The global spread of the coronavirus is intricately intertwined with the climate crisis. It is a problem exacerbated (and likely brought on) by environmental degradation of our own making, and how we respond to it could impact the health of the planet, and everyone on it, in ways that reverberate for generations to come.
The economic slowdown has temporarily led to cleaner air and the resurgence of wildlife in some cities hard hit by the virus. At the same time, there are indications that the pandemic is distracting from and derailing climate efforts. Under cover of COVID-19, the Trump administration has rolled back vehicle emissions standards. Vital international climate meetings have been canceled. Consumers again are clutching single-use plastics to salve fears of contamination, setting back years of conservation progress.
But fighting a pandemic and fighting climate destruction are not at cross purposes, argues Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital who heads the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In fact, they are one and the same.
HuffPost spoke to Bernstein, an expert on the health impacts of climate change, about how the very actions that could slow climate destruction could also make us healthier, so we can better withstand the next pandemic — or even prevent it from emerging.
What does the coronavirus pandemic have to do with climate change?
The connections between COVID-19 and climate change are real. Evidence is already emerging that shows, for instance, that air pollution is increasing the odds that people will die from COVID. This is based on the United States. And this is truly mind-blowing to me: A 1 microgram per meter-cubed increase in particulate matter raised the chances of death from COVID by 15%. This is a very small change in air quality, leading to a substantial increase in risk of people dying. (Editor’s note: A revised version of the study, issued after publication of this article, calculated the increased risk of death as 8%, down from 15% in its initial findings.)
We know that air pollution in the United States is from burning fossil fuels — from burning gas in cars, it’s from burning coal in power plants, overwhelmingly. And that pollution is killing people with COVID.
So, climate solutions are pandemic solutions.
“We know that air pollution in the United States is from burning fossil fuels. And that pollution is killing people with COVID.”
Another connection is deforestation. Depending on how you cut the pie, around 20% of carbon emissions may relate in some way to to deforestation. And deforestation is also a major contributor to infectious disease emergence. We don’t necessarily understand how COVID emerged, [but] we have every reason to believe that it came into people from bats.
In the instance of another recent and very concerning infection that was on everyone’s mind not so long ago ― Ebola ― we have evidence that suggests that the destruction of forests in West Africa contributed to the movement of bats north. And that deforestation may have forced animal-human encounters that [otherwise] wouldn’t have happened. In the Amazon rainforest, deforestation is strongly associated with malaria.
We have lots of evidence that deforestation drives disease emergence. Deforestation is also a major driver of climate change. Preventing deforestation is going to help both the climate and infectious disease risk.
People see the coronavirus as an existential threat. We see death counts mounting, we feel it coming for us, and we act. The climate crisis is killing us, too. Are we failing to see that or are we just failing to act?
I think the name of the game with combating climate change right now is we have to make clear that climate actions benefit our health right now — especially in ways that get at some of the biggest health problems we face.
The medical establishment has been wildly ineffective at preventing obesity. So what does it take? We need to get people eating less red meat, less processed meat and more unprocessed plants. That is good for the climate. That is good for obesity.
We need to get people out of cars, which they’re sitting in by themselves, sitting in traffic for hours on end — which is immensely damaging to health — and at least carpooling, but ideally on public transit, and, to the extent possible, biking or walking (in places where it is made to be safe to bike and walk). These are critical parts of addressing obesity. And, of course, the more we use public transit and active transit, the lower our carbon emissions will be.
So, these are the arguments that I think, among many others, are critical to making sure that everyone is able to take actions that will promote lesser carbon pollution. The more we can focus on the near term gains of climate actions for health that people can really grab onto, I think the better off we’ll be in terms of promoting where we need to get with climate change.
In trying to stop the spread of coronavirus, we are incidentally benefiting the climate. We’re consuming less, producing less, flying and driving less, and we’re seeing lower air pollution around cities. How can we apply what we’ve learned in flattening the curve of coronavirus to flattening the curve of climate change?
What we’re looking at right now is the reality that so much air pollution, as one example, is just embedded in how we are doing business right now. And importantly, that if we stop putting out so much pollution, we lead healthier lives right away. It’s entirely possible that the improved air pollution that resulted from China slowing its economy may save as many — if not more — lives than the virus took away. That’s how profound this effect is.
“There may be opportunities to accelerate change, even with the disaster that’s in front of us.”
And I think another crucial point is when there are huge disruptions like COVID, economies get rebuilt. And we have opportunities to implement solutions in ways that weren’t possible before. We’ve got all kinds of businesses that are shuttered. This affords an opportunity to potentially do stuff that may improve their energy efficiency, may be able to transition them off of fossil fuels, and who knows what else. I think there may be opportunities to accelerate change, even with the disaster that’s in front of us.
Three years ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted that we’d get hit with an infectious disease outbreak right about now. Let’s pretend that we’d all heard him and listened three years ago. If we had started vastly reducing emissions then, could we have made enough of a dent to put us in a better position to weather this crisis?
Air pollution is clearly driving the severity of the disease. Air pollution in the States, for the first time in decades, has gotten worse in the past two years. So if we had taken more actions in the last three years to deal with air pollution, lives would have been saved.
The other piece — and I think this also gets at the point I made earlier about climate solutions being pandemic solutions — is the obesity epidemic in the country. The severity of [COVID-19] is heavily weighted to those folks who have preexisting medical conditions. And those medical conditions are overwhelmingly preventable. Three years is a pretty short time frame. But needless to say, we could have made more progress on things like obesity, on things like active transit. Those measures would have hopefully made us marginally healthier.
And also, critically, with all these pollution and obesity concerns that tie climate and COVID together, being poor amplifies those risks tremendously. We’ve already seen that poor communities and states are being ravaged in contrast to those that are better off both economically and in terms of their health.
We could have had policies that, for example, made sure poor people in this country had access to good medical care. That we had a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who didn’t come here legally, but are working their tails off at jobs that no one wants — and who are paying taxes — at a time when who wants to be delivering groceries or doing any number of other jobs that put people, for very little pay, into harm’s way? Would we be better off having a secure place for those people in our society?
What can we do now to be ready for the next pandemic? Because I’m assuming there’s going to be one.
By last estimate, governments are spending $7 trillion to try to clean up this mess. And a fraction of that — just over $100 billion a year — would be enough to do what many conservation biologists say would be adequate for providing safe operating space for wildlife.
“We need to refocus our attention on doing what we can to keep these diseases at bay — we have to combat climate change, and we have to combat the destruction of life on earth.”
I think it just underscores that we need to refocus our attention on doing what we can to keep these diseases at bay. And that in large part means we have to combat climate change, and we have to combat the root causes of biodiversity loss, the destruction of life on earth.
And just to be clear, those actions aren’t a cost in and of themselves. It’d be one thing if calling for more conservation and climate actions were exacting a pound of flesh. It’s the opposite.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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