A Tale of Two Crises
As a public health professional who has worked on environmental issues for over 30 years, I have watched the response of the public and our political leaders to COVID-19 with double vision. Like others, I am terrified by the harm that COVID-19 can do in a very short period, but I am also amazed, and frankly impressed, by the depth and relatively rapid response of many of our leaders in Canada. It has me wondering why our leaders have been willing to take the dramatic steps needed to contain COVID-19 when many are so unwilling to do take the steps needed to avoid climate change
Both COVID-19 and climate change present public health crises which pose catastrophic risks for humanity. Without proper containment, COVID-19 has the potential to overwhelm healthcare systems, claim millions of lives, and cripple economies in countries around the world. Climate change is now disrupting ecosystems around the world and posing health risks to millions of people each year in the form of droughts, food shortages, floods, hurricanes, heat waves, air pollution, and vector-born diseases such as Malaria. If unchecked, it has the potential to claim hundreds of millions of lives; to make the world uninhabitable within the lifetime of children being born today.
While there will be criticisms about our preparedness for, and response to, COVID-19, it is hard to believe how deep and fast the response has been by many of our leaders. Who could imagine they would close schools, daycares, all non-essential services and borders? Who could imagine they would provide employment insurance to everyone laid off from work, self-isolated, or staying home to care for children?
Why are our leaders capable of taking these dramatic steps to respond to COVID-19 but unwilling to lay out a measured and controlled response to climate change? In part, it is because of the speed of the crisis and the direct relationship between its cause and effects. COVID-19 spreads quickly; its impacts are deadly and apparent. We can link the disease directly to the harm done. When people become sick, hospitalized, or die from COVID-19, we will know what caused the harm. And that harm will be done within the term of the political leaders who must respond to it.
Climate change, on the other hand, is a slow creeping catastrophe with a multitude of contributors, spread all around the globe, and the health impacts are not linked directly to the causes. People must follow a long chain of steps that are separated by time and geography to understand how emissions from our cars in North America in the 1990s have contributed to the flight of refugees from drought-stricken lands in Central America in the second decade of this century.
There is however, more to it than just this. The two crises differ greatly in their causes and in their relationship to corporate interests. COVID-19 is a new infectious disease introduced unintentionally to humans because of our increasing encroachment on wildlife and/or human consumption of exotic animals. Climate change is a global condition that has developed in response to our ever-expanding reliance on fossil fuels, our destruction of climate sinks such as the Amazon rainforest, and our growing demand for red meat. While both crises are fuelled by population pressures and land development practices, there are no powerful corporate interests invested in the denial of an infectious disease.
With climate change, there are many powerful players with a strong financial interest in the status quo. These players have the resources to hire experts who can spin the uncertainties inherent in science to create the illusion that there we are unclear about the causes of climate change, its role in extreme weather events, and its impact on people and society. These players also have the resources to influence who gets elected and the actions those politicians take once elected.
Right now, it is all hands-on deck for COVID-19. We need our political leaders to focus on the containment of this public health crisis; to ensure that front-line responders and essential-service workers are protected; that populations are tested; that a vaccine is developed. We need them to focus on the policies needed to ensure that Canadians are fed and housed; to plug the holes in our social safety net; to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
But once we have this public health crisis under control, we must turn our attention to the public health crisis which threatens all life on this planet. COVID-19 is giving us a taste of the calamity that will be if we allow climate change to continue unchecked. Within decades, it could produce hundreds of millions of refugees as people flee drought and starvation, it could bring ruin to the global economy, and its impacts will be irreversible. COVID-19 is reminding us that we are all inter-connected; that the world is much smaller than we think. It is teaching us that we can work effectively across borders and nations to fight a common threat.
The actions that will be needed to kick-start our economy once this public health crisis has passed could provide us with the opportunity needed to avoid the long-term crisis that is climate change. It could be our moment to transform our economy; to develop renewable energies, increase our energy efficiency, invest in sustainable transportation systems, and cultivate sustainable food systems. We could create a healthier world; one with less air pollution, one which fosters physical activity and social equity, one with less disease and fewer injuries. The sacrifices of this pandemic do not have to be for naught.
Prepared by Kim Perrotta. April 7, 2020
For more information on climate change and health, check out the CAPE Climate Change Toolkit for Health Professionals produced and edited by Kim Perrotta, with contributions from CHASE Associates and Director, Ronald Macfarlane, Helen Doyle and Carol Mee.