COVID-19 and Climate Change

Author: Kwickham | Category: Environment | Health | Date: 04-04-2020


The Coronavirus Pandemic and Climate Change  - What Can We Learn?

Both the coronavirus and climate change are significant threats to humans.  However, the coronavirus pandemic is playing out on a much shorter time scale. There are many lessons to be learned in both directions – how the coronavirus response can help us act (faster) to mitigate climate change, and how lessons from climate action can help us respond to coronavirus.

Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University, called the virus “climate change on warp speed.”  The emergency of the virus is playing out over weeks and months whereas climate change spans years, decades, and likely centuries. 

Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology said: “Both demand early aggressive action to minimize loss.  Only in hindsight will we really understand what we gambled on and what we lost by not acting early enough.”

The following are some thoughts on the intersection and similarities between our responses to coronavirus and global warming.

Some people didn’t believe it was real at first -  or didn’t take it seriously enough.

There are tipping points in the progression beyond which it is really hard to recover from.  Early action is important.  The response may look like an overreaction at the time, but in reality, hindsight will show that stronger and earlier action should have been taken.  In the moment, “It looks like nothing is wrong until it is too late, and everything is wrong’.

In both cases we know that:  Truth matters.   Science matters.  Leadership matters. 

Individual Action is required – it takes all of us to do the same things (and the right things) that we know will work to get us out of the mess we are in.  The things we need to do are quite different to slow the spread of coronavirus and mitigate climate change, but disaster would ensue if individuals failed to act.

Local Government role – local governments are at the forefront of taking meaningful action quickly and directly in their own communities.  Often, states and nations will follow their lead. Examples:

  • Santa Clara County Shelter in place order along with 6 other counties was the first in the nation. 
  • Reach codes for new building construction may pave the way for statewide all electric building code at the next code cycle.

State role – California has been a leader in both climate and coronavirus response. “As California goes, so goes the nation”.

National role and policy -  As much and as important as city, county and state actions are, it is not enough.  Nations must also participate actively to set policy, coordinate response, and ensure consistency.

International cooperation – Although we have not seen it demonstrated very successfully in either the pandemic or climate change, countries could be extremely valuable to each other in loaning, donating or selling: services, technologies, supplies, equipment, knowledge and best practices to each other.  Our ‘us vs. them’ mentality that is a significant ‘feature’ of being human does not lend itself to cross border assistance – especially in times of crisis.  But perhaps the ‘us’ could be reframed to ‘Humanity’ instead of Californians, Americans, Chinese, and Italians.  We are human.  That could doom us or save us.

Role of businesses and technology companies – Whether businesses step up on their own or are required to by governments, they have huge capabilities and resources to bring to the table.  For example, supply chains, manufacturing capabilities, energy choices, construction of new buildings, and access to capital.

There will be massive suffering – and death.

It can unify us (or divide us).

We know what needs to be done – and it turns out, it’s not that difficult or complicated. 

But it will be difficult and complicated – and expensive.

Both are pandemic.  They affect all humans – some worse than others. Vulnerable populations need protection. Essential workers are often not paid well or have difficult working conditions. 

Some experience only mild (or no symptoms) while others will die (sometimes alone and separated from their families).

Breathing is super important.  COVID attacks our lungs.  Climate change affects the air itself (oxygen, pollution).

The fever of a person battling COVID-19 and the global warming of our planet are defense mechanisms – the immune system at work – to defend itself against a formidable opponent.

Each person must fight the virus alone (and internalize the implications of inaction on warming the earth), but we must also work together as one species to solve it.  Working together, communicating and maintaining social trust are all hugely important. The internet is (or can be) awesome for this.

The threat is invisible and very small and carried in the air – coronavirus and CO2 molecules.

The COVID-19 vaccine is like technology for solving climate change - big promises, under development, and too late to save many from suffering and death.

We have proven that we can do a lot really quickly in an emergency.  Some countries have controlled the virus.  Greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution have dropped measurably.  People are getting work done without commuting or flying.  Perhaps many lives will be saved or extended because of the improved air quality.  Likely it is even more lives than could be saved from Coronavirus when looked at over the scale of a decade.

It is possible to address climate change quickly as well – when we decide it is important enough.


Kristel Wickham

April 2, 2020


Subsequent to writing these thoughts I found a few podcasts and videos that have elucidated similar patterns (and describe them more deeply and eloquently).    Here they are.  Worth a listen/watch.

