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COVID-19 and climate change
Credit: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Climate Change

Nature Is Trying To Tell Us Something. Is Anybody Listening?

COVID-19 is not only a disease, it is a harbinger of things to come. It could be the impetus to alter our business as usual mentality, but that seems unlikely as the Earth hurtles toward an existential calamity.

It seems the Earth has shifted on its axis in the past few weeks as the coronavirus has upended virtually all our social and economic conventions. The head of the Federal Reserve predicts a massive 50% reduction in America’s GDP in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of this year with unemployment soaring to 30% or more — figures unheard of since 1929.

Meanwhile, the leader of the free world is threatening to ignore the advice of health officials to maintain social distancing for at least 2 more months. Instead, he claims he wants America back to work in 2 to 3 weeks, spurred no doubt by the knowledge that an economy in the toilet will doom his chances of being re-elected. Would the Great and Powerful Trump put Americans at risk for his own selfish reasons? You can bet on it.

Nature Is Sending Us A Message

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program, tells The Guardian that nature is sending us a message, and part of it involves climate change. She says loss of habitat caused by a burgeoning human population and warmer average temperatures is forcing humans and animals into closer contact, which increases the odds that animal-borne diseases will be transmitted to people.

Andersen says the immediate priority is to protect people from the coronavirus and prevent its spread. “But our long-term response must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss,” she adds. “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people.” She tells The Guardian that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife. “Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbor diseases that can jump to humans.”

Bush fires in Australia, more broken heat records, and an infestation of locusts in parts of Africa are signs that humanity can ignore at its peril. “At the end of the day, [with] all of these events, nature is sending us a message,” Anderson says.

“There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give,” she added. “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”

Live Markets & Dead People

To prevent further outbreaks, experts say global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining, and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people. High on their list of recommendations is ending live markets where animals are slaughtered and delivered directly to customers.

Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London tells The Guardian, “The emergence and spread of Covid-19 was not only predictable, it was predicted [in the sense that] there would be another viral emergence from wildlife that would be a public health threat.” He cites a 2007 study of the SARS virus that found, “The presence of a large reservoir of Sars-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”

In fact, it is precisely such a so-called “wet market” in China that is suspected of being the place where the COVID-19 virus was unleashed. “The animals have been transported over large distances and are crammed together into cages,” Cunningham says. “They are stressed and immuno-suppressed and excreting whatever pathogens they have in them. With people in large numbers in the market and in intimate contact with the body fluids of these animals, you have an ideal mixing bowl for [disease] emergence. If you wanted a scenario to maximize the chances of [transmission], I couldn’t think of a much better way of doing it.”

He notes such open air abattoirs are not confined to China. They are common throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa and in many other Asian countries. “The ease of travel in the modern world exacerbates the dangers,” he adds.  “These days, you can be in a central African rain forest one day and in central London the next.”

People & Animals Sharing Space Is Bad For Both

Aaron Bernstein of the Harvard School of Public Health says the destruction of natural places drives wildlife to live close to people and that climate change was also forcing animals to move: “That creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts. We’ve had SARS, MERS, COVID-19, HIV. We need to see what nature is trying to tell us here. We need to recognize that we’re playing with fire. The separation of health and environmental policy is a ​dangerous delusion. Our health entirely depends on the climate and the other organisms we share the planet with.”

The current coronavirus crisis could spur changes, but Cunningham is not convinced it will happen. “I thought things would have changed after SARS, which was a massive wake up call — the biggest economic impact of any emerging disease to that date,” he says. “Everybody was up in arms about it. But it went away, because of our control measures. Then there was a huge sigh of relief and it was back to business as usual. We cannot go back to business as usual.”

Fun & Games In Washington, DC

At this moment, politicians in Washington say they have reached agreement on a $2 trillion economic package. It will be months or even years before we know all the details, but Democrats were widely criticized for holding up the agreement while they tried to add protections for those most likely to suffer economic harm.

At one point, Despicable Mitch McConnell complained they were playing politics by trying to ram through their Green New Deal agenda while suffering people were waiting for government help. Clearly, the senior senator from Kentucky is much more focused on business as usual than addressing the growing risks an overheating planet holds in store.

Part of the negotiations involved extending federal incentives for renewable energy and electric vehicles, ideas that McConnell clearly despises. He would rather protect the cruise ship industry that pays no US taxes than provide a stimulus for jobs in the growing renewable energy industry. If you expect leadership for McConnell, you will constantly disappointed.

Putting Global Heating On The Back Burner — Again

The US has a rare opportunity to put some serious economic muscle behind renewable energy. Instead, the stimulus package appears to call for buying 77 million barrels of oil from fracking producers for the national strategic reserve and propping up the Vogtle nuclear generating station in Georgia — one of the worst managed construction projects in the history of the world that will cost rate payers tens of billions of dollars to cover its bloated construction costs.

So the answer is, no. No one in Washington is looking past the end of next week and COVID-19 is giving politicians cover to do nothing except reward their largest and most loyal campaign donors. A magnificent opportunity to take bold action to address the hazards of an overheating planet is thus being squandered. The US national debt will explode to keep the fat cats fat and the powerful in power. Any consideration for the inevitable fate of humanity will once again be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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