Coronavirus, global warming are parallel problems we can conquer, if we act

In my native country of India, pink flamingos descended upon the once bustling city of Navi, Mumbai, in numbers never seen before — reports say as many as 150,000 or a 25% increase. Farther north in Punjab, people can now marvel at views of the snowcapped Himalayas, something that hasn’t been possible for decades.

As in the U.S., the Indian government imposed a strict lockdown to mitigate the coronavirus crisis, leaving many businesses shuttered. Traffic has nearly disappeared and most industrial production has ceased. Less human activity makes for friendlier environments for wildlife. Drops in carbon emissions translate to lower air pollution, better air quality and improved visibility. 

China, the leading contributor of greenhouse gases, saw a 25% drop in the gases during in the month of April. Chinese consumption of coal fell by 36%. With fewer cars being driven, levels of nitrogen dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas from automobile exhaust, also decreased. In the northeastern U.S., greenhouse gas measurements fell by 30%. No matter, these improvements are not permanent and nature is not going to correct itself to a preindustrialized state because of our suspended activities. 

The pandemic has taught us yet again that our economic, health, political, social and cultural systems are not ready or willing to deal with crises of this magnitude.

Climate change is here to stay, and the world can continue to anticipate increasing numbers of heat waves, floods, damaging hurricanes and the loss of biodiversity — all things that require unprecedented efforts and decades to mitigate.

Seth Soman

We can draw at least two parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. First, both are global problems with deadly consequences. The coronavirus has killed 260,000 people so far and studies show that climate change can kill 250,000 people annually, every year from 2030 to 2050. Examples of climate change-related deaths include malnutrition and heat stress. 

Second, scientists have been warning us about the seriousness of both and we have responded by dragging our feet. We simply have not developed the necessary policies to adequately address the severity of these threats.

The pandemic has taught us yet again that our economic, health, political, social and cultural systems are not ready or willing to deal with crises of this magnitude. This is not the first time we observed humans reverting back to our old patterns of behaviors after a significant event led to unintended improvements to the environment. Examples from history include the Great Depression, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and even the 2008 global financial crisis. In all instances, the environmental consequences fell disproportionately on poor communities. Climate change creates instability and instability leads to conflict. Mitigating climate change is a national security imperative. 

A climate change setback

Unfortunately, this pandemic has set us back in our climate change fight. With U.S. unemployment estimated to be 15% to 18%, the instinct will be to take drastic actions to climb out of a recession. Policymakers will have little appetite for long-term solutions that will create jobs and provide environmental sustainability. We mustn’t give up.

Studies have shown that well-designed policies can do both. For example, during the 2008 global financial crisis, the Swedish government provided fiscal stimulus for the development and improvement of green industries such as biofuels, biogas, batteries, solar cells and electric cars. This action provided a significant source of investment for those sectors and saved industry jobs while simultaneously providing environmental sustainability through reduced emissions. Investors are eager to reward such organizations. Recent stock market data suggest that companies that practice Environment Social Governance (ESG mutual funds) are outperforming traditional stocks traded on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. This new phenomenon reflects investors’ interest in an organization’s long-range thinking and planning.

The time to build resiliency is now. We can flatten the curve by investing in greener economic systems and build smaller and less complex supply chains that could easily bounce back. We can flatten the curve by curbing carbon emissions and by disincentivizing the use of fossil fuels and rewarding the use of energy from solar, wind, tides and other renewables.

We owe it to the next generation to act. They shouldn’t have to wait decades to marvel at snowcapped mountains. 

Seth Soman is an associate professor of management at Norwich University.

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