected countries didn’t treat the virus as much of a threat, as it hadn’t reached them yet. They continued to hold off on major lockdowns or even the most basic institution of safety measures which is what allowed the virus to stretch across the world. By doing nothing they added flames to the fire, and they left their citizens at great risk. Just as the fuel for COVID was the unprotected people, the fuel for the climate crisis will be the emissions and pollutants countries pretend aren’t their problem. If COVID has shown the world anything, it is that fighting these crises on a country-by-country basis is a setup for failure.

Looking at all these similarities between the handling of the COVID crisis and the current handling of the climate crisis makes it seem like history is bound to repeat itself. However, I prefer to think of something that Mark Twain said at the turn of the century. Amidst the rise of sentiments that would lead to World War Two, and the great depression, Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” 

The phrase rings true as no incident will be a carbon copy of that which came before, but rather a remix, and the most important difference between the climate crisis and COVID crisis is that with that climate crisis we still have time. In September of 2020 an art piece called the Climate Clock was installed in Times Square of New York City, counting down the years, days, and minutes till the damage done to the climate is irreversible. Earlier this year a display was added beneath it counting the amount of renewable energy now available, showcasing how even though the situation is bad there is still a way to turn things around if we prioritize the climate.The good news is that climate change and the dire straits we are in are slowly getting more attention. A few months ago, Richmond’s city council declared the city a climate emergency and created a resolution to create an office of sustainability. All of these small victories prove that we can yet keep from repeating our mistakes with the covid crisis if we engage with the coming fight rather than denying its existence.