How Does the COVID-19 Pandemic Relate to Climate Change?

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The Pandemic Locked Us Up So We Burned Less Fossil Fuels – The Air Was Cleaner

In the spring of 2020 people all over the world stayed home. Planes stopped flying and cars stopped driving and air pollution dropped and you could see for miles. At the time there were news stories about wildlife invading empty cityscapes. The thought was that maybe there was a silver lining in this pandemic. Maybe what was bad for us was good for nature.

The air pollution thing. That does relate to climate change. It’s because reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is often associated with reducing air pollution. It’s something that the scientists call a co-benefit. When we burn something — and that something is all too often oil or gas or coal — as well as the release of energy, we get a release of carbon dioxide. It’s carbon dioxide that’s the main greenhouse gas that is causing our world to warm. But whatever we burn, it usually burns incompletely, or has things in it that don’t burn at all, and the result is that along with the carbon dioxide we get smoke. Tiny little particles of who knows what (it depends on what’s burning, and how) that represent air pollution as we see it hanging in a smoggy bank over downtown or billowing up out of smokestacks. By reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to fight climate change we will be also fighting air pollution and all of the health problems from breathing that stuff.

One of the health consequences of poor air quality is that those who are forced to breathe it are statistically more likely to suffer more severe consequences if they contract COVID-19.

Another interaction between COVID-19 and climate change has shown up in that pandemic lockdown restrictions have made disaster relief harder to deliver at the same time that climate change is bringing on more wildfires, storms and floods.

The Air Was Cleaner – But It Didn’t Amount To Much

All those cancelled flights and online meetings did indeed bring down carbon dioxide emissions. The dip was dramatic. But people’s hopes that this might somehow help solve climate change were misplaced. Headlines proclaimed a 17% drop in CO2 emissions worldwide. But we’ve been adding carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to the sky for so long, and at an increasing pace, that 2020’s 17% drop looks more like 0.25% off the total. That’s like tipping a quarter on a $100 meal. Not much to be proud of.

Also not so great is the influence the pandemic is having on public transit. Even though many more people are avoiding commuting and business travel, opting instead for Zoom, FaceTime, Teams and the like, many former bus and subway riders have jumped into cars.

Clean Spending Opportunities

But that doesn’t necessarily mean COVID-19 will be all bad for climate change. Major stimulus packages have been deployed with governments spending unheard-of amounts of money. The International Energy Agency among others has been strongly advising and advocating that those stimulus dollars come with climate strings attached.

We’ve all been amazed at the commitment to action that had never been possible in the face of climate threat, unleashed by the novel coronavirus threat. There’s no guarantee that dramatic climate action will follow the pandemic example but if governments are in the mood to spend to recover from COVID-19, they might as well make sure that spending is designed to address climate change.

A study out of Oxford University identifies areas where stimulus money could have biggest bang for the buck. Hundreds of experts ranked dozens of approaches. The findings suggest that some spending — for instance governments through banks ensuring households, startups and small business have access to cash  — can be done quickly and will have lasting effects. But things like clean energy infrastructure and clean R&D spending will have more impact, even though they can’t be rolled out as quickly. Making cash available to individuals and small business should also have a good domino effect on follow-on climate gains.

However, some warn that if that spending doesn’t happen during the pandemic recovery blitz it may never happen. Governments who have been crying poor for years will really and truly be poorer.

But Did Climate Change Cause COVID-19?

The pandemic’s health consequences are a little more immediate than rising or falling air pollution. Acute pneumonia kills faster than waiting for disaster relief does.

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Is there a direct connection between the emergence of this new disease and climate change? Could climate change somehow be implicated in causing the pandemic?

In a way yes, sort of.

In a way no, not exactly.

Diseases like Lyme disease and malaria are carried by ticks and mosquitoes. It’s well established that rising temperatures have allowed these carriers to move into territories where they previously couldn’t survive and consequently making those and other diseases more common and widespread among humans.

But the virus SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19* isn’t transmitted by mosquitoes or some other insect. We get it directly from another human. Does the analogy with insect borne disease work?

Illnesses like COVID-19 are called zoonotic diseases. The zoo part of the word means “animal” because the SARS-CoV-2 virus is believed to have originated in animals — in this case, specifically in bats. The influence of climate change comes into play not in how COVID-19 is transmitted between humans, but in how it jumped to humans in the first place.

The current pandemic emerged into the human population in late 2019; hence the name COVID-19. But the ultimate authority on climate change warned of increased risks of diseases like this as far back as 2001. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also known as the IPCC made note of the risk in their Third Assessment Report that year.

In that report, Working Group II, who considered impacts, adaptation and vulnerability in a changing climate, wrote the following in their Chapter 9 titled Human Health under section 9.7 Infectious Diseases

The “zoonotic” infectious diseases cycle naturally in animal populations. Transmission to humans occurs when humans encroach on the cycle or when there is environmental disruption, including ecological and meteorological factors.

A button imploring visitors to make a charitable donation - all donations used to promote the book "Because IPCC" to new readers. The button has a background image of a boy reading a graphic novel (actually a Superman comic book).

What this means is, climate change causes people and animals to move around more. In doing so they become more likely to interact and the likelihood of passing an illness back and forth increases. A virus like SARS-CoV-2 was likely circulating in bats for decades without ever being passed to humans. But as climate change brings on unusual temperatures and extreme weather animal species like those bats can be forced out of their historic ranges. Their food sources might diminish or floods or fire wipe out their natural ranges. It’s equally possible that humans move into the animal’s territory in greater numbers than previously. This could be because of any of the zillion reasons that people move around, but lots of those reasons are driven by climate change.

Health authorities agree that new strains of disease are appearing at an increasing rate and that one of the reasons for this is the changing climate.

But to blame COVID-19 specifically on climate change is going too far. Consider a parallel. Early on scientists were very cautious about attributing a particular storm or flood to climate change. The most they would say was that climate change increased the likelihood of such an event. Or they might say that with climate change we should expect more events like that.

As climate science evolved though, a new discipline emerged called “attribution science.” The various factors that went into a storm or flood had become increasingly known and quantified. This let statisticians calculate that climate change had made a certain heat wave 40% more likely, for example, because of climate change; or a specific deluge of rain five times more likely.

As the balance of probabilities shift from having climate change being one of many factors contributing to an event, to being the principal contributing factor, we are seeing more and more specialists willing to point to climate change as the cause of something.

But for the virus SARS-CoV-2 to have jumped from bats to humans, we’ll never know if that particular bat or colony of bats was forced to relocate due to some environmental factor. We’re unlikely to find out which person was “patient zero” much less trace back the reason they were exposed as being one influenced by climate change.

The best we can do is to say that something like this was made more likely by climate change.

The reason the IPCC was able to see this coming — however hazily back in 2001 — was because the IPCC draws on the expertise of scientists everywhere and has an incredible process for agreeing on the facts, both among scientists and with pretty much every government in the world.

For more info on the IPCC — in a digestible form — check out the book Because IPCC.

It’s a short, 33 illustrated pages, an upbeat, entertaining story that explains the history and science of the IPCC. The scene is 100 years in the future when the world has “solved” climate change and people are looking back, inspired by the dedication, rigor and achievements of the scientists of today.

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*COVID-19 is the name of the illness, the virus is called SARS-CoV-2