In the middle of a global health crisis, climate change still needs our attention

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

In 2015, 195 nations convened to create the Paris Agreement, a pact to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius by limiting greenhouse gas emissions, taking effect in 2020. 

With the critical year upon us, attention has shifted to address a new global health crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the World Health Organization reporting almost 1,000,000 COVID-19 related deaths worldwide as of Sept. 22, containing this novel virus has obviously become a priority for world leaders. But as record-setting wildfires ravage the West coast and hurricanes pummel the Atlantic, the earth reminds us that climate change cannot be a forgotten issue. 

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2020 is the most crucial year in the fight to stave off climate devastation. The original regulations outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement are projected not to be strong enough to keep global warming below the critical 2 degrees threshold, meaning stricter policies must be in place by year’s end to actually achieve the goal.

“If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said at a UN climate summit in 2019.

The “disastrous consequences” have already begun. The frequency and duration of climate events such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and droughts have been increasing rapidly. Disease outbreaks are also theorized to be linked to climate change, as the melting of polar ice caps release unfamiliar pathogens into our environment.

According to Doctor of Public Health Renee N. Salas, climate change and COVID-19 only exacerbate the effects of one another. Displacement due to natural disasters allows COVID-19 to spread more rapidly between communities. Recent unpublished data suggests direct associations between long-term exposure to particulate air pollution, and risk of contracting COVID-19.

If we do not properly address these converging crises, we will reach a point of devastation from which we cannot return. Ever-increasing COVID-19 cases backlit by over four million acres ablaze on the Pacific coast demonstrate the United States’ failure to treat these matters responsibly.

“Our responses in the United States to climate change over recent years and to the COVID-19 pandemic over recent months have been inadequate and dangerous,” Salas said. “Both responses have been characterized by delayed and disjointed government action, denigration of scientific evidence, distortion of truth, withdrawal from critical global alliances, and reliance on antiquated public health infrastructure and fragile health care systems.”

As we fight through the pandemic, we must not forget the urgent need for climate action. Moving forward, contingency plans should be adapted to incorporate climate issues into outbreak response protocol, and vice versa.

 “Long-term actions, with implications for future resiliency, include prioritizing federal and state funding for mitigation plans to prepare for a future of climate-driven intensification of extreme weather and superimposed events, using an approach that takes all hazards into account,” Salas said.

Future resiliency is a vital concept to bear in mind. It is not simply enough to survive the pandemic or douse the fires. Instead, we need to put policies in place to prevent these disasters from becoming a part of the new normal.

Featured Photo caption: According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2020 is the most important year to prioritize climate change as a global issue. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.

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