COVID-19 and Climate Change

I go to a school that is focused on the intersection between business and sustainability (environmental and social initiatives). At my school, we have the tradition of circle, where everyone is gently guided through sharing appreciations, puzzles, reflections, and hopes and dreams. Some of the major puzzles that we have been pondering over are as follows:

  • How do we come together after the COVID-19 quarantine?
  • How do we create job opportunities for those effected by this pandemic?
  • How do we use what we have learned during this communal pause to create a kinder and fairer world?

All of these questions are “puzzles”, which in circle, means that they don’t necessarily have a clear answer. While I can’t give you answers, here is what has been floating around within the sustainability field.

There is uncertainty on whether COVID-19 is linked to climate change.

For several decades, health researchers have been saying that climate change could result in an increased number of infectious diseases.

In 2003, the Pentagon speculated about how war, disease, and famine could reemerge to restore the limited resources on the planet; indeed this is what happened with the European invasion of North America. Similarly in 2010, the Secretary of Defense published a report stating that climate change could result in new strains of diseases.

The bacterium that causes bubonic plague, yersinia pestis, has been shown to increase its prevalence by 50% with only a 1°C increase in temperature. Cases of malaria and dengue, two diseases spread to humans through mosquitos, are also expected to increase with climate change. Cold-blooded insects, like mosquitos, prefer warmer temperatures, which could extend their breeding period and hasten their geographical expansion. 

According to the CDC, the cause of COVID-19 is still unknown, so it is impossible to know whether it is linked to climate change. However, historically, diseases have been linked to an increase in temperature and health researchers are predicting future pandemics because of climate change, so there is logic behind thinking about possible correlations between climate change and COVID-19.

Air pollution is going down, but it is not expected to be a long-term thing.

The New York Times recently published an article about how air pollution has significantly decreased since U.S. cities shut down for COVID-19. Carbon monoxide is primarily produced by vehicles, industrial sites, and thermal power. In New York City, carbon monoxide emissions have declined by more than 50%. Satellite data has shown similar declines in air pollution from vehicles over Seattle and Los Angeles.

NASA also published satellite images showing a dramatic decline in carbon monoxide emissions over Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and Northern Italy. However, as China moves past its peak of COVID-19, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been showing a resurgence of NO2 emissions. While air quality specialist, Gonzalez Ortiz says that “Less pollution is always good”, it is unlikely that this will continue.

             

COVID-19 and similar diseases throughout history have been linked to animal consumption and confinement.

As mentioned previously, the cause of COVID-19 is unknown. Nevertheless, COVID-19 is believed to have originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, China. Wet markets are where live animals are sold and slaughtered.  COVID-19 is believed to be a (non-human) animal-based influenza that jumped to humans.

The United Nations discouraged the practice of wet markets in its list of recommended actions in improving the prevention of zoonotic diseases (diseases that are passed to humans through non-human animals). Most historical examples of other pandemics also originated from non-human animals. Examples include avian influenza, tuberculosis, Ebola, Swine flu, SARS, and AIDS.

What does this have to do with climate change? In the UN’s report there is a list of main risk factors for the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases. This list of risk factors includes cultural and behavioral risks including an “increasing demand for animal protein”. This risk seems particularly relevant to climate change as recent updates to data around mitigating climate change have continued to emphasize the importance of reducing meat consumption throughout the world.

This information is somewhat unsatisfactory. We don’t yet fully understand COVID-19 and its impact after this quarantine. Yet, within these pieces of data, there are indications that what we do as a society and as individuals matters. As we pause, there is a regression of air pollution. As we pause, we consider the possibility that our cultural norms are harming our health and our planet. How will we move forward?

As we are resting at home, here is a poem by Kitty Omeara. May it simultaneously give us a sense of peace and a drive for action.

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