disposable mask and plastic gloves float in water

COVID-19 And Climate Change: Some Wins, Some Losses, And Plenty Of Opportunities For Change

The year 2020 was the beginning of a brand new decade, full of hope and positivity — that is, until it wasn’t. From killer bees to social unrest to a global pandemic, 2020 has not turned out to be the year many had hoped.

Amidst all the anxiety, fear, and anger, people searched for a silver lining, eventually ending up with climate change. With self-quarantines and increased telecommuting, optimism began to spread that this pandemic may actually provide some much overdue love to our planet.

Whales had spread into what are normally shipping lanes, and in Brazil, sea turtles were able to hatch and dash back into the ocean without any human interruption. Everywhere, it seemed as though animals were living their best lives.

Since the mid-20th century, humans have had a serious impact on the planet and its climate, including a rise in global surface temperature (up about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century) and warming oceans (an increase in the top 2,300 feet of ocean by 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969).

Climate change goes far beyond the well-being of our planet. Disruptions to physical, biological, and ecological systems have detrimental impacts on human health.

climate change

Climate Change: A Serious Threat To Human Health

The impact of climate change on human health includes:

  • Air pollution, which can lead to asthma and cardiovascular disease
  • Extreme heat, which can lead to heart-related illnesses and death
  • Severe weather, which can lead to injuries, death, and mental health problems
  • Water and food supply impacts, which can lead to malnutrition
  • Water quality concerns, which can lead to cholder, leptospirosis, and campylobacter

Source: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

In short, when the Earth is hurting, people hurt, too.

A climate change success story during this otherwise trying year would be welcome news, indeed. However, as with much of 2020, things are not so simple. As a result of COVID-19, there have been positive impacts, negative ones, and some that straddle the divide.

COVID-19, Telecommuting, And The Environment

There was a short-lived moment when Earth-lovers (and those who hate getting dressed for work) rejoiced over the increased number of Americans working from home. In May, 42% of Americans were telecommuting full time to avoid unnecessary contact with others. Hour-long commutes in the car turned into 30-second commutes to the kitchen table, and the planet was certainly grateful … right?

Yes — and no. Let’s start with the positive. Transportation is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (gases, such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, that trap heat in the atmosphere, making the planet warmer), and any reduction in transportation is a good thing for the planet.

In April, at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, carbon dioxide emissions decreased by more than 25%, and nitrous oxide emissions decreased by 30% in the 123 countries that are responsible for 99% of fossil fuel emissions.

Though these changes were drastic, they are likely to be short-lived. As lockdowns inevitably loosen (and have already begun to do so), emissions will go back up. In the end, experts say the impact will be negligible.

However, there is an upside. About 94% of employers have said their company productivity has remained the same — if not higher — while employees work from home. As a result, 83% of employers say they plan to allow for more work from home options. If remote work does actually become more widespread, the positive impact on the planet could also be here to stay.

Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere

Remember when our primary plastic-related problems were the overuse of plastic straws and bags, leading to bans in cities around the US and the world? Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to contain the virus have led to an uptick in the use of single-use plastic products — and it’s not doing anything helpful for the environment.

From surgical masks to latex gloves to bottles of hand sanitizer, plastic has played a major role in preventing infection from the virus. While these products are all necessary in keeping people healthy, plastic has ended up on streets and in oceans, adding to the roughly 8 million tons of plastic trash that have leaked into the ocean each year prior to the pandemic.

Increased plastic use has also seeped into the restaurant and retail industries. Factors like banning reusable bags at grocery stores and increased takeout meals — including accompanying plastic silverware — have damaged the efforts of environmentalists that have taken years to achieve.

While fears of contracting the virus from reusable items are not unfounded, there are some here-and-now measures that can slow the consumption of plastic. Use reusable face masks (and wash them frequently), buy hand sanitizer in ecologically-sustainable packaging, and request that your takeout order not come with unnecessary plastic silverware.

How COVID-19 Has Revealed Climate-Related Racial Disparities

The air we breathe is critical to our health. But when that air is filled with ground-level ozone (a harmful air pollutant and key component of smog) and particulate matter (such as dust, dirt, soot, and smoke), a variety of health problems can occur, such as diminished lung function and dangerous asthma-related complications.

Toxic air pollution is a common concern in low income and Black communities due to the increased presence of industrial companies in their neighborhoods.

Enter COVID-19 — a respiratory disease that begins its damage by attacking the lungs. Unfortunately, COVID-19 deaths have been connected to exposure to toxic air pollution, meaning people who are already exposed to this pollution are at an increased risk.

Preliminary data is already showing that low income and Black communities are facing disproportionately higher rates of infection and death from the virus. Compared to white Americans, Black Americans are 3 times more likely to contract COVID-19 and almost twice as likely to die from it.

While toxic air is just one of many possible reasons for the significant disparity, this connection has sparked a long-overdue conversation. Climate change is being discussed more openly, especially as it pertains to health. Just as importantly, many are recognizing how this problem serves as an injustice to an already marginalized community.

COVID-19, Climate Change, And The Future

Among all the cards that 2020 has dealt so far, climate change may not be at the forefront of most people’s minds. However, it’s certainly worth consideration, especially as it pertains to the health and well-being of its inhabitants.

The detrimental impacts are difficult to ignore. For instance, states including California, Oregon, and Washington are currently battling a disastrous and historic fire season — and many scientists and officials say climate change is to blame. Dozens of lives have already been lost due to these fires, and there’s no end in sight.

The COVID-19 pandemic does not offer immediate solutions to climate change, and it even poses significant challenges. However, along with many of the events that have made up the year 2020, it presents opportunities to create positive change now and into the future.

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