Thursday, June 24, 2021

Crossroads, Covid-19, and climate change

THE coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) has become a defining period in our lifetime. It is alarming how something unseen by the naked eye can almost bring our world to a standstill. Just imagine if a threat of this magnitude becomes not a once-in-a-generation event, but a regular occurrence.

Yes, this is a possibility due to another microscopic agent: greenhouse gases, of which there are too much in our atmosphere and oceans and cause climate change.

No, there is no current proof of a direct link between man-made climate change and Covid-19. Yet that does not mean that parallels on impacts and responses cannot be drawn between these two threats to global security and sustainability.

Similar impacts

Firstly, the impacts of both Covid-19 and climate change can be life threatening to everyone. No matter your wealth, race, religion, or location, anyone can be affected by either threat if we would not exercise caution and prevention. Secondly, some sectors are more vulnerable to both threats. As Pope Francis stated in his encyclical Laudato Si', "the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest."

For instance, the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon has forced many businesses to close down for a month. While some have the capacity to work from home and provide for their families, low-income jobs do not have this flexibility and guarantees for financial security. Some of them also live in crowded homes and neighborhoods, where social distancing is nearly impossible. All of these conditions leave them more prone to Covid-19.

Now, replace "Covid-19" with a climate change impact such as "longer droughts" or "severe air pollution," or even "another viral disease" and similar scenarios would play out, if not already a reality in many parts of the world.

Additionally, climate change impacts can worsen the effects of diseases. Higher temperatures cause the depletion of resources and destruction of ecosystems. A lack of stable supply of food and water or cleaner surroundings would result in even higher vulnerabilities for human communities and our biodiversity.

While the current pandemic may not be linked to climate change, future incidences might be. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that "climate change will further expand the geographic range" of diseases such as malaria and dengue. At higher degrees of warming, the world will experience greater negative health impacts from zoonotic diseases, which includes Covid-19.

Time and time again, we get hit by these hazards and, for many of them, our public and private institutions are not ready to effectively deal with them.

So why does the world rapidly respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, yet has not decisively addressed the climate emergency even after 25 years of negotiations? Because people respond more to something that is directly and immediately more life-endangering, especially the rich. This is a perception that needs to change.

Different response

There are many lessons that we must learn from how we address the Covid-19 pandemic that would help us deal with the climate emergency.

First is the importance of individual cooperation to prevent the hazard from becoming worse. Per Rodne Galicha of Living Laudato Si Philippines, "while we must exercise caution, let us not let fear and panic overtake our judgment during this time. Instead, let ourselves become living embodiments of mindfulness, generosity, and compassion for others."

Second is how our public and private institutions respond to curbing Covid-19. We need national and local leaders who have the vision and will to implement an urgent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to deliver aid and services to improve their well-being of their constituencies. Corporations must provide support to their workers to allow them to justly transition through any crisis.

Again, these principles can be applied to addressing climate change. However, unlike the Covid-19 pandemic, preventing climate change from becoming completely irreversible would not take months or a few years to accomplish, but rather decades. This crisis is something that cannot be solved by imposing self-quarantines or merely preparing for the worst. Every year that we delay decisive mitigation and adaptation is costly for our planet.

The most important take-away from the Covid-19 pandemic that can be applied to the climate crisis is this: we need our governments and businesses to invest in stable, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable systems and communities that allow for economic and social development without compromising environmental health.

Instead of funding or profiting from environmentally-destructive practices from coal-fired power plants to illegal wildlife trades, why not invest in universal health care, environmental education, clean water, small-scale organic farming, renewable energy development, and other indicators of sustainability? Why not prevent instead of merely reacting?

We have reached a crossroads for addressing global crises. If we are already struggling to address a pandemic, how would we fare in dealing with a likely more unpredictable and catastrophic climate?


John Leo is the program manager of Living Laudato Si Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (Kasali). He has also been a citizen journalist and feature writer since 2016. He earned his MS Atmospheric Science degree from the Ateneo de Manila University in 2018.


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