On November 17th, 2019, the first case of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was confirmed. 8,000 cases later, on January 30th, it was declared a global emergency by the WHO. By mid-March it had spread worldwide with 300,000 cases and counting.
The sheer volume of sick patients has overwhelmed the health systems of Italy and Iran, and stands to do so in Canada in the coming weeks. The end results will be tragic, but they will provide key lessons, as COVID-19 serves as a case study in what is required to respond to another crisis: the climate emergency.
Although it has taken a backseat to COVID-19, rest assured the climate emergency continues to march forward. Current estimates predict increased extreme weather events, global food shortages, and 200 million climate refugees by 2050. The WHO even predicts a net increase of 250,000 deaths per year by 2030 as a result of climate change.
The biggest dangers may be unforeseen, as feedback loops can accelerate the destruction in unpredictable ways. All told, the climate emergency is much more dangerous than COVID-19. This isn’t to say that we’ve overreacted to the current crisis, but rather that we are taking appropriate measures and we should already be doing the same, and more, to fight climate change.
Of those hit hardest, the countries that have succeeded most in containing their outbreaks have been South Korea and Japan which have used strict case isolation and collective adherence to health authority recommendations to overcome early exposure and concentrated populations.
Canada has taken some key steps to “flatten the curve.” The willingness of the government to make economic sacrifices by banning dining-in and certain travel has been encouraging. Everyday citizens, even those at lowest risk of being harmed by COVID-19, have also taken measures to prevent spread by social distancing and cancelling vacations.
While many people still think the government is overreacting, unlike our response to climate change, the cautious side is winning out. Be it the NHL suspending its season, the pausing of student loan repayment, or eviction bans being put into place, our society is responding to this crisis at every level. This is a proof of concept that when push comes to shove, we care more about the lives of our most vulnerable than profit, or even certain personal freedoms.
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It stands to reason that if we are willing to make these sacrifices for the lives of others, we should be responding even more drastically to the spectre of climate change. Why aren’t we?
For one, the most severe impacts of climate change are well into our future, far beyond the short electoral terms of our governments, and in many cases beyond the lives of the wealthiest citizens in our country. Moreover, the longer time span gives way to the belief that there is still time to invent climate-saving technology.
But as we’ve seen with COVID-19, putting in measures sooner saves exponentially more lives. When it comes to natural disasters, procrastination and waiting for inventors to save us is a losing strategy.
Another reason is that the deaths that can be linked to climate change are less direct. When someone passes away from malnourishment due to drought-caused food shortages, it takes some detective work to see the link to climate change.
Not so with COVID-19, where cause is self-evident in the respiratory failures it causes. Furthermore, climate change still disproportionately affects the world’s poorest citizens, and it does not provide a pressing danger to those living cushy lives in the West. COVID-19 isn’t quite as indiscriminate as some claim it to be; it is more likely to harm the elderly, people with heart conditions, or those unable to self-isolate because they’re reliant on shelters or live in prisons. It also presents greater financial difficulty for those who have lost jobs and/or live paycheck to paycheck. However, it still presents enough of a serious danger to many wealthy citizens in countries such as the U.S. and Canada, leading to more political will to respond appropriately.
A third reason our response to climate change hasn’t been adequate is that corporations still feel they can get away with profiting off of the environment. While COVID-19 has caused airlines to inch closer to bankruptcy, they have reason to hope for a bailout and a return to normal within the year.
A proper response to climate change would not involve bailouts to fossil fuel companies and airlines and these corporations are well aware of this. Similar to how a number of wealthy U.S. senators recently used government information on COVID-19 to sell stocks while publicly denying the seriousness of the pandemic, for years energy companies have known the effects of climate change and publicly denied their veracity.
While we wait for a vaccine for COVID-19, there is no chance at immunity against climate change. All the more reason to get serious about limiting non-essential travel, consumption and our growth-centered economic system far beyond the current pandemic.
COVID-19 is a tragedy, and the worst might be still to come. As a resident physician who has spent the majority of the last few months in emergency departments, I am scared. What scares me most, however, is that we will wake up on the other side and continue with business as usual until the bigger disaster hits.
But where there is fear, there is also hope. Hope that we realize that in emergencies, we are only as strong as our most vulnerable, so we build a stronger safety net. Hope that quarantine shifts our priorities as we realize that what’s missing from our lives isn’t destination vacations, but holding our loved ones. Hope that when the climate emergency comes, we’ll have each other’s backs like we do now, which is to say we will have each other’s backs from here on out, because climate change is here and it’s not going anywhere.