COVID-19, the Climate Crisis: Lessons To Be Learned

  • 04/17/2020
  • Paul Rosenberg

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

What does the climate crisis have to do with the COVID-19 pandemic? Not a lot… and absolutely everything. It doesn’t have a lot to do with the climate crisis in the sense of direct causality.

“As with nearly everything we talk about in our Global Weirding episodes, the question is not ‘Did climate change cause something? [but] did climate change make it worse?” explained climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe on her Global Weirding podcast.

But that’s just one way of correcting our focus. There are also common factors driving both, and getting in the way of a quick, life-saving response, as well as common lessons to be learned.

Once we set aside the simple-minded all-or-nothing, “What caused it?” there’s a great deal to be learned — including how we can respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that can help us make dramatic progress in dealing with the climate crisis — rather than stall us or even take us backward.

One big-picture lesson is clear, environmental scientist and author Dana Nuccitelli told Random Lengths News.

“With both coronavirus and climate change, conservative politicians and pundits in the U.S. denied the problem early on rather than heading it off,” he said. “By waiting until outbreaks of impacts were upon us to react, much of the response has instead been in the form of damage control.”

This is far more costly and less helpful than prevention. But there’s one significant difference.

“The coronavirus pandemic has unfolded on a much more compressed timeframe, we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and apply them to climate change by accelerating the deployment of solutions before the crisis grows too dire,” Nuccitelli said.

Nuccitelli and Hayhoe are two of seven co-authors of a 2015 paper, Learning from Mistakes in Climate Research, a replication study of ‘contrarian’ research that “reveals a number of methodological flaws, and a pattern of common mistakes … that is not visible when looking at single isolated cases.”

That study’s examination of systematically flawed thinking and how to make sense of it epitomizes the challenge facing us today. A third co-author, Stephan Lewandowsky, provided some additional thoughts, as did Julia May, a senior scientist with Communities for Better Environment, and RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a grassroots super-PAC, who sees things much the same as Nuccitelli.

“What I think, and hope, we will learn from the coronavirus is basic respect for science,” Miller said. “The early warnings from public health experts were scorned by Trump, for economic reasons, much as the climate scientists’ warnings have been scorned. And now, the public is paying the price. So, we are learning, painfully and slowly, that science must be respected.”

Surveying a range of recent publications, four themes stood out:

  1. Climate change drives both the spread and the evolution of potential pandemic diseases, along with other threats to human health and well-being.

“The virus is a terrifying harbinger of future pandemics that will be brought about if climate change continues to so deeply destabilize the natural world: scrambling ecosystems, collapsing habitats, rewiring wildlife and rewriting the rules that have governed all life on this planet for all of human history,” wrote David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, in New York Magazine.

“Yes, clearly — no question,” Lewandowsky agreed, as did Hayhoe in her podcast.

While it’s too early to say anything specific about this pandemic, she said, global warming generally will affect infectious disease spread by vectors.

“Insects or animals that carry the disease,” Hayhoe said. “As it gets [warmer], their geographic range can expand,”

In some cases, such as Dengue fever, they simply shift. Thus, whatever specific connection global warming may or may not turn out to have, COVID-19 is a five-alarm wake-up call to one devastating kind of effect that global warming may contribute to increasingly in the years ahead — one that was rarely focused on in the past.

May noted the role of habitat destruction, which generally goes hand-in-hand with global warming.

“People think China is the only place where pandemics start, but the intensive farming methods in the U.S. are not immune,” she said, pointing to a PBS article about an outbreak in a turkey flock in South Carolina, discovered on April 6. “It has killed 1,583 turkeys and the remainder of the 32,577 birds in the flock were euthanized,”

There’s no evidence of human transmission, but the potential is obvious.

  1. Both are problems of runaway growth against a limited capacity to cope. Our ways of thinking contribute to that lack of capacity.

This perspective was summed up by Vijay Kolinjivadi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp, writing for Al Jazeera English.

The modern industrial process, driven by market logic.

“[It] depletes the natural ability of the environment to balance itself and disrupts ecological cycles (for example deforestation leads to lower CO2 absorption by forests), while at the same time, it adds a large amount of waste (for example CO2 from burned fossil fuels),” he wrote. “This, in turn, is leading to changes in the climate of our planet. … This same process is also responsible for COVID-19 and other outbreaks. The need for more natural resources has forced humans to encroach on various natural habitats and expose themselves to yet unknown pathogens.”

The failure to internalize environmental costs in the market allows these sorts of “logical” developments to far overshoot the capacity of the natural world that they ignore … until that world starts to collapse.

