Covid-19 and Climate Change Will Remain Inextricably Linked, Thanks to the Parallels (and the Denial)

Covid-19 has been described as climate change in fast motion. Climate activists hoped it would underscore the threat. But for some, it may have done the opposite.

In May, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept cthe nation, normally jammed highways in Los Angeles were nearly empty. The absence of traffic led to steep reductions in carbon emissions, at least for a while. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

In May, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the nation, normally jammed highways in Los Angeles were nearly empty. The absence of traffic led to steep reductions in carbon emissions, at least for a while. Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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Whether or not people accept the science on Covid-19 and climate change, both global crises will have lasting impacts on health and quality of life, especially for the diverse and low-income communities they’ve already hit hardest.

The Covid-19 pandemic acted “almost like a heat-seeking missile,” homing in on the same communities most vulnerable to the effects of a warming world, said Robert Bullard, an author and professor at Texas Southern University who is widely known as “the Father of Environmental Justice.” 

Even worse, Bullard said, the pandemic represented only the “tip of the iceberg” for what such communities could face.

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In many ways, the United States’ struggle to control Covid-19 has painted a picture, part hopeful and part harrowing, of how the climate crisis might play out in the decades to come. 

Many climate activists and progressives hoped—at least at initially—that the death and illness associated with a worldwide pandemic would make it easier for people to take distant climate threats more seriously.

It didn’t take all that much imagination. The parallels were everywhere.

As Bullard noted, the same communities were being disproportionately affected in each crisis. 

And the same fine particle air pollution, known as PM 2.5, caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, was shown in an early Harvard study to be linked to higher Covid-19 deaths rates among people living in polluted areas. 

Climate change is also responsible for the proliferation of zoonotic diseases, like Covid-19, as drought, flooding and extreme weather force food production to encroach on habitats populated by bats, monkeys and other virus-carrying wild animals.

But while Covid-19 has raised some people’s consciousness about the urgent need to act on climate change, it has had the opposite effect on others. At least in the United States, the president and much of his base have embraced the same science denialism that has for years greeted climate change, even as deaths from the coronavirus soared.

Whether or not the Covid-19 pandemic ultimately bolsters or hampers the prospects for U.S. and global climate action, the two crises remain inextricably linked. At least for the foreseeable future, any effort to meaningfully address the root causes of one will involve confronting the other. 

Dealing with either crisis also involves tackling the rejection of science promoted by the Trump administration and pervading his base.

“If there is a silver lining, it is that the failure of the current administration to respond meaningfully to the pandemic lays bare the deadliness of ideologically-motivated science denial,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, who warned that such inaction around climate “will be even more deadly.”

Noting the pandemic’s minimal impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Mann said Covid-19 had shown the inadequacy of voluntary measures and individual behavior to satisfy the goals of the Paris Agreement and prevent dangerous levels of global warming. 

The regional and even national shutdowns made hardly a dent in the grand scheme of global emissions. And they illuminated just how much needs to change for the world to decarbonize on a timeline aligned with climate science.

If Western economies and people with carbon-intense lifestyles simply return to business as usual post-pandemic, a key opportunity to address the climate crisis by changing the behavioral patterns and infrastructure that underlie it may be lost, Mann said. 

“We need dramatic systemic changes in the form of policies that will help us decarbonize our economy quickly,” he added, citing the opportunity to act as part of President-elect Biden’s agenda to “build back better” by “rebuilding our energy infrastructure with renewable, green technology.”

Surprised by Covid-19 Denialism

When the pandemic swept over the nation in March, John Cook thought many people would register the threat of Covid-19 more readily than that of climate change. 

“Climate change is challenging as a topic because of the psychological distance…which causes people to be less concerned about it,” said Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and founder of the climate science blog and information resource Skeptical Science. 

Deaths from Covid-19 were right on people’s doorstep and, Cook assumed, would be harder to ignore. But this initial assumption was quickly proven wrong, at least to some extent. 

With the spread of Covid-19, a new wave of denial surfaced, one that Cook said was similar to the denialism seen in response to the science of human-caused climate change. Political conservatism and individualism, he said, ranked among the strongest predictors of people’s likelihood to express skepticism about public health measures such as social distancing.

