Colliding climate crisis: Addressing the urgency now

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Nearly six years before the current COVID-19 crisis that has claimed close to 1.5 million lives globally, philanthropist and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates gave a TED talk, “The next outbreak? We’re not ready.” 

The timing coincided with an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that had claimed more than 10,000 lives. Gates warned that pandemics were inevitable, the next one could be much worse, and while there was much to do to get ready, no country was very well prepared. 

He then laid out a clear path toward improving preparedness, including both the cost of his steps and the economic returns this investment would reap by averting an even deeper crisis. The only missing piece was that Gates could not predict when the pandemic would arrive; no one could. 

As a new surge of the ravages of COVID-19 engulfs the world, the much longer emergency of climate change crisis also grows more visible. 

Over the past two decades, there have been at least 7,348 climate disaster events worldwide, causing over 1.2 million excess deaths and affecting more than four billion people in total. In 2020, again one of the hottest years on record, the United States endured its busiest hurricane season and its highest number of $1 billion+ natural disasters. The California wildfires burned over four million acres, more than doubling the state’s previous record set just two years ago. 

As devastating as the human and economic impacts of COVID-19 have been, the anticipated threats of climate change are as horrific— and could be worse.

More than 100 million people were pushed into extreme poverty this year due to COVID-19. In the coming decade, climate change could more than double that number permanently, with an additional 529,000 adult lives lost due to food unavailability by 2050

As a professor in a graduate program of health systems management, my job is to educate our next generation of healthcare leaders about how to best use the resources they are responsible for in order to improve people’s lives. 

While this work previously focused on serving patient needs directly, increasingly it also requires a focus on preventing harm. Even in the midst of the pandemic, there is no greater threat to our collective health than the threats to our ecosystem.

If one imagines the earth as a living creature, climate change is its infectious disease. The global average temperature has begun rising at a rate of more than 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit a decade. Just like a human fever, rising temperatures create a hostile environment for noxious agents until a new equilibrium is restored.

Similar to a pandemic, an ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure — especially since in this scenario humans are the noxious agents. Although it is too late to prevent this climate infection, it is not too late to treat it. 

The most credible treatment plan available emerged with the Paris Agreement of 2015. As with a human patient, the remedies require the whole body’s participation. Bed rest won’t work if only a few limbs are involved. 

When President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the agreement, the entire treatment regimen was put in jeopardy. President-elect Joe Biden has announced his intent to rejoin the Accord, along with a host of new policies, bringing new hope for a successful course of treatment. While it is tempting to view this news as an accomplishment, in reality, it is only a starting point. 

The “bed rest” the planet needs require fundamental changes to how its resources are used — otherwise, the prognosis continues to deteriorate. The policy has a critical role to play in the planetary healing process, as does individual action. 

Biden’s plan includes aggressive curbs on the most noxious carbon emissions as well as significant investment in reskilling people for a less climate-damaging economy. Although the plan has been criticized for not going far enough, it is still a threat to the profitability of many polluting industries and is likely to face opposition. 

The League of Conservation Voters maintains an online resource for tracking environmental voting records. The website links to state legislators by zip code in order to see how they are doing on environmental issues,. If representatives don’t seem to share a constituent’s concern for the environment, they can call the representative’s office and let them know. The site also lists upcoming environmental legislation, so you can reach out in advance of important votes.

Personal commitments to climate health are equally important — particularly in the near-term while fossil fuels still dominate. 

Household consumption is responsible for close to 80 percent of all direct and indirect emissions. Roughly 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are from residential energy use alone. This footprint can be reduced by choosing smaller homes as well as making homes more efficient, by using more efficient lights and appliances, electrification and insulation. 

Residential energy professionals can conduct a home audit to help you find ways to reduce unnecessary energy use; you can also do one yourself by following an online guide. Frequency and type of travel are also important factors. Avoiding a single transatlantic flight will save more carbon emissions than the average person emits in a year in 56 countries. 

Replacing a domestic flight with rail travel can reduce carbon emissions by 84 percent. Food choices also have a big impact, with red meat being the most problematic for the environment. Every time someone replaces beef with chicken, the carbon footprint of the meal is cut in half.

Yes, recently announced COVID vaccines promise to stem the death tolls wrought by COVID. It’s time to start working on a vaccine for the planet. 

Andrew N. Garman is Professor of Health Systems Management at Rush University, a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project, and author of the forthcoming book, Healing our Future: Leadership for a Changing Health System. 

Tags Carbon footprint Climate change Donald Trump Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment Joe Biden

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