In late 2019, the sense of urgency for the world to deal seriously with climate change was building. As climatologists began to sound the alarm that we were fast approaching the point of no return, at which the rise in the average global temperature could not be held below 2° C, people around the world were beginning to take these alarms seriously. Young people especially, began to raise their voices as they understood that it would be their generation which would bear the brunt of the impact of climate change on civilization as we know it. Then on December 31, 2019, China alerted the World Health Organization of an outbreak of the novel strain of coronavirus in the city of Wuhan. Since then, global attention has shifted from the medium-term threat of climate change to the immediate threat of the pandemic.
When the early warnings began to come out of China and then South Korea, in January and February of 2020, that the world faced a potential global threat, some asked whether there was some connection between climate change and the pandemic. As far as I am aware no one has connected the origin of the pandemic directly to greenhouse gasses or the rise in the average temperature of the earth. In other words, unlike the wildfires in California or Australia, we cannot claim that the pandemic is a direct result of climate change.
It is unlikely that climate change caused COVID-19, but the same underlying conditions that caused COVID-19 to become a pandemic are some of the root causes of climate change. First of all, the human love for eating meat seems to have been the proximate cause of the novel coronavirus when the virus may have jumped from bat meat to human beings in a Chinese market selling exotic animals for human ingestion. Most of the major virus outbreaks in recent years can be traced back to human interaction with animals and the majority of emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals. But two other factors that turned COVID-19 from a localized epidemic to a pandemic are overpopulation, especially in crowded urban centers and the connectivity of these large population centers through land, air and sea transportation.
Some estimate that animal farming contributes 15% of greenhouse gases, while transportation contributes 28%. Overall, the major driver of climate change comes from a world whose human population continues to grow, consume and pollute. All indications are that that the planet is benefiting from a respite in human-produced greenhouse gasses due to the stay-at-home orders in place in large parts of the globe in order to halt the spread of COVID-19. Obviously, no one would advocate for a pandemic in order to reduce the impact of climate change, and in the end, this will have only a short-term effect. Once the world’s economies resume, so will the pollution. We are, however, capable of drawing important lessons from this global nightmare – the most important being that human beings have the capacity to slow down the production of greenhouse gasses by travelling less and by consuming less, but it has come at a terrible economic cost. If we can learn how to slow down our consumption of natural resources and our production of greenhouse gasses in a way that does not threaten the livelihood of millions of people on the planet, some good may come out of this human tragedy.
Another critical lesson we have learned is that like climate change, pandemics know no borders. What happens on one side of a border and, in fact, what happens in a country on the other side of the globe, can have a major impact on our lives. Only by a coordinated global effort can we stop the pandemic, and only by a coordinated global effort will we be able to mitigate the impact of climate change. Finally, I believe we have learned that science matters, that numbers are real and that when our experts tell us that we have a problem, we should listen.
For many years, some politicians denied that the climate was changing but once people lost their homes to fires in California and Australia, and the city of Venice began to drown, it became difficult to deny reality. So the politicians shifted to a different narrative; “Climate change is real, but it is a natural phenomenon that has nothing to do with the impact of human beings on the planet.” The blue skies over Bejing have blown up that fairy tale as well.
The writer is executive director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies,Kibbutz Ketura.