“In the end, Covid took the same trajectory of climate change,” said Cook, “but over a six-month period as opposed to several decades.”

Which camp people fall into—those who embrace scientific reality, or those who reject warnings and advice from experts—often comes down to party affiliation, tribalism and ideology, Cook said.

Having a president who has downplayed the pandemic’s severity and declared himself “immune” to Covid-19, despite uncertainty by health experts about whether this is the case has only inflamed the divide between the two camps.

Although the election of Joe Biden, who has expressed a commitment to following science, along with prioritizing environmental and racial justice, could make a difference, the damage done by a Trump presidency may leave an indelible mark.

“I think that leadership that follows experts will result in better policy, and leadership that endorses experts will have a positive impact on public attitudes and behavior,” said Cook of a Biden presidency.

Still, he said, the factor most likely to change the attitudes and behavior of people who deny the science of Covid-19 and climate change would be receiving “cues from their own tribe, from Republican leadership.”

And in a deeply polarized political landscape, those cues seem unlikely to materialize. Earlier this month, The Washington Post found that just 27 Congressional Republicans acknowledged Biden’s win. If they continue to propagate baseless claims about a “stolen” election over the next four years, Biden’s vision of unity and bipartisan political will for action on Covid-19 and climate change may quickly dissolve.

But the science is clear: In some places, the death toll from climate change may already exceed that from Covid-19. In an analysis published in March, Marshall Burke, an earth system science professor at Stanford University, found that a coronavirus lockdown in China probably saved more lives from a reduction in air pollution—which is linked to climate change—than it did from Covid-19. 

According to the World Health Organization, climate change is currently estimated to cause more than 150,000 deaths annually. In 2014, the organization estimated that climate change could cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from 2030 to 2050. A study published in 2019 in the New England Journal of Medicine called this “a conservative estimate,” which could increase if nations fail to meaningfully curb greenhouse gas emissions.

One key lesson from this pandemic is the value of foresight, said Dr. Amanda Millstein, a primary care pediatrician at Hilltop Pediatrics in Richmond, California, and a co-founder of the grassroots organization Climate Health Now, which mobilizes health professionals to combat climate change. 

In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic was predictable—experts saw it coming for years—and while the exact impacts of climate change may remain somewhat uncertain, the existential threat posed by the climate crisis and its outsized impact on marginalized communities is clear. 

“The opportunity to prepare to mitigate as much disaster and climate chaos as we can, but also to adapt and become more resilient in the face of what we know is here and is coming is really important,” she said. 

No Vaccine for Denial

In the final analysis, the United States’ virtually unparalleled failure to contain the spread of Covid-19 has revealed the potency of science denialism and the inadequacy of stopgap solutions for addressing national crises, including climate change. 

Still, Mann, the Penn State climate scientist, said “the good news” is that a Biden administration could position the United States to “reassert leadership on the world stage to help ensure that we collectively act on the climate crisis before it is too late.”

Bullard, at Texas Southern, also said he felt optimistic about the potential for a Biden administration to revive and strengthen environmental regulations weakened or dismantled under Trump, and to more broadly adopt the mantle of environmental justice across federal agencies. He wants to see the administration “go fast and furious on addressing these issues that are justice issues across the board,” he said.

At the same time, he said, it is also critical for environmental justice proponents to keep organizing and hold Biden accountable for delivering on his promises, despite the denial they might come up against along the way. 

There have always been people denying climate change, just as there have also been people denying systemic racism and now there are people denying Covid-19, said Bullard, but that reality didn’t faze organizers like himself. 

“If those of us who have been fighting for justice were worried about backlash, we would not have made progress,” he said. “We have to communicate that this is the right time to address these systemic challenges that have just been swept under the rug and ignored for so long.”

Whether the pandemic bolsters or hampers the prospects for U.S. climate action may thus depend on whether resting public faith in science proves a Sisyphean task. Unlike for Covid-19, there’s no vaccine for denial—or for climate change and its unequal effects.