The Big Life Questions Podcast Episode 50: How Do We Reverse Global Warming?

Climate One Podcast: COVID-19 and Climate: Human Response

CNN Bill Weir video (3 min.)


About: Kwickham



Molly Cox
Excellent article Kristel! We need to convince our legislators to look forward to clean energy solutions rather than supporting dirty fossil fuels that harm the environment and our health.
Shruti C
Loved it, Kristel! It’s been an eye-opener for me as well on how the bottoms-up approach of individual behavior change & social influence can be equally important to have a huge impact. We have to make our voices heard & your article does exactly that!
Victor Wan
This article is great as it finally allows to understand the rapid pace at which the virus spreads among people, and how some perceive it as "climate change on warp speed". Both subjects will lead to impactful results, further encouraging us to act quickly and adjust ourselves to save the earth and ...Read more the human population. I like how the author included some comments and thoughts that others hold when climate change and corona are occurring at the same time, as they really give insight to what some people think would happen in the future. Less
Tiffany Lee
I enjoyed reading this article, as it gave us a good outlook on how we should be acting during this pandemic. It not only reminded me of how this is affecting our society and everyday life, but also how it has changed people's actions towards others.
Leo Lin
Do you think that the governments can learn from the coronavirus and start setting up laws and projects in order to combat global warming?
Kylee Kim
It's quite strange to consider the coronavirus as a somewhat time-lapsed version of the ongoing crisis of climate change. I am curious as to how our international governments will take action considering these commonalities in the future once the virus has been fought down. Do you believe that ...Read more there will be a considerable amount of action taken post-pandemic or do you think it will still be a long journey of persuasion for anything to really get done similar to how it was prior to this pandemic Less
Jake Kim
I really did not know that climate change and the coronavirus outbreak had that much in common. Would you say that this pandemic was worth it, considering how it mitigated the climate crisis and how it displayed solutions for many flaws in the world(such as the lack of virus outbreak preparation)?
I really enjoyed reading this article. It gave me a new insight into how human actions are affecting the environment and the people, and it also reminded me how impactful humans can be. I do agree with everything that is said, and I would also like to add on to the similarities between the ...Read more coronavirus and climate change. It is said that unknown bacteria and viruses are hidden and trapped in polar ice caps. With climate change and global warming, these ice caps will melt, allowing these viruses to escape into our ocean's waters. This exemplifies a clear connection with the coronavirus as we have never before seen such an illness. If polar ice caps continue to melt, we will only encounter more unfamiliar diseases, in the future which will pose a major threat to the global community, as the coronavirus pandemic has already done. Thus, it is very important that we address climate change just as it states in the article to save our environment and prevent the rise of further unknown diseases in the future Less
Marianna Raymond
Kristel, this is an excellent analysis of the relationships and parallels between these two threats. You are right that there must be cooperation at all levels, including internationally. A rather frightening article in The New Republic, April 2, called”The Next Pandemic Could Be Hiding in the ...Read more Arctic Permafost,”warns that with the melting of the Arctic permafrost, long buried viruses and bacteria will emerge. It seems obvious that we can’t just react to each new threat; instead, there should be ongoing research, production and warehousing of PPE, testing equipment, hospital facilities at the ready, etc. Governor Newsom has shown excellent leadership in the current crisis. Certainly here in the Bay Area, we started sheltering, I believe, before others. The scientists say that every day counts, and those governors who waited so long may regret it. Sadly, while we’ve all be sheltering, washing our hands, etc. California has just granted 24 new hydraulic fracking permits in Jern County. I thought Newsom understood the issue of climate change and the importance of moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible! Let’s all write Newsom to oppose these new operations! Less
Sue C. April 13, 2020 12:10 pm
Yes, that should be our action item for ESP.
Gladwyn d'Souza
Thank you, very thought provoking. It will be interesting to see if the virus can change minds; if Mississippi wakes up one morning and says Hallelujah we should have followed California, but let's take decisive action now. Missouri just issued a stay-at-home order, an old dog can learn new ...Read more tricks, but as you say in the article, sooner and decisive is more important that coming reluctantly to the party. Walking is one habit essential for the climate that the virus seems to be changing, which our cities haven't accommodated sooner or decisively, leaving people without the ability to social distance on sidewalks Less

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