Lockdowns, global travel restrictions, social distancing. When was the last time you gathered with all your friends and family to celebrate something? How many hours have you spent in virtual meetings instead of face-to-face with colleagues?
Everyone is finding some part of the COVID-19 pandemic frustrating and understandably so, but COVID’s dominance over every part of our lives risks us forgetting about the other significant threats which are still awaiting us. While COVID-19 is the certainly the greatest challenge to global public health humanity has faced in a century, the threat posed by climate change is still destined to be far greater.
Global temperatures are getting hotter and will fundamentally and irreversibly alter our planet; Sir David Attenborough warns of a series of one-way doors beyond which these changes will only accelerate (2). Melting glaciers and polar ice caps are causing sea levels to rise – 8.76cm in 26 years (3) – and weather is becoming more extreme as heat waves, storms and hurricanes become more commonplace, protracted and intense. Whilst many species will become extinct, some, such as mosquitos, are thriving and are contributing to the growth of the global burden of disease (4).
More common droughts, wildfires, floods and other events will soon make many areas where agriculture is already difficult now almost impossible to farm, and rising sea levels - and the potential conflicts that will arise from a decline in available resources and arable land - will lead to more displaced populations and political unrest. For example, 2020 saw a landmass twice as large as that of the North American continent burnt by wildfires, forcing thousands to flee their homes in the midst of the pandemic (5). All this will place greater strain on countries’ essential infrastructures including health systems – the weaknesses of which have already been revealed by COVID.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause an excess 250,000 deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress alone and an extra $2-4 billion in associated health costs (6). We must also remember that some of those areas that will be hardest hit also have weak health systems and existing problems (7) and so the added pressures will have a proportionately greater impact upon them.
Even the most reasonable best-case scenario will require adapting the way we live far more than COVID has, whilst the worst-case will have an incalculable cost in human lives and biodiversity.
So what lessons from the pandemic are applicable to the accelerating health risks associated with climate change?
The role of science in government has never been clearer: reliable modelling has been central to decision-making throughout the pandemic, for example. Tackling climate change will require this same cemented working relationship between the scientific community and political leaders and the complexities involved with climate change-related predictions and projections can only be handled by subject-matter experts.
From mask mandates to lockdowns, governments have imposed controls on countries worldwide. They may have to take similar steps in the future, but they also need to lead the way on encouraging businesses and individuals to adopt greener practices (8), whilst also creating green jobs and training opportunities. In the UK, the furlough scheme and other subsidies have provided some level of support for millions of people and businesses that would otherwise have otherwise fared far worse. This shows how interventionalist government is both necessary and possible in such difficult times. That said, it will not fall solely on government to make changes. We saw many companies contribute to the pandemic response: whether it be major fashion houses making PPE or breweries making hand sanitiser. The Paris Agreement recognised the need for public-private cooperation to counter climate change and made a concerted effort to engage non-state actors in negotiations and activism (8).
As we ‘build back better’ from this pandemic, now is the time to invest in health and physical infrastructure with climate change in mind. This is vital to help those systems endure the greater strain that the myriad negative consequences of climate change will impose. For example, the EU is already proposing to increase its spending to 22 billion Euros over the next seven years on international efforts to address climate change, including improving management of limited fresh water supplies, anticipating and managing potential security issues and combating extreme weather (8).
New approaches to health issues should also be promoted, such as One Health, which addresses public health problems holistically, encompassing human, animal and environmental health to solve challenges that a narrower approach cannot. After all, climate change will affect every element of the global ecosystem so to consider elements individually seems sub-optimal.
Climate denial and COVID-denial have extensive overlaps, and many media commentators who identify as climate change deniers also rail against anti-COVID measures (9). Mass media groups and scientists should work together to learn from the disinformation that propagated throughout the pandemic when conveying scientific information to the public about climate change. Whether this be through more rigorous and swift fact-checking across social media (10) or by awarding more funds to programmes that train scientists in communication strategies (11), there are several options for improving public discourse around these complex issues.
The final lesson to take from the pandemic in the context of climate change is what kind of results are we hoping for. Throughout the pandemic, we have been focused on returning to as close to a pre-COVID society as before. Whether that will be possible in reality is uncertain; COVID-19 might be with us for years – if not decades – to come (12). But with climate change, even the best-case scenarios are hugely damaging: if warming is kept to 1.5°C by 2050, at least 70% of coral reefs will die and ice sheets will continue melting beyond 2100 (13).
