Fighting a pandemic and the climate emergency

Co-authored with Joy Reyes.

Originally published May 14, 2020 on Rappler.com

‘One has to remember that like pathogens, climate change is not hampered by borders’

Today, we are faced with a global pandemic – COVID-19. In an effort to curb the alarming number of cases related to it and the increase in deaths resulting from the same, governments all over the world have made policy decisions from social distancing to community quarantines to international border controls. Very quickly we have witnessed both governmental and private organizations come together and pool resources to prevent its spread, and individuals and corporations have been made to change their behaviors in order to be protected from the harshest effects of the pandemic.

However, another global concern looms over society: the consequences of living in a world with a rapidly changing climate. Unless individuals, industries, and government work together and change their behavior, whether social, environmental, or ecological, then we might see similar devastating effects in the next few years as extreme temperature changes take place, sea levels rise, and we witness the loss of forests and biodiversity.

Similar impacts of the climate emergency

As of writing, there have been over 4 million reported cases of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, with nearly 300,000 deaths attributed to it. A bulk of the confirmed cases are comprised of older adults, especially those with preexisting conditions, but many children are also getting sick – with both developed and developing countries, and its most vulnerable citizens, the hardest hit.

Unless we act swiftly and come together to create policies and legislation to protect the most vulnerable, we will see similar things happening with the onset of climate change. Loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods because of climate-induced disasters (longer droughts, more frequent and more intense typhoons, death of livestock, global harvest failure, among others) will certainly take place.

Thus, while we are all staying at home and keeping safe, it is important to remember that the world continues to heat up, and if we don’t act quickly to meet our climate commitments in the Paris Agreement, then we might be facing yet another devastating global concern sooner rather than later.

One has to remember that like pathogens, climate change is not hampered by borders. The COVID-19 spread to the far corners of the globe less than 4 months after it was first reported. The effects of climate change will be similar in scope. Indeed, we cannot deal with one existential crisis by ignoring another, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can address this looming issue.

Climate change and biodiversity

Climate change and biodiversity are highly intertwined. Rising temperatures, more extreme typhoons, and other similar natural phenomena are predicted to be the top threat to species loss around the world, including coral reefs and plants. This, again, is connected to human behavior. Land degradation and deforestation, human behaviors, can damage natural landscapes and wildlife habitat.

From the perspective of man, this rapid onset of biodiversity loss due to climate change will result to food concerns (unsustainable food systems, shortages of food and potable drinking water, major changes in the food chain, for instance), and, a less overt – yet highly important – effect: the potential rise in diseases and pests. Disruption of natural ecosystems makes transmission of disease easier both between and interspecies. Destruction of habitats force wildlife to come closer to human populations in order to find shelter and food sources, which can lead to disease spread. The fact is, health, the environment, and climate are so closely interconnected, such that if we change one, we have to expect that it will create effects on the other.

Climate change can also destroy habitats and contribute to the extinction of species. In this regard, it can cause pandemics.

About three quarters of all emerging infectious diseases stem from wildlife, according to UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen. Never before, according to her, have so many opportunities existed “for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people.”

The change we need

When the pandemic deescalates, therefore, things cannot go back to business as usual, lest history repeats itself. It is paramount that behaviors change. While climate change presents a more long-term threat on our health, an equally drastic shift in behavior is needed in order to curb its effects. After all, changes in behavior will lend to changes in the model.

Current climate models predict a warming surge for the next few years, such that in at least 8 of those models, produced by leading centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France, our equilibrium climate sensitivity (or that degree of warming once the planet comes into balance) has come in at 5 degrees Celsius or warmer, which is a cause not just for concern, but requires the need for urgent responses, according to Science magazine. Else, experts say, the results could be devastating. After all, as it stands, the world is heating up much faster than humans can cope.

We are having a respite now because of the economic inactivity caused by COVID-19 but there could be a resurgence of emissions when this particular virus is defeated.

Therefore, as in staying at home and flattening the curve, it is crucial that behaviors start to change now in order that projections will change. This is proof that while much of the greenhouse gases emissions are linked either directly or indirectly to human behavior, and therefore the cause of climate change, human behavior can also potentially be its solution. But again, this can happen only if governments, corporations, and individuals, commit to such a drastic change in behavior, production, and consumption.

We must reduce, even stop, using fossil fuels like coal and oil, phase out plastics and other harmful waste, do climate-smart agriculture, transform industry to be climate friendly, prevent deforestation and land deforestation and conversion, and protect the integrity of ecosystems while also respecting rights of peoples and ensuring a just transition of vulnerable sectors.

Nature-based solutions

What we need to avoid both climate change and pandemics are nature-based solutions. These are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges, including food and water security and climate change, effectively and adaptively.

Among the evidence-based guidelines for these solutions emerge four principles, which was identified in a statement by a group of experts and advocates. In “And/also”, not “Either/or” — The need to restore nature AND cut emissions” they emphasized: the cutting of emissions, conserving and protecting existing ecosystems, and calling on communities to not only be socially responsible, but ecologically responsible as well. For its proponents, the goal is not to choose between restoring nature or cutting emissions; the responsibility is to do both.

Rejecting the old normal, working for a better future

In the 4 months since it was first reported, the COVID-19 pandemic has already become a worldwide phenomenon. Its effects are jarring, swift, and lasting. It has halted economies and put industries in a standstill and individuals at a loss.

Climate change will do the same thing to us if we don’t act now. If we maintain status quo in regards our responses to climate change, what we see now is a dress rehearsal for what will potentially happen in the future.

Let us apply nature-based solutions and build a better, more just, sustainable, and happier world. 


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