My Turn: Solving dual crises of COVID-19 and climate change

Published: 6/3/2020 10:10:37 AM

We are living with two life-threatening crises: COVID-19 and the climate crisis. They pose a common fate for us humans — the risk of illness in the case of COVID-19, and injury and destruction of our environment, in the case of climate; both are harbingers of death for many.

But it is their differences and our response as a world that matter most. Countries that acted quickly against COVID-19 and with strict restrictions that kept most residents at home were successful in keeping their death rates lower than countries with looser restrictions and that waited to act. Recent research found “if cities across the U.S. had moved just one week faster to shut down restaurants and businesses and require residents to stay at home, they could have avoided 35,000 coronavirus deaths by early May;” if they had acted two weeks earlier, “more than 50,000 people who died from the pandemic might be alive.”

Unlike COVID-19, no one country can save itself from the global climate crisis, even with emergency plans and equipment. Turning back from the perilous path of unchecked global warming and biodiversity loss requires global cohesiveness and a massive cooperative effort among all countries, especially the largest, most industrialized, most consuming and most militarized. Unchecked global warming and the accelerated loss in biodiversity could collapse whole ecosystems within 10 years, according to the most recent climate science. Ten years of action, beginning now, to aggressively slow the climate crisis, is the akin to acting one week sooner to stem the pandemic.

At the pace of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest for cattle farming and resource extraction, the forest is moving from capturing and storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to releasing more than it removes. Virtually every threat to biological life on earth being studied is revealing an accelerated pace of loss: massive death of coral reefs, which support 25 percent of marine life, from faster warming oceans; more frequent and more destructive monster storms with winds over 155 mph, especially in Southeastern US and the Caribbean. We are nearing the threshold temperatures that will melt most of the Greenland and Western Antarctica ice shelves and the Arctic sea ice, presaging sea level rise that will threaten over time the world’s coastal cities — none spared.

There is no flattening of the curve of increasing global warming emissions nor of global temperatures, despite UN climate conference agreements. We are on a course to crash past emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. And the US government — in diabolic denial about science, facts, and truth — has spurned the agreement, weakened our environmental regulations to slow climate emissions, and coddled the nearly bankrupt fossil fuel industry with COVID-19 recovery funds. Scientists used to speak in terms of 2050 to slow these trends and now speak in terms of our having 10 years (2030), so imminent are the accelerating climate crisis and loss of ecosystems.

The COVID-19 crisis was immediate and stark and most countries acted successfully in their own deserved self-interest, with Cuba, in its generous medical assistance to a stranded cruise ship and other countries, acting in solidarity with others. But the climate crisis, which has never been covered in the media with the frequency and intensity as COVID-19, will be far worse in the not so long term. It is a crisis in slower motion but much graver. The climate crisis will end up killing an estimated 250,000 human beings per year within two decades if little is done and potentially causing up to a billion climate migrants within three decades, according to the UN, with business as usual.

How to turn this crisis into some kind of opportunity? Recover and rebuild the economy, which may take 10 years, with the goal of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and intensive efficiency. How to finance? Eliminate 100-year-old subsidies to the fossil fuel industries, which in time will reduce the billions of dollars in health costs for their pollution; and end the costly naval defense of the Persian Gulf oil, all together equivalent to an estimated $650 billion per year. Re-route the more than a trillion dollars committed to new nuclear weapons together with the technically skilled jobs to the green energy sector. Reduce the $750 billion war and arms budget substantially and re-invest the funds and jobs into the Green New Deal infrastructure. And, locally, leave state forests intact and champion youth climate and biodiversity activists.

The European Union has released a green economic recovery plan. Why not we also?

Pat Hynes, a retired environmental engineer, directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in Western Massachusetts.


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