Climate change is a significant issue that needs a lot more attention than it currently gets, especially during the dynamic period of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Earth Science Communications Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, climate change refers to long-term changes in the Earth’s average weather patterns, which are predominantly altered by anthropogenic activities and, in turn, have had consequences on the Earth’s climates.
The average temperature across the planet was around 14°C for 11,000 years, until humans began using fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas on a much larger scale in the mid-1800s, ushering in the Industrial Revolution. When fossil fuels are burnt, enormous amounts of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) are released into the atmosphere. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gases trapping heat in our atmosphere, gradually raising its temperature.
Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increased by 40% during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, reaching over 400 parts per million (parts per million). Carbon dioxide levels are significantly greater now than in the last 800,000 years. Because of this the average world temperature has already risen by 1°C. The combined land and ocean temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.08 degrees Celsius per decade since 1880, according to the National Centres for Environmental Information’s 2020 Annual Climate Report; however, the average rate of increase since 1981 (0.18°C) has been more than twice that rate.
Warming exceeding 1.5°C increases the risk of rising sea levels, severe weather, biodiversity loss, food scarcity, deteriorating health, as well as ensuring millions remain in poverty. It is imperative that the Earth’s temperature remains consistent so that organisms and ecosystems can adapt to them
Climate change will affect all of us, not just forests, coral reefs, or people in far-off nations. Across the globe people will experience the consequences of climate change, from more intense weather to increased food costs, leisure, and less opportunities to appreciate the natural environment.
For developing countries, the impacts of climate change are disproportionately burdening. Nations like Botswana and Ethiopia may try to implement initiatives to address these challenges, but without partnership support, capacity building, technology transfer, and financial support, their climate endeavours will likely fail. Climate change has the greatest impact on developing countries, yet they are also the least equipped to cope with its consequences.
According to the World Health Organization, as of the year 2030, climate change is expected to contribute to approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.
The Pandemic’s Impacts
Economic and social shutdowns in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in notable alterations in the Earth’s environment. NASA researchers have been tracking the consequences on our air, land, water, and climate using satellite and ground-based data.
As a result of worldwide lockdowns, studies indicated that carbon monoxide emissions, primarily from cars, were significantly reduced. Pollution was also decreasing, in addition to the reduction in high levels of global emissions. For example, the waters of Venice’s famous canals cleared for the first time in years amid a decline in pollution from diesel-powered commuter boats, as the city locked down to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic, however, the Earth continued to face significant climate changes. Despite COVID-19 lockdowns, global warming remained uninterrupted. Carbon emissions’ effects were returning to normal far quicker than society was. In fact, the year 2020 has been classified as the warmest year on record. The global average temperature was approximately 1.2° Celsius higher than it was before the industrial revolution (1850-1900).
A few months of confinement has not been enough to halt the irreversible impacts of global warming. A devastating wildfire season swept the world in 2020, in addition to the multiple hurricanes and tropical storms that struck (such as the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season). This not only caused severe damage to the environment and economy, but also exacerbated people’s risk of catching COVID-19.
A study, released by scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, revealed that COVID-19 infection rates increased at an excessive pace during the 2020 wildfire season. They came to the conclusion that wildfire smoke from other states made people more susceptible to COVID-19. Nevertheless, the climate change crisis is not a distant problem. Floodwater has swamped homes, businesses, and tube stations around the United Kingdom in recent weeks. Scientists have even predicted that as the climate problem intensifies, flash floods will become more prevalent.
Furthermore, global warming raises the likelihood of more infectious illnesses and potential pandemics. Harvard researchers point out that as the planet warms, animals, on land and at sea, are migrating to the poles to escape the heat. This implies animals are coming into contact with organisms they wouldn’t typically encounter, allowing diseases to infiltrate new hosts.
Deforestation, which is mostly undertaken for agricultural purposes, is the leading source of habitat loss across the world. Due to the mass destruction of habitats, animals are forced to migrate where they may encounter other animals or people, spreading diseases to new regions. Livestock farms can likewise be a source of infection transmission from animals to humans, due to the constant contact between the two.
Diseases are more likely to develop when there is an increase in transmission sources or when animal hosts come into contact with humans. This is evident through other outbreaks such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 (Swine Flu). Therefore, the likelihood of pandemics is increased by several of the fundamental causes of climate change.
Reduced demand for animal meat and more environmentally friendly livestock farming would reduce the danger of developing infectious diseases and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, reducing the risk of infectious disease outbreaks to improve human health is one of the many reasons to take climate action more seriously.
Increasing Awareness and Enacting Change
Despite a 7% reduction in fossil fuel burning due to COVID-19 lockdowns, heat-trapping carbon dioxide continued to accumulate in the atmosphere, hitting a new high. As mentioned previously, the average surface temperature across the planet in 2020 was 1.25C higher than in the pre-industrial period of 1850-1900, dangerously close to the 1.5C target set by the world’s nations.
Additionally, the pandemic has heightened people’s environmental consciousness. For example, according to a recent BCG survey of more than 3,000 people across eight countries, 70% of people are more aware of the impact of human activity on environmental degradation since the pandemic. More people now think companies should be held responsible to protect the environment and believe that governments should embed this priority in their pandemic recovery plans.
The idea that COVID-19 is reshaping how people think about sustainability may have been established through the increasing acts by collectives aiming to spread awareness. During climate week, a 62-foot-wide 15-digit electronic clock, created by artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd, was displayed in Manhattan, USA. The clock displayed the time humans have until the effects of climate change become irreversible as well as messages such as “The Earth has a deadline”. If governments strategically allocate their funding towards a green recovery and shunning fossil fuels, post-COVID-19, there will be a good chance of keeping the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C.
Throughout the pandemic, social media served as an important medium for promoting awareness and implementing social change. Ideas and campaigns can reach people all over the world via the internet, helping them to educate themselves and utilise critical services, as well as inspiring numerous innovations and movements.
In 2019, climate-related disasters struck across the world which led to topics such as #ClimateStrike and #Typhoon being positioned in the top 10 of the global trending topics on Twitter. When people were exposed to the issue of climate change during lockdown, they had more time to surf through their social media platforms, resulting in many people wanting to spread knowledge, sign petitions, and build a better society.
Individuals and businesses could also benefit from the support of local, regional, and national governments in making greener choices. Although the battle against the COVID-19 outbreak may be nearing an end, the war against climate change’s devastating impacts is not.
By taking small actions like cycling or using public transport instead of car trips and minimising consumption and waste, individuals can make a difference. Raising the importance of climate concerns among policymakers and businesses, in addition to personal action, can help to facilitate drastic emission reductions that keep climate change at sustainable levels. To keep the momentum going, we must all continue to work together and use our voices to achieve these goals before the impacts become irreversible.