How Do We Keep Climate Action Alive During a Pandemic?

The first case of coronavirus in America was reported back in late January. As of April 9, there were almost 430,000 cases and over 14,000 deaths. And the numbers just keep rising. What started as a manageable problem quickly grew, terrorizing communities and overwhelming hospital systems to the point where hospital employees were wearing New York Yankees rain ponchos and garbage bags as protective gear. 

Today the nation is in chaos, but what will tomorrow look like? 

In these uncertain times, it can be difficult to imagine what a future without coronavirus will look like, what it will mean to return to normal. But that line of thinking is, in itself, an issue.  The end goal of this all should not be about just falling back into an old, failing system of ‘normal,’ but about creating a new one. 

The nation can emerge from this chaos more resilient and equitable than ever before by choosing to not only recognize what went wrong, but what it can do better. Finding such humanity amid the fear and uncertainty of a pandemic can feel impossible. 

However, learning something from the response to this pandemic can make the nation more prepared to handle other public health emergencies, the greatest of which already exists: climate change. If America cannot cope with this public health tragedy, what will happen when the next climate-related one hits? 

As President Trump continues to roll back emission standards and support the fossil fuel industry, the health of American citizens is being harmed in more ways than one and the public health impacts of climate change, like those of coronavirus, are becoming overwhelming.

And now, on top of climate change's already numerous health impacts, Americans are facing more dangers in the age of coronavirus. New research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has linked small increases in long-term particulate matter exposure with large increases in the death rate of coronavirus.

“These findings illustrate that far too many Americans are facing multiple threats to their lung health at once, and when taken together, these different threats to lung health impacts can amplify each other,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer in response to the study.  

For lower-income individuals and people of color, this could prove deadly. Like coronavirus, climate change does not affect every area or person equally. Communities that for decades have been impacted by air pollution are amongst the most vulnerable as they are more likely to have underlying conditions that put them at greater risk for coronavirus. 

Many of these individuals are also living uninsured or underinsured in medically underserved areas, meaning they are forced to cope with the potentially high cost of care or even a complete lack of accessible care. 

“We need to make sure that hospitals taking care of folks who are more vulnerable and with even greater air pollution exposure have the resources they need,” said Dr. John R. Balmes, a spokesman for the American Lung Association and a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco. 

However, at the intersection of climate change, inequity and coronavirus is a potential solution: multisolving. Elizabeth Sawin, a co-director at Climate Interactive proposed this solution in a U.S. News & World Report op-ed as a way to make sure mitigating coronavirus does not have a negative impact on equity and climate change. 

“While experts do essential work on each of these problems within their own domains, there is little evidence so far that leaders or key agencies are attacking these problems together,” said Sawin, “If we continue to address these problems entirely in isolation from one another, solutions to one problem could make the others much worse.”

Several states have decided to put climate policy on the back-burner for now, believing it may pose obstacles to economic recovery. However, coronavirus is undeniably linked to inequity and climate change, so why treat them as separate issues? Sawin even argues that multisolving is, in fact, a cost-effective solution as it does tackle the issues jointly. 

And, as Sawin points out, this solution has worked before. A study from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that the multisolving of the Obama administration’s $2.7 million weatherization program during the 2008 financial crisis created jobs, reduced carbon dioxide emissions and produced multiple economic benefits in terms of energy bills and health care. 

As America creates its new normal, it will also hopefully start working on flattening the climate change curve, too. How? By learning to listen to and trust health experts and climate scientists, and expecting its government to do the same - before it is too late. 

“I am interested in what we'll do, but I am more interested in who we'll be. Will we be kinder? We are so far. Will this bring us together? I hope so. Maybe then we can tackle the big issues, including climate change,” said Deborah Lawrence, a University of Virginia professor of environmental sciences.