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COVID-19 is a Harbinger of the Climate Crisis (Part I)

The iconic Matterhorn mountain illuminated with a message from Swiss light artist Gerry Hofstetter "as a sign of hope and solidarity" during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
May 5, 2020

Eloïse O’Carroll is a London-based environmentalist and graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and McGill University. Her main interests lie in the intersection of environmental policy and sustainable development. Eloïse was a 2018 Social Connectedness Fellow; during her Fellowship she examined the Royal Opera House Thurrock Community Chorus (ROHTCC) in England, to illustrate how the arts has the capacity to foster social connectedness and assisted in research for Human Rights Watch’s report, Unmet Needs, Improper Social Care Assessments for Older People in England

In this two-part series Eloïse will examine the similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis (Part I) and put forward recommendations for a socially and ecologically just recovery (Part II). 

It’s only April and so much has already happened to our planet this year. First, the Australian bushfires that killed more than a billion animals between September and February have released so much carbon that they would rank sixth on a list of polluting nations. In February, we saw record breaking temperatures of over 20˚C in the Arctic. 

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 crisis has taken over 200,000 lives prematurely at the time of writing and will likely push as many as 195 million people around the world into unemployment. The current pandemic we are living through bears many similarities with the climate crisis. 

COVID-19 and Our Relationship with Nature

COVID-19 is a coronavirus which originated from bats and has been traced to a wet market — where live and dead animals are sold for human consumption — in Wuhan, China in late 2019. In wet markets, animals such as the nearly extinct pangolin are kept in dirty cages where they incubate diseases, which spread to humans. This zoonotic disease has unveiled our “arrogant” relationship with nature and biodiversity. Indeed, coronaviruses, biodiversity loss or global heating are all due to our exploitation of natural resources. 

Many are calling for wildlife markets to be banned to avoid pandemics. However, these markets provide livelihoods for many low-income communities throughout the world. The Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, recently said, “Unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species.” Equally, government action to rebuild economies post-pandemic will have an effect for decades to come. Each decision should be carefully considered to ensure no one is left behind.

Climate Change and COVID-19: Twin Crises?

These two crises bear striking similarities. As a McKinsey analysis highlights, they are physical shocks (unlike financial crises). They are systemic and nonlinear and are risk multipliers as well as being regressive. They affect vulnerable populations the most. And, we are not prepared for either

Health impacts are inextricably linked to climate change, and indeed, strong healthcare systems can protect us from “health security threats, including climate change”.

However, while COVID-19 is incredibly damaging, its effects are shorter and direct. Environmental threats are cumulative and seem distant (the former Bank of England Governor called this “the tragedy of the horizon”). Yet, we can build back better. Public health and climate policy are political choices. Rebuilding our economies and societies means strengthening our resilience to such shocks. This necessitates international coordination and cooperation to avoid what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” whereby private industries “spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises.” Such strategies form a “shock doctrine” in which governments “push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites and undercut everyone else.” 

This happens because in times of crisis, we naturally focus on daily emergencies and surviving. However, we must not be blind to the politics behind the crisis where life or death decisions are being made.

Deepening Inequalities

COVID-19 is intensifying inequalities, with minority populations overrepresented in infections, hospitalisations and deaths. These populations face a double burden with environmental change, as numerous studies have linked air pollution to race and income. With a recent Harvard study linking air pollution to increased severity in COVID-19 cases, inequality may explain the disproportionate coronavirus rates in non-white populations, be it in the US or the UK. For example, 32% of the population in Louisiana is black, yet that population accounts for 70% of COVID-19 deaths.

Racial inequalities are intertwined with social and economic inequality and this is also true of environmental racism, as the environmental justice movement has proved in many cases. Today, we know air pollution damages unborn babies as researchers have found soot particles in mothers’ placentas, as well as links between child asthma and air pollution. Such detrimental health effects accumulate over time, with air pollution being correlated with changes in blood, potentially leading to high blood pressure and heart disease, which could contribute to fatal or severe coronavirus cases. Around the world, “air pollution is one of the […] most dangerous health risks” headlines a new study. Additionally, communities in poverty are more prone to high levels or air pollution. Health shocks such as this one also hit the poorest the hardest and increases their vulnerability. 

Our current crisis also sheds a light on structural gender inequality. In the UK, women make up 77% of the workforce of the National Health Services (NHS) and many of them, especially black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and migrant women, earn “poverty wages.” In other words: these healthcare workers, essential to the NHS and COVID-19 response, are putting themselves at risk, but can barely afford London’s cost of living. These are some of the very migrant workers who, just weeks ago, were called “low-skilled” by the UK Home Secretary. In most cases, they would not qualify for a UK visa. 

Similarly, climate change affects women more than men. For example, 80% of people displaced by climate change around the world are women. Furthermore, the intersection of factors such as race, poverty and gender compound the devastating and disproportionate effect of health and environmental catastrophes. Our responses to COVID-19 and climate change must take this into account, as both exacerbate inequalities.

Build Back Better

Pandemics are not new and we have been warned about them for decades. The World Economic Forum, for example, has warned of infectious diseases since its first annual risk report in 2006. Likewise, even major fossil fuel companies have, since the 1950s, studied how much carbon dioxide would be added into the atmosphere because of extractive activities. We know the science around climate change and we have keys to the solutions. The president of France commented on the fact that if people can “do the unthinkable to their economies to slow a pandemic” they could do the same to stop climate change. 

Pollution levels dropped around the world and we are potentially witnessing the largest ever annual fall in carbon dioxide emissions. It is important to remember that these emission decreases may be short-lived and that emissions need to fall by 7.6% every year in the next decade to limit warming to under 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels.

However, what we can influence is how governments rebuild their countries. We are at a critical juncture. How we want to rebuild our societies and economies is a political choice. After the 2008/9 financial crash, stimulus measures increased emissions and in 2009, emissions were increasing by just under 6%. A small, temporary drop in global carbon dioxide emissions will not change much, but our plans for economic recovery will influence our countries for decades to come.

Next week, we will be publishing “COVID-19 is a Harbinger of the Climate Crisis (Part II),” where Eloïse puts forward recommendations for a socially and ecologically just recovery.