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Updated: 4 days 19 hours ago

Further perspectives on pandemics and climate change

Mon, 03/23/2020 - 08:32

I have recently been asked whether the present corona pandemic will have any consequence on climate change. Gavin has already discussed the coronavirus and climate here on RealClimate, and I like to follow up on his post.

Rather than emphasising analogies, I would highlight additional common denominators between the present world-wide Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

My first reaction is that the present crisis has taught us the value of knowledge and science. It is also obvious that only collaborative efforts can help us. Both these aspects are also true for climate change, a point that perhaps has been more implicit rather than explicit.

Furthermore, the science behind epidemics/pandemics as well as climate both have long histories. Meteorological services have a history that matches that of modern medicine, and many of them embraced climatology since the early days. The WHO was founded in 1948 whereas the WMO in 1950. But both were preceded by the International Meteorological Organization (IMO) that was established in 1873 and the International Sanitary Conferences in 1851.

Health and climate are also two scientific disciplines with obvious relevance to society, and I think there is no coincidence that Spiegelhalter et al (2006) used examples from both health and climate for discussing the use of infographics. Most people have seen a physician or a weather presenter, and it is fair to say that local climate can be regarded as weather statistics.

Science tells us that epidemics follow a characteristic course (a pandemic is a disease epidemic spread worldwide), with an initial emergence, rapid growth, a culmination and then a decline. Time is critical when dealing with the virus, and it is important to “flatten the curve” to avoid an overload of the health services. In other words, we need to lower the probability of transmission of the contamination to slow the process down, e.g. though “social distancing”.

Science also tells us that global warming will accelerate if we continue to emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It’s just plain physics. Unlike a pandemic, however, there is no end in sight when it comes to climate change. But as with a pandemic, it is possible to take back control. One crucial difference between the two is that the virus has a life of its own while the atmospheric CO2-concentration so far does not increase by itself, but is a byproduct from our activities (there may also be some feedbacks).

Statistics is another common ground between the pandemic and climate. One example of the use of statistics is testing and false positives due to imperfect screening. The infographics presented by Spiegelhalter et al. (2006) explains that it is possible to test a person positive twice for the virus, first once and then another positive after being declared as having recovered. Similar false positives can be found in climate analyses, but in both cases they are the exceptions and a mere result of imperfect testing accuracy.

Another common ground is where land-use and biodiversity connect planetary health and climate. There is even a cryptic acronym used in the climate community to underscore this point: LULUFC which means land use land use change and forestry.

I think it’s important to consider the big picture and build resilience and capacity ahead of virus outbreaks and ahead of the emergence of natural disasters connected to climate, such as wildfires or locust swarms. It’s better to be well prepared than unprepared. For the virus, it’s a question of having a robust health care system. For climate change it may be necessary to boost firefighters’ capacity to deal with increased fire hazards and improve water infrastructure.

The pandemic has exposed our vulnerability, as our economy seems to collapse like a house of cards. Natural calamities associated with further climate change, described in many of the reports by the IPCC, are also expected to cause big disruptions. A bigger problem is when several bad things happen at the same time. In that sense, the pandemic underscores the importance of building a resilient and sustainable society. And as humans, we are bound to deal with both diseases and climate whether they are connected or not.

A turbulent oil market is another link between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate, thanks to decreased demand and the Russia – Saudi Arabia oil price war.

It seems obvious to me that strategies for dealing with both pandemics and climate change really need to take into account other countries. I don’t think we can solve the crisis without real international collaboration. Neither viruses nor weather respect the national borders, and closing the borders like North Korea does not seem to be a good option.

Scientists around the world are working around the clock to find a vaccine against the virus. When they succeed, it’s important that as many as possible of the world population get vaccinated around the world to develop ‘herd immunity’. Likewise, it’s important that climate scientists collaborate both when it comes to mitigation of climate change as well as adaptation to the changes that already are in the pipeline. Effects of local climate change affect remote countries through trade and politics.

As Gavin already has pointed out, we can also see some common ground between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change through a reduction in the CO2-emissions as the economy takes a hit. There are also reports of reduced aerosol levels and blue skies over Chinese megacities. These changes provide an opportunity to estimate their effects on climate in new ways.

Another common trait is the occasional misrepresentation of scientists’ position in some media. We have seen anti-vaxxers and quacksalvers offering fake medicines and spreading conspiracy theories, which we also are too familiar with from the public discourse on climate change.

A big difference between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change is how the governments and businesses respond, however. It seems as if fear really can prompt actions, a strategy communication experts suggest to avoid in climate change communication.

One explanation for the different response may be the different time scales of pandemics and climate change, and that the former involves a creepy indiscriminate contamination. The Covid-19 outbreak came as a big and sudden worldwide shock, whereas climate change comes in regional waves disguised as wildfires, floods and monster hurricanes.

In summary, the best way to deal with both pandemics and climate change must be based on science and good cooperation within and between nations. After all, we are all in the same boat. And a final word to those who have to provide home education as a result of social distancing, mathematics saves lives both in medicine and through climate research.

  1. D. Spiegelhalter, M. Pearson, and I. Short, "Visualizing Uncertainty About the Future", Science, vol. 333, pp. 1393-1400, 2011.