Why We Can't Ignore the Link Between COVID-19, Climate Change and Inequity

April 2, 2020 by Cassandra Ceballos

Written by Dr.Elizabeth Sawin, originally published by US News and World Report on April 1, 2020

Us News April 2020
Image credit: Maria Khrenova/Getty Images

Today we face three massive threats, and the only way to neutralize any one of them is to succeed at addressing all three at once.

One, the COVID-19 pandemic, is playing out over days, weeks and months. Another, climate change, is playing out more slowly, but requires urgent action now. Scientists tell us we face clear deadlines, like cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in the next decade. The third is an epidemic as old as the country: racial and economic inequity.

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. If we continue to address these problems entirely in isolation from one another, solutions to one problem could make the others much worse.

We already see this potential in China, which is some months ahead of the United States in coping with the pandemic. There, environmental rules are being relaxed in an effort to restart the economy, potentially worsening climate change and air pollution.

A second example: Steps to fight the coronavirus, including social distancing policies, hit those with the least wealth the hardest, potentially increasing racial and economic inequality. Progress on the virus front could come with losses on the equity front if we aren’t careful.

Moreover, leaving any one of these threats unaddressed makes the others harder to solve.

Climate impacts, if not addressed, could weaken our ability to respond to the virus. How can people flooded from their homes maintain social distance in a Red Cross shelter? What happens when agencies tasked with disaster recovery must cope with coronavirus and climate impacts at the same time? Or – imagine the irony – we bring the corner coffee shop and the family-owned bakery back from the edge of coronavirus-induced collapse only to have them flooded out by the next storm surge or their inventory destroyed by power shut-offs during fire season.

In a world where disasters have been shown to widen equity gaps, both the climate crisis and the pandemic, if allowed to persist, could leave our society even less equitable.

It doesn’t have to play out this way. Today, we have extraordinary opportunities to design responses to each problem in ways that could ameliorate the others. With care, one expenditure of time and money can help improve multiple problems, a strategy my colleagues at Climate Interactive and I call ”multisolving.”

We’ve done it before: In facing the 2008 financial crisis the Obama administration solved many problems at once when investing $2.7 billion to weatherize more than 340,000 homes of low-income families. A study found that the program created jobs, reduced carbon dioxide emissions and saved more than it cost in residents’ energy bills and health care costs.

We could also boost the economy by investing in public transit as well as walking and cycling infrastructure. We could invest in clean energy and reap an additional dividend in cleaner air. We could invest in the kinds of green infrastructure that help cope with climate change impacts like green roofs, forests, wetlands, oyster beds and mangroves. That restorative work could be part of a jobs program for displaced workers, who also could be employed insulating homes, building a clean energy grid and installing wind and solar power generation.

As we come to recognize the vulnerability of global supply chains, many regions are newly motivated to reinvigorate manufacturing of key items, like medicine or medical equipment. A coordinated response to the pandemic and climate change would make sure such new manufacturing facilities run off of 100% clean energy, with state-of-the-art efficiency in use of energy and materials.

Then there’s the social safety net that many argue must be strengthened to keep people fed, housed and healthy through the duration of the pandemic. These supports could be designed not only to get us through the pandemic but also to help smooth out the economic bumps and discontinuities of a transition to a climate-safe economy.

That’s a lot of win-wins, but unfortunately synergies don’t just happen. They must be planned and designed for, which is why we must as soon as possible – in our cities, states and nations – convene emergency task forces to tackle equity, the pandemic and climate change as an integrated whole.

These task forces will need expertise in climate, clean energy, equity, public health, epidemiology and people-centered economics. Each task force should include an additional kind of expertise: the life experience of those who are most impacted by inequity, climate change and COVID-19. Those who live with the impacts of multiple problems often have the most creative ideas about addressing them.

Time and money are in short supply. There isn’t enough of either to treat equity, climate change and the current pandemic as separate issues. A holistic, multisolving approach is an effective, cost-saving way to tackle the great challenges of our times.