The coronavirus pandemic is confronting us with sacrifices we may have to make to save our planet from climate disaster — lockdown as a dry run.
Maps published by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration using data collected by the European Space Agency showing a drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), primarily from motor vehicles, in China before and during a quarantine due to COVID-19. (courtesy of NASA)
Trial by fire, water, wind, baking heat and freezing cold — and, to celebrate the new decade, a massive invasion of locusts in East Africa. The advancing climate crisis was already getting too biblical for comfort.
Enter the virulent new coronavirus and its related disease, COVID-19.
As I write these words, a third of humanity is in lockdown to try to contain the pandemic it has engendered. The pandemic echoes the biblical story of Moses, Pharaoh and the plagues.
But there are much more earthly lessons to be drawn.
Lesson Number One: Humanity’s unrestrained expansion and increasing demands on the planet’s resources are very likely driving deadly viruses to cross the species barrier. They’ve nowhere left to go.
“We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic” was the headline on an article by science journalist David Quammen in the New York Times newspaper in January. “We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts,” he wrote. “When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
John Vidal, former environment editor at the Guardian newspaper, says evidence for this is piling up. “A number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as COVID-19,” he wrote earlier this month.
“Earth is being battered by humanity.”
In 2015, as the world prepared for the landmark United Nations Climate Conference in Paris that would establish global cooperation as necessary to curb our industrial impact on the planet, two Swedes, climate scientist Johan Rockström and photographer Mattias Klum, published a book, “Big World, Small Planet”, that detailed how humanity’s destruction of the environment is driving the climate crisis.
Their comments are relevant for understanding the origins of the pandemic we now face. “The planet’s under unprecedented pressure. Earth’s being battered by humanity — and it’s coming from every direction,” they said.
“Now Earth is responding with environmental shocks to the global economy…. In a shrinking world, seemingly unrelated events can be links in the same chain of cause and effect. Nature, politics and the economy are now interconnected.”
Quammen, writing in the New York Times, made the connection explicit. The coronavirus “was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.”
In the five years since the Paris Accord, humans have been reluctant to make the difficult choices involved. To meet the goals of the agreement, we would need to reset our entire economy — our entire mindset, some would say — to end our use of fossil fuels and to produce energy, food and goods in a sustainable way. Even to scale back our presence on the planet, because its health supports our lives.
That’s a very tall order. But there has been much political, economic and social inertia, despite technological and industrial solutions. Is frenetic consumption the only answer to human needs?
Enter the coronavirus.
In an ironic twist, lockdown imposes the kinds of changes we could expect in our lives as global warming intensifies.
Lockdown means adjusting our behavior for the common good, facing sometimes dire economic consequences, focusing on everyday food supplies and hygiene, choosing whether to think selfish or collective.
Standing at a crossroads
Under lockdown, swans swim in Venice’s newly clear canals. Satellite images of China and Italy show a stunning drop in air pollution. It’s hard, but there are pleasant facets as our planet turns quiet.
Yet there is a price. The shutdown necessary to halt the coronavirus has put the global economy in a free-fall beyond anything we have known.
But if we return to business as usual, we perpetuate the climate crisis and invite the next series of disasters.
China, easing a two-month lockdown, is already ramping up its factories and has approved the construction of new coal power plants, which will more than reverse the drop in air pollution.
Ever the competitor, U.S. President Donald Trump is already pushing to reopen America for business before the epidemic has peaked there, a move that critics say could spark a public health catastrophe.
Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency is trying to persuade governments to seize an historic opportunity for creating a green recovery and reducing polluting activities. Other voices are also clamouring for economic recovery to be climate-friendly.
“COVID-19 is nature’s wake-up call to complacent civilisation,” the Guardian headlined in an impassioned plea from British environmentalist George Monbiot.
“There are two ways this could go. We could, as some people have done, double down on denial,” Monbiot wrote. “Or this could be the moment when we begin to see ourselves, once more, as governed by biology and physics, and dependent on a habitable planet.”
Sue Landau is a retired journalist and translator based in Paris, France. Her editing and reporting career was mainly in financial and business journalism at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle. Among other topics, she covered energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development. She now contributes articles on climate change issues to News Decoder. For a profile of Landau, click here.