21 April 2020   Leave a comment

Tomorrow will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I do not remember the first one very well (I will confess that I was paying far more attention to the Vietnam War at the time). But I was aware of the growing movement to protect the environment, a movement that now seems to be very powerful yet still not centrally involved in the decision-making of most states. The Council on Foreign Relations has produced a very useful timeline of the environmental movement in the proceedings of the United Nations, itself not well represented in national decision-making. The UN only created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1992. That panel has produced five environmental assessments since that time and is currently working on the sixth which is scheduled for release in 2022. Those assessments have become increasingly dire since 1992 and the IPCC has clearly concluded that climate change is caused by human activity.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic will put a damper on the celebrations of the anniversary, but that sad situation also highlights the significance of the climate for human health.  Lynda V. Mapes, writing for PhysOrg, explains the link:

“Organizers for Earth Day’s 50th anniversary envisioned a 1-billion-person, global commemoration marked with gatherings, marches, speeches, concerts and more. Years of work in the organizing—now canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. But the global standstill itself is a profound statement of nature’s power, and human vulnerability, not only now in the pandemic but as the planet hurtles toward a warmer future.

“‘COVID is a real warning that when Mother Nature decides to act, we are pretty puny,’ said Gene Duvernoy, who helped organize 50th anniversary events for Earth Day Northwest 2020. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which as of Friday had claimed . Today, humankind faces not only the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic but the catastrophe of global warming. In the scale of geologic time, it is happening just as fast, and already for some species and communities is more destructive.

The stay-in-place orders have reduced economic activity to a substantial degree and it is a very heavy price for many people. But the economic slowdown has also reduced the emission of greenhouse gas emissions which is dramatic and which demonstrates the significance of human activity on climate:

Comparison of air quality based on NO2 in China before and after social distancing measures

Second, the arguments against climate change and the significance of the COIVD-19 virus are all based upon an affirmation of “common sense” as opposed to scientific analysis. That struggle continues (as it has since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century). In the case of COVID-19, however, it does appear that science has the upper hand because of the immediacy of the effects of ignoring it. The protests against the stay-at-home orders have been intense, but small, despite President Trump’s encouragement. Polling evidence indicates that large majorities of the US population support the stay-at-home orders. One can hope that the sentiment supporting science vis-a-vis COVID-19 might ultimately spillover to the climate change debate.

Third, there is accumulating evidence that the degradation of the environment has contributed to the emergence of COVID-19 and perhaps other novel viruses. Air pollution had a definite effect on the seriousness of the COVID-19 infection:

“Because COVID-19 attacks our lungs, air pollution makes us more vulnerable to the virus. It’s no surprise that COVID-19 deaths are high in places with poor air quality. Recent research from Harvard University documents this well. In fact, the study’s findings, the researchers noted, “underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.”

Additionally, the rapid growth of human populations has infringed upon the natural environment, leading to a closer interaction between humans and wildlife. The Guardian reports:

“Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis, according to the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen.

“Andersen said humanity was placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences, and warned that failing to take care of the planet meant not taking care of ourselves.

“Leading scientists also said the Covid-19 outbreak was a ‘clear warning shot’, given that far more deadly diseases existed in wildlife, and that today’s civilisation was ‘playing with fire’. They said it was almost always human behaviour that caused diseases to spill over into humans.

“To prevent further outbreaks, the experts said, both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people.”

The connection between climate change and the coronavirus is not clear to most people. But the pandemic may be tipping the scales back in favor of a more scientific approach to policy issues. More importantly, the breakdown of the petroleum industry, as reflected in the negative price for oil, may weaken the power of the oil and natural gas industry to dominate the discussion about climate change. We will see how much money the Trump Administration uses from the bailout programs to rescue the industry.

Posted April 21, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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