The Coronavirus and Climate Change: How We’re Making the Same Mistakes

Source: @statisticallycartoon Instagram

We Americans are now experiencing the tragic consequences of our slow, uncoordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic. While this experience will surely help us respond better to future health crises, it’s important we apply the hard lessons learned to even greater disasters. In particular, there are many parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate change crisis. We need to recognize that we’re making the same mistakes with climate change and correct them before it’s too late. Below are some of these key blunders.

Scientific experts warned us for months about COVID-19, just as they have warned us for decades about climate change. The rapid spread and deadly impact of the disease in other countries, especially in Italy, should have given us plenty of advance warning that we were headed down a similar path. In the case of climate change, we have witnessed countless warnings. As the result of a 1°C temperature rise to date, we have seen unprecedented wildfires in California and Australia, record heat waves and drought across the globe, more powerful storms, and more frequent major floods, to list but a few. In fact, while no direct connection has been made between COVID-19 and climate change, the changing climate is accelerating the incidence of other deadly diseases, such as the West Nile virus. Within the next 50 years, climate change could subject a billion more people to serious vector-borne diseases. It’s critical that we recognize the enormous impacts climate change is already having and heed the warnings of climate scientists who have painted a clear picture of what the future holds if we don’t act aggressively.

The median incubation period of the coronavirus is estimated at 5 days. Thus, there is a delay between the time a person becomes infected and when they register a temperature. Once a person at high risk has the disease, it can be several more days before a patient must be hospitalized and more time still before it takes a person’s life, so the deaths greatly lag the initial infection. State governors who have waited until their death toll rises to enact stay-at-home orders will discover that they have acted too late. Similarly, there is a long delay between burning fossil fuels and the rise of the global temperature, and a further delay until the worst disasters strike. While it takes longer to feel the impacts of climate change, the severity of those impacts and the potential loss of human life will be much worse than what we are experiencing with this pandemic. We need to understand that what we do — or don’t do — today has deadly consequences in the years ahead.

With both the coronavirus and climate change, our sluggish response is largely the result of human denial. Both the Chinese and U.S. governments downplayed the threat of the virus. In the case of climate change, the oil and gas industry has a strong financial motive to discount the impact of fossil fuel emissions, and it has long funded an extensive campaign to make light of the effects of climate change. An article by the Desmog blog, which tracks organizations propagating climate change disinformation, gives examples of how these same organizations downplayed the effects of the virus. It’s important for the press to expose these disinformation efforts and help the public distinguish between reliable information sources and those intended to generate doubt and delay action.

In the absence of federal action, the governors of states such as Washington and California have had to play leadership roles in limiting the spread of the virus and expanding hospital capability to care for the victims. But relying on individual states has resulted in a competitive, patchwork approach that has proven to be a costly, inefficient means to address a national crisis. Many state governors and healthcare experts have voiced the need for a federal response to ensure that nationwide prevention measures are taken and to target the needed supplies to areas where and when they are hardest hit. Similarly, in the case of climate change, the federal government has largely ceded its responsibility to the states. While some federal actions like clean energy tax incentives and efficiency standards have had an important impact, it has been left up to the states to enact critical programs like renewable portfolio standards for electricity generation and net metering policies for rooftop solar.

The patchwork of U.S. state-by-state renewable portfolio standards. (Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

Moreover, with both crises, the federal government has actually been moving in exactly the opposite direction from what is needed. In 2018 the current administration weakened the White House pandemic response capability, leaving us less prepared to face the coronavirus. In the case of climate change, the administration is simultaneously withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and scaling back automobile fuel efficiency standards, as just two examples. Furthermore, the federal government continues to provide generous subsidies for fossil fuels — the very cause of climate change.

Value of permanent tax breaks for renewable energy vs. fossil fuels, FY2016 (Source: Oil Change International).

It’s important we recognize that the blunders we’ve made in addressing the coronavirus are the same ones we’re making in addressing the much bigger climate change crisis. Climate change impacts have greatly worsened over time, but we have continued to ignore the warnings. The delay between our burning of fossil fuels and the environmental consequences has lulled us into a state of inaction, and this has been exacerbated by an ongoing disinformation campaign. We’ve been scaling back — and even reversing — federal action at the exact time we should be accelerating it.

Our experience with COVID-19 will almost certainly prepare us better for the next pandemic. But there is no second chance when it comes to climate change. It’s not as if we can let the ice sheets melt this time and protect them better when they return in the future. With climate change, we’ve got one shot at thinking ahead and addressing this crisis — one shot at understanding what scientists have long been telling us about how bad a 3°C or 4°C temperature rise will be. As with the coronavirus pandemic, climate change is an international crisis that calls for a comprehensive federal commitment to address it. Let’s stop making the same mistakes we’ve made with COVID-19.

Charles Kutscher is a Fellow and Senior Research Associate of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado-Boulder

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