We are living in uncertain times more than ever in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Every day, there seems to be an increase in the number of global new cases and deaths related to the disease. Schools and universities are mostly online and will be for the forseeable future, companies have struggled to return their workforce to the office, many nonessential businesses remained closed, social gatherings are still allowed at only a small size. At the federal level, the Fed slashed interest rates to nearly 0%, the IRS extended the deadline to pay taxes by 90 days, and travel bans continue to be instituted. We are seeing unprecedented responses to this global crisis and yet it all seems like too little, too late. Where were the needed policy measures and responses when the outbreak first happened back in December when the first cases broke out in China? Why have we allowed the crisis to grow to this point? Why have we knowingly allowed the global risk to increase and affect our most vulnerable populations? We are now seeing the consequences of the hodgepodge response of every city, state, and national government setting their own rules of varying degrees, all at different points in time. May this be a lesson of what happens when we do not appropriately respond to global crises in a scientifically-informed, concerted manner. This story sounds a lot like an even bigger crisis that is growing and will most certainly come if we continue to do nothing: climate catastrophe.
THIS GLOBAL PANDEMIC IS A WAKE-UP CALL. IT IS A FORESHADOWING OF WHAT LIFE ON OUR SHARED PLANET COULD LOOK LIKE IN 2030 AND BEYOND IF WE DO NOTHING TO LIMIT GLOBAL TEMPERATURE RISE TO 1.5 DEGREES CELSIUS.
This means that over the next decade, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% if we hope to make significant progress towards this goal to avoid climate catastrophe. Global warming is the single biggest challenge facing us, because it affects all of us in everything we do. According to the IPCC, a world of climate disaster entails increasing “intensity and frequency of extreme events, on resources, ecosystems, biodiversity, food security, cities, tourism, and carbon removal.” This is not just about the effects on natural systems and resources, but irreversible impacts on human health, food security, water supply, livelihoods, and economic growth. Our most vulnerable and already-disadvantaged communities are at highest risk, including indigenous peoples and local groups dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods. Disadvantage, poverty, and inequality will only grow with global warming approaching 1.5 degrees Celsius and beyond. Additionally, continued deforestation will increase the number of infectious diseases and global temperature rise will only further lead to more global health crises with the increase of vector-born diseases. A constant state of crisis will be the new normal.
In a world where we are all stuck at home during the pandemic, we are actually contributing less to global warming, because staying at home means reducing emissions from daily and economic activities like flying, driving cars, shopping, manufacturing, etc. All over the world, people are astonished by the impact of reduced human activity on the environment, including cleaner air and clearer water. This virus feels like the planet is asking us to stop everything—the way we live, work, spend our time and money, interact with one another—and to think long and hard about if the way we have been living is creating the future we want to live in. Because, this is what the future could very well look like with climate catastrophe, one where we cannot go outside, have reduced means to earn a living, have limited ability to interact with each other, and must confront an overburdened and ailing public health system—all where our most vulnerable populations are at highest risk. We cannot let this happen, especially when the warning signs are so clear.
People are looking forward to the day when this is all over, when the pandemic has ceased and we can return to our “normal” lives. But, do we really want to return to our lives exactly the way we were living before Covid-19? Not only do we have to think about the climate crisis that is waiting for us in the future, but in the US, already, there are 27.5 million people living without health insurance and the average student loan borrower has more than $37,000 in debt. The US economy has grown and the rich keep getting richer, but at what cost? We live in the richest country in the world that is also a country where 40 million people live in poverty, 1 in 8 Americans goes hungry, and youth suicide rates have increased 50% from 2007-2017. Something about the system we are living in fundamentally does not work.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AND THE EFFECTS WILL HIT US SOONER THAN MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE. CLIMATE CHANGE IS A TRICKY PROBLEM, BECAUSE UNLIKE COVID-19, THE EFFECTS ARE NOT AS IMMEDIATELY DEVASTATING FOR MOST OF US.
We have known about the impact of environmental destruction and degradation and production of global greenhouse gases for a long time, but the most destructive effects also feel far off into the future. Even for those of us who believe in global warming may feel like it should be tomorrow’s problem, or more like a challenge to think about in another four years. Limiting the effects of climate change requires us to think much more long-term than we do in most capacities, think: quarterly earnings reports or instant gratification via Amazon Prime two-day delivery. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions also means radically changing every aspect of society—across every sector. We need to decarbonize our global energy system to stop using and investing in fossil fuels and deploy existing renewable energy technologies and invest in/build new ones. We also need to rethink transportation, which became the number one contributor to US emissions in 2017, by electrifying the entire system and investing heavily in public transportation upgrades and expansions. We need to ensure that existing buildings and new buildings are energy efficient and incorporate renewable energy in some capacity. We also need to think about how we grow and create food to feed a growing global population sustainably. Many of these “investments” have other benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions: they provide new jobs, build community resilience, improves access to public services and offerings, and more.
Ultimately, no matter what, the planet will survive; it is us humans who may not. Some of us may not live to see the worst effects of climate catastrophe, especially the people who have contributed the most damage to our planet, but we owe it to our future generations to do better. We cannot continue living the way we have been—Covid-19 is a clear reminder of what happens when the global community does not work together to solve challenging problems that we know are coming: may we come together to build the world we want to live in.