The Hot Topic: Coronavirus and Climate Change: More to it than meets the eye
In the 1990 movie Havana, it is quoted, ‘A butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.’ This is precisely what has happened.
Let’s not assign any romantic projections on the coronavirus, as has been the tendency of some up till now. It is not a sign from nature, asking the world to slow down, relax, and take a step back. It is not a repeat, survival-of-the-fittest phenomenon which comes about every few years, much needed. It is not the wake-up call anybody wanted; just ask the ones affected. The world scrambles to somehow cope with the novel coronavirus that has shed light on the holes, gaps, and the most unflattering aspects of our society. It has killed more than 4000 people, infected 120,000, and quarantined millions more. It has spread to almost 120 countries in a few weeks and threatens to push the world economy into a recession such as the one witnessed in the 2008 financial crisis.
The coronavirus has cut China’s emissions by 25 per cent in the last few weeks. Air pollution has also dipped. Why? The simple reason is that everything has been shut. Industries across the country were shut for weeks on end as a mass quarantine was recommended for the entire country, with the Hubei province completely locked down. Schools and universities were closed and people were told to work from home. In the hardest-hit regions, only one family member of a family was allowed to leave the house every two days in order to shop for essential groceries. These measures are now being imposed in other places: more countries have come to a halt now as the coronavirus threat enters its second phase. While China has now effectively contained the virus, it has spread to the rest of the world. Europe and the United States are struggling to cope, and Italy has registered the highest number of cases outside of China.
This is the Butterfly Effect in action that the world is witnessing at the moment. In the 1990 movie Havana, it is quoted, ‘A butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.’ This is precisely what has happened. A live seafood wet market (where meat is sold alongside live animals like dogs, hares, and civets) in the seemingly ordinary city of Wuhan in China has caused a global chain of events which has left the biggest governments in the world in turbulence. Stock values are in disarray, oil prices have tanked, and mass meetings across the world have been cancelled.
The coronavirus provides a good opportunity to imagine what life would be like if the climate crisis is not mitigated and contained. The consequences of climate change will move along more or less the same lines: it’s just that they are spread over a long time, and will be witnessed in the same way. While the novel coronavirus presents itself as an immediate public health concern, climate change brings about many of the same problems, but in more subtle and invisible ways. And while a direct connection between coronavirus and climate change has not been established yet, there is enough evidence to suggest that with rising temperatures, global pandemics will be more the norm than the exception.
Scientific American reports that a paper in 2013 found that ‘unusually warm winters tend to be followed by earlier, more severe flu seasons the next year’. They also report that the reason that researchers have suggested this is because fewer people come down with the flu during warmer winters, leaving their immune systems more vulnerable the following year. Another paper, published earlier this year, suggested that rapid swings in the weather may also make flu epidemics worse.
Scientific American also suggests that most novel diseases emerge first in animals; with the change in climate, animal migration patterns change. Take for instance the recent locust swarm invasions all over Africa and Asia. And if animal migration patterns change, they are likely to bring specific diseases into areas that didn’t have them before. Nation of Change states that the WHO has long warned that climate change is likely to create, increase, or spread dangerous diseases.
In the face of it all, the reduction in emissions is hardly a consolation. In fact, it might end up being counterproductive, as economies would attempt to reboot once the threat of the virus subsides. The Guardian reports that President Xi Jinping in China has announced that there will be extra stimulus packages provided to reboot production, and other countries have also announced funds to pick the economy back up. So if production is accelerated to catch up with lost growth, the emissions will spike right up.
Moreover, a global pandemic threatens to drain money and political will for solving the climate crisis, which will be seen as a secondary issue as compared to the stagnating economy. Additionally, there is the danger of political leaders thinking that the virus already took care of the emissions for some time, and so more action is not needed. Our leaders have expressed some thoughtless views and taken actions that can only be termed as idiotic. A New York Times piece also reports that although airlines have reported a sharp decline in air travel in the short term, therefore reducing emissions, in the long run, the environment does not have that much to gain as fuel prices are driven down, which is a huge cost for airlines. Cheaper fuel leads to cheaper flights, encouraging air travel; additionally, the cheap price of fuel also encourages airlines to not switch to cleaner, more efficient jets.
Of course, it is possible to learn from this tragedy. Climate change has to be treated as a long-term coronavirus, and action needs to be mobilized to meet the goals charted out. The main message out of the ongoing coronavirus disaster should be that if we don't act against the climate crisis, this will be just the beginning.