The willingness to accept sacrifices for the greater good was demonstrated by the ways in which communities around the world rallied to obey lockdown restrictions during this pandemic. We will need to apply this emergency mindset to climate change, whether it means the loss of luxuries such as air travel, fast fashion and readily available meat – some of the most polluting industries (14) – or by making the effort to walk and cycle to work where possible.
Encouragingly, this pandemic has shown us just how quickly the world can take action to address a threat. Furthermore, with the advent of multiple vaccines, it is clear just what can be achieved when the scientific community focuses all its energy on one goal. That said, time is running out for our climate as we know it and it is unlikely that science will find all the solutions we need immediately to offset its impacts without requiring us as a global population to make major life concessions.
We only have 10 years left on the clock to cut emissions by 45% from 2010 levels and minimise the impact of climate change by keeping to the most likely best-case scenario of 1.5°C of warming (13). There is hope that this can be achieved but, even if it is, we shall have to accept the fact that both our notion of normal and the way we live our lives will have to stay flexible.
With the conclusion of COP26, the world has committed to taking action to address climate change and keep the hope of limiting warming to 1.5°C alive, even with the last-minute demands from India and China. Commitments to reduce emissions, transition to electric cars, and provide more funds to support at-risk populations are all positive outcomes, and the collaborative spirit that has been shown is similar to that demonstrated during COVID-19. That said, much like with vaccine donations and COVAX, the fate of poorer nations who will be harder hit – or could even disappear in the case of some islands – remains in the hands of a small number of major players. There is much work still to be done.
Climate change’s disrupting influence will lead to more refugees around the world. To find out more about the mental health effects of being a refugee and potential solutions, read our article Current Interventions in Psychological Treatments for Refugees.
At Aceso, we are committed to the principles of One Health. To find out more about One Health, read our article Bringing One Health into the Mainstream, or visit the Childhood Infections and Pollution (CHIP) consortium page to learn more about the work we are doing to improve the lives of children worldwide.
To hear more about misinformation during the pandemic, read our article Health Misinformation – Who’s Responsible?
By Matthew Williams
United Nations. The Greatest Threat To Global Security: Climate Change Is Not Merely An Environmental Problem. United Nations. [External Link] Published 2021. Accessed 18 May 2021.
CO2 Logic. Takeaway message from “a life on our planet”. CO2 Logic. [External Link] Published 2020. Accessed 17 May 2021.
Rebecca Lindsey. Climate Change: Global Sea Level. Climate.gov. [External Link] Published 2021. Accessed 16 May 2021.
National Geographic. Causes and Effects of Climate Change. National Geographic. [External Link] Accessed 16 May 2021.
Insurance Information Institute. Facts + Statistics: Wildfires. Insurance Information Institute. [External Link] Published 2021. Accessed 16 May 2021.
World Health Organization. Climate change. World Health Organization. [External Link] Accessed 15 May 2021.
Ahmed SM, Alam BB, Anwar I, Begum T, Huque R, Khan JAM, et al. Bangladesh Health System Review. 2015; 5(3). Manila: World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Western Pacific. [External Link]
Helga Maria Schmid. To Build Back Better We Must Cooperate on Climate Change. Wilson Center. [External Link] Published 2020. Accessed 16 May 2021.
Zak Derler. How the UK’s Climate Science Deniers Turned Their Attention to COVID-19. DeSmog. [External Link] Published 2020. Accessed 17 May 2021.
Aitken, N., Arnold, P. Bringing together the UK government, Facebook, and others to combat misinformation crises. Full Fact. [External Link] Published 2020. Accessed 29 December 2020.
British Science Association. Media Fellows. British Science Association. [External Link] Accessed 27 February 2020.
Priya Joi. Will we ever get rid of COVID-19? Gavi. [External Link] Published 2021. Accessed 15 May 2021.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Global Warming of 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [External Link] Accessed 16 May 2021.
Beth Howell. Top 7 Most Polluting Industries. The Eco Experts. [External Link] Published 2021. Accessed 17 May 2021.