The pandemic is a wake-up call, a slap in the face to a world hurtling towards the abyss of ecosystem collapse — the cumulative catastrophic consequences of which would make COVID-19 look like child’s play.
We should embrace this calamity as an opportunity. It has reminded us of our common humanity, our capacity for sacrifice and the speed with which we are capable of bold decision-making in reacting to an emergency.
All of which tells us that we still have time to change course on climate change.
If we are to extract some measure of redemption, to impart some meaning to the death of so many, we must learn the lessons of this catastrophe.
Lesson number one: listen to the scientists.
If we had heeded their warnings about the novel coronavirus sooner, thousands of Americans now dead would be alive today. And the scientists are telling us loud and clear that COVID-19 is just a sneak peek at the horror show of climate change-related catastrophe that awaits us if we do not immediately pivot our economy and lifestyles.
Infectious diseases are emerging at an unprecedented rate with significant impacts on economies and public health. Changing climate conditions amplify this risk. Warmer air and ocean temperatures, shorter winters and longer-hotter summers, expansion of disease vectors, and a rise in extreme weather events all create high risk conditions that range from weakened immune systems to community-scale weather disasters.
Epidemiologists have long sounded the alarm. Rising temperatures are creating ever-more seductive breeding grounds around the globe for mosquitoes that carry malaria, dengue, chikungunya, West Nile and Zika — diseases that already kill one million people a year. Not to mention the viruses that jump from animals to humans as we wade deeper into their habitats, pillaging them and their lands for food.
Other researchers warn of deadly pathogens, to which no living person has ever been exposed, long dormant in frozen environments that are now melting.
Yup, COVID-19 serves its purpose as dress rehearsal for worse to come.
Yet pandemic is only one of the scourges that will assault us if we ignore the scientists again.
In 2018 a multinational team led by Dr. Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii Manoa published a paper that made news around the world. It showed how, in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2100 some parts of the world may have to contend with six climate change-related disasters simultaneously.
It’s not hard to imagine Hawaii, in the midst of a pandemic, suddenly having to contend with a record rain bomb like the one that hit Kauai in April 2018, but this time over Manoa and Palolo, flooding the entire Ala Wai basin and devastating Waikiki.
Imagine trying to rescue thousands of residents trapped in the floods, imagine trying to repair the devastation, while wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
Now multiply these overlapping disasters in communities across the globe, at the same time.
This is not make-believe. Some version of this litany is what scientists say will happen unless we change course. We will live in a world where the number of deaths attributable to climate change will dwarf the impact of COVID-19.
These events will simultaneously damage or destroy food and water systems, displacing communities and entire regions, unleashing floods of human misery. The Environmental Justice Foundation projects 18 million climate refugees just in the nation of Bangladesh within less than 30 years. “Just” five million Syrian refugees was enough to spark Brexit and ignite a Europe-wide surge in right-wing nationalism.
And the U.S. is not immune. It’s not just the Central American climate refugees already clamoring at our southern border. By the end of the century, under a business-as-usual scenario, Miami and New Orleans are likely to be unlivable.
We will not be able to wall ourselves off. COVID-19 already proved that. But why would we? How would we protect ourselves when we are dependent on the outside world for food, medical supplies, and other critical goods and services?
Happily, the positive messages from COVID-19 are even more powerful than the negative ones.
In response to the pandemic, billions of people across the globe have sacrificed their livelihoods and their way of life, not by choice, yet with minimal protest. We brought the global economy to a halt in a matter of weeks. All to save lives, to save society.
To combat climate change, we don’t have to make such extraordinary sacrifices!
If we start today and pace ourselves over the next two decades to implement some version of a Green New Deal, not only would it not feel like much of a sacrifice, we could actually create a new era of sustainable, equitable prosperity.
Hawaii is perfectly positioned to pull this off, to model for the world what a society that pulls together is capable of accomplishing. In the process, we will save ourselves.
So what can we all do today while sheltering at home? Here’s a couple of ideas:
First, move to a more plant-based diet. Animal farming produces 100 times more greenhouse gas than plant agriculture. Eating more plants and less meat is not only good for you, it’ll help build a better future.
The positive messages from COVID-19 are even more powerful than the negative.
Second, lobby your federal and state reps to include strong measures to decarbonize the economy in all upcoming pandemic stimulus spending plans.
This is urgent: not a single environmental proposal was included in the $2 trillion CARES Act — no requirement that airlines reduce emissions, no limit to how much the oil and gas companies can benefit from the stimulus. Nothing.
And there are so many more things we can all do to improve the future, both individually and collectively. Visit the Project Drawdown solutions page and you’ll find dozens of great ideas.
If we heed the COVID-19 warning: if we listen to the scientists, if we use the opportunity of the coming deluge of federal and state stimulus spending to finance a Green New Deal, this pandemic may yet end up saving millions more lives than it destroys.