It is remarkable to note that currently, across the globe, our air is cleaner and our waters are clearer. The shutdown of many industrial processes and an immense reduction in transport, due to an international effort to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, have led to a dramatic drop in pollution levels. But there is actually a deeper connection between our response to COVID-19 and the climate crisis. With global and local impacts, and deep ties to our economy, the response to this pandemic presents many learning opportunities for how we should be addressing the slow-burn of environmental degradation that is unfolding all around us.
For starters, an Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team report highlights that this pandemic can be chalked up into 2 stages: mitigation and adaptation (1). Interestingly enough, the climate crisis can also be explained through the same two stages; mitigation of continued environmental degradation and emissions, and communicating the importance of adaptive measures. Recent research at Georgetown’s Climate Change Communication Centre, found that framing climate change as a public health issue was the most effect means by which to “elicit emotional reactions in support of mitigation and adaptation” efforts (2); however, despite the congruence of these issues and their impact on population health, climate change is still seen as a partisan environmental issue. In fact, a 2016 report found that only about fifty percent of Canadians believe climate change will pose a risk to their health now or within ten years from now, with major discrepancies between different electoral ridings (3).
Consequently, funding for risk communication research is important, in order to understand how people perceive risks and better frame these messages to elicit a meaningful change toward risk mitigation. In the case of COVID-19, this targets community spreaders, while the climate change parallel is heavy emitters. Further, there also needs to be a heavier emphasis on catering messages to specific demographics, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Where social distancing and self-isolation are only viable options for individuals that are able to afford taking time off (4), air conditioners during heat-waves and moving away from eroding shorelines are also luxuries unavailable to those that may need them most. In both crises, not everyone contributes equally, and not everyone is affected in the same way, and these factors are important to consider in both mitigation and adaptation efforts.
One of the biggest lessons to be learned is not to give in to economic pressure. COVID-19 has taught us that the world can get its priorities straight for the sake of saving lives. Despite relentless pressure from both small business owners and large corporations to maintain operations, our government is choosing to put science first. We’re beginning to re-evaluate industrial-capitalist tendencies, and realizing that our economy is built upon the individual health of its workers. Climate change too grapples with economic interests, because energy infrastructure is the highest emitter, and Canada is a culprit for having some of the world’s leading oil and gas production. Now that we know the government will take drastic measures to protect its people, we must push for immediate action against climate change as well.
Lastly, this pandemic has reminded us how lucky we are to be alive, and how privileged we are if we’re in good health. A recent study in Nature Medicine found that the mortality rate for symptomatic cases in Wuhan was about 1.4% (5). This figure pales in comparison to the effects of climate change - a 2019 report by the UN stated that close to ¼ of all global deaths in 2012 were related to “modifiable environmental risks” (6). Due to the accelerated rate of rising temperatures, this only highlights a small fraction of the colossal climate-change related mortality rate of years to come (6). Given that this pandemic has highlighted how large scale mobilization, and immediate policy changes are no longer “impossible” in the face of a crisis, it is time to operationalize these towards climate action.
This pandemic is a global disaster and a historic tragedy; however, it can also inform our approach to tackling the climate crisis. Above all, I hope that recent events reinforce and instill in us all, that we need to trust science, and push for meaningful change before more lives are lost.
Manvi Bhalla is CEO and co-founder of Shake Up The Establishment. She is a graduate student studying Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. Her thesis focuses on climate change risk communication and preparedness in the context of the Canadian healthcare system, and her recent, broader research interests include similar health and risk communication research in the context of COVID-19, as well.
1. Ferguson N, Laydon D, Imai N, Ainslie K, Baguelin M, & Bhatia S et al. Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand. Imperial College London, 2020, available from https://doi.org/10.25561/77482
2. Myers T, Nisbet M, Maibach E & Leiserowitz A. A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change. Climatic Change, 2012, 113(3-4), 1105-1112. doi: 10.1007/s10584-012-0513-6
3. Mildenberger M, Howe P, Lachapelle E, Stokes L, Marlon J & Gravelle T. The distribution of climate change public opinion in Canada. SSRN Electronic Journal, 2016. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2732935
4. Valentino-Devries J, Lu D, & Dance GJX. Location data says it all: Staying at home during Coronavirus is a luxury. The New York Times, 2020, available from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/03/us/coronavirus-stay-home-rich-poor.html
5. Wu J, Leung K, Bushman M, Kishore N, Niehus R & de Salazar P et al. Estimating clinical severity of COVID-19 from the transmission dynamics in Wuhan, China. Nature Medicine, 2020. doi: 10.1038/s41591-020-0822-7
6. Parncutt R. The human cost of anthropogenic global warming: Semi-quantitative prediction and the 1,000-tonne rule. Frontiers In Psychology, 2020, 10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02323