At first, Lewandowsky wasn’t so sure.

“COVID has nothing to do with runaway growth: we could have had the same thing happening in a fossil-fuel free economy,” Lewandowsky said.

Indeed, pandemics have been with us for thousands of years. But they do have a way of undermining far-flung civilizations, as pointed out by cultural anthropologist Peter Turchin. Turchin studies cyclic dynamics in human history. In a recent blog post referencing a prescient 2008 article, he discussed previous waves of “globalization.”

“The early ones are better called ‘continentalizations’ as they primarily affected Afro-Eurasia, rather than the whole world,” he noted. “There is a very strong (although not perfect) statistical association between these globalizations, general crises and pandemics, from the Bronze Age to the Late Medieval Crisis.”

What’s more, the article’s introduction notes  that the first true globalization — the 16th Century “Age of Discovery,” in Eurocentric accounts was followed by the Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, which was also truly global in nature, with populations declines from Spain to China, while the Native American population may have declined to perhaps 10 percent of the pre-Columbian level.

Still, Lewandowsky’s point is obviously true: simply decarbonizing our economy would not prevent a pandemic.

“Globalization also increases our capability to respond to pandemics,” he noted. “Think of all the science going on now all around the world with seamless exchange of data.”

Countries like New Zealand and South Korea seem to have COVID-19 under control.

“Just because we are bad at it doesn’t mean globalization is all bad,” he said.

But there’s something else I was driving at. Both processes involve exponential growth that humans are poorly prepared to deal with conceptually: viral spread in the case of COVID-19 and tipping points and systemic interactions in the case of global warming. Put like that, Lewandowsky readily agreed.

“Indeed, humans are awful at understanding exponential processes and this is what’s hitting us hard now with COVID,” he said. “In climate change, things are a little different because it’s not (just) exponential growth we have to worry about but also people’s inability to understand stock-and-flow problems — i.e., the fact that CO2 accumulates so cutting a little bit will not make any difference.”

  1. The coronavirus holds lessons about how to respond to the climate crisis. (This includes lessons about our blind-spots, about the need for swift action and social solidarity, etc.)

“Indeed it does,” Lewandowky said “Putting aside causes, COVID-19 is climate change on steroids in time lapse photography. And, the usual operators are doing the usual thing e.g. deny the risk or calling it a hoax and altogether failing to prepare for it when there is time to do so.”

Miller saw two cited “two related themes” flowing from the lessons of COVID-19.

“The first is the obvious — willingness to take the warnings more seriously,” Miller said. “The second will be in the economic recovery.  During the last major recession, conservatives hammered the ‘jobs or the environment’ line, and people failed to prioritize climate, and the tea party happened and you know the rest of that sad story.

“But that recession was, of course, completely unrelated to science in its cause,” she noted. “Here, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that failure to listen to experts caused the mess; and failure to listen to experts regarding the cures (social distancing, fake cures, Donald Trump hyping hydroxychloroquine) is making things worse…. So when experts tell us that climate is serious, but there’s one valid “cure” — renewable energy — we need to listen to them.”

  1. We can respond to the coronavirus pandemic in ways that help us make dramatic progress in dealing with the climate crisis.

Lewandowsky agreed again.

“COVID is a global ‘ctrl-alt-delete’ that gives us the opportunity to re-invent the world, for better or worse,” Lewandowsky said.

In fact, he has a related study under way right now. Ecological economist Simon Mair has described four possible post-COVID futures: “a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid.”

Lewandowsky’s study aims at finding out which outcome people prefer, which they think most likely and which they think most other people prefer — both in their own country and around the world.

“[This design] would allow us to detect potential pluralistic ignorance – that is, a state in which people who hold the majority opinion feel they are in the minority,” a description of the study explains. “This can happen if loud voices in society are overshadowing the quieter majority.”

There are also some immediate impacts to consider.

“While a lot of the air pollution cuts and refinery production decreases associated with COVID-19 are temporary, they give people a vision of what it looks like to have clear skies,” May said.  “A taste of clean air can help build the thirst for clean energy, although the transition to clean requires investment – hard to do in a health and economic crisis.

“I also think there are a lot of hopeful signs of people adjusting. Our organizers are working hard to make sure elders have food, to give people information about eviction proceedings, and many people all over are starting to garden (if they have access to space). We are all in for it big time economically, but the only way out is for people to help each other.”

Nothing is certain, except for one thing: The future is not predetermined. We have it in our power to alter the course of history. One worldwide catastrophe can help us to avoid another — if we are wise enough, compassionate enough and bold enough to take the right kind of action.

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