Climate change and COVID-19: Understanding existential threats

Climate change and COVID-19: Understanding existential threats
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Some people are still falsely saying that climate change is a hoax. Many are also falsely saying the same thing about the COVID-19 pandemic. They are wrong on both counts. Both climate change and the variants of the novel coronavirus are profoundly real.

Others, who point to the spate of enormously damaging climate-related events, say that we are in a climate “crisis.” And it’s not the only preventable crisis: On July 27 COVID-19 cases in the United States climbed to 108,000, the first time above 100,000 cases since Valentine’s Day. A “crisis” is, by definition, “a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger.

Then there are those (many of the same people who use the term “crisis”), who say that both climate change and COVID-19 pose “existential threats” to humankind. Is that hyperbole? It is certainly the polar opposite of claiming that either is a “hoax”.

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Asteroids or volcanoes or something else global (like a virus?) were clearly existential threats for dinosaurs. Warming oceans with increasingly acidic low pH levels are demonstrably existential threats to coral reefs all across the planet because they cannot migrate. But neither COVID-19 with its Delta variant and subsequent variants nor climate change with its myriad of increasingly frequent and intense impacts are existential threats to the entirety of the human race — at this point in time.

It is possible, though, to offer a more precise variant of the standard definition of an “existential threat” – “A threat to something’s very existence when the continued being of something is a stake or in danger”.  To be germane for one human being or his family in today’s climate, I suggest: An external and global source of stress that creates random events which would put a randomly selected person, his or her family, or community or region or country in mortal danger if those events were to occur where he or she lives.

We know that COVID-19 is currently an existential threat for individuals because we know, on July 27 for example, that the Delta variant will infect five people who live somewhere on the planet in the next second. In short, COVID-19 is an existential threat to any human being, and so it is existential to us all to a degree that depends on where we live, the color of our skin, how rich we are and whether or not we are fully vaccinated.

As well, we know that climate change is currently an existential threat for anybody who lives anywhere on the planet because fires, heat, floods, drought and other extreme weather. How so? Because climate change will unnecessarily kill 85 of every 100,000 people on the planet every year – most in Africa, but generally on every continent except Antarctica. It follows that climate change threats are as existential to us all as COVID-19.

Not surprisingly given the many parallels that have already been discussed, using “existential” this way again makes COVID-19 and climate change look like the same problem on different time scales. So, how can we reduce these threats?

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  1. For COVID-19, we can wear a mask whenever possible to lower the likelihood of infection and take the vaccine both to lower the likelihood of infection and also eliminate the more severe consequences.
  1. For climate change, we can invest in mitigation to lower emissions and thus the likelihoods of some extreme events over the long run, but we can also invest in adaptation that can directly lower consequences immediately.

As instructive as this parallel is, there is one difference. Adapting for COVID-19 eliminates the most severe consequences of contracting the virus. Adapting to climate change, on the other hand, eliminates its less severe but more likely consequences of extreme events.

For that reason, reducing emissions to lower the likelihood of the extreme consequences of climbing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is even more critical than COVID-19 prevention measures.

Gary Yohe, Ph.D., is the Huffington Foundation professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus at Wesleyan University.