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Climate and COVID — a powerful intersection that needs more attention

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

As we continue to battle COVID-19 and struggle to address climate change, we are confronting what it will increasingly take to combat simultaneous global emergencies and, critically, the interplay between the two.

The National Academy of Medicine recently launched a public-private partnership recognizing both that the health care system produces close to 10 percent of U.S. carbon emissions and that climate change is increasingly affecting people’s health. Regarding the latter, a recent University of Cambridge study provided the first evidence that climate change may have played a direct role in the emergence of the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic by expanding the habitat of virus-carrying bats.

We are long overdue in taking stock of these sorts of dynamics.

Comparing climate and COVID, there is one obvious difference: time frames. Our initial response to COVID — the contagion and its cure — was measured in weeks and months. In contrast, we measure our climate efforts in years and decades. At the same time, there are increasing signals that COVID will not be a short-term threat that we conquer but, as a recent McKinsey study put it, “a part of everyday life that we must learn to endure.” Meanwhile, as climate predictions become ever more dire, the calls for expedited progress by the end of this decade become ever louder. Add other grinding global crises — poverty, health equity, drought, and now Russia’s attack on Ukraine — and the global scene is downright daunting.

The good news is that scientists have been hard at work on both COVID and climate. 

The COVID-19 virus was quickly isolated; targeted vaccines and drugs were developed in record time, and effective treatments are already in use. Similarly, there is now significant consensus in the mainstream scientific community about the scope and speed of climate change, and practical solutions are emerging in our big carbon-producing sectors, from increasingly cheap clean electricity, energy efficiency, and carbon capture technologies to plug-in vehicles and lower-carbon industry.

The bad news is that even as our understanding of these related challenges improves — and as solutions emerge — the politics necessary to confront them worsens. 

What should be a great national and international effort, too often devolves into partisan squabbling and protest. Thus, former vice-presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, recently declared “It’ll be over my dead body that I’ll have to get a shot … I won’t do it, and they better not touch my kids, either.” This COVID-related resistance — of the political sort — is unfortunately on the rise as restrictions on vaccine mandates proliferate in Republican-led states. Elsewhere, from Canada to Europe to Australia, organized anti-vax demonstrations are on the rise.

Former Gov. Palin has also declared that climate change is a myth that policymakers use “to have more control over us, our homes, our businesses, our families, our lives.” And while bipartisanship recently prevailed in climate and health-friendly federal infrastructure legislation, signed by President Biden, the GOP has been actively resisting the Build Back Better bill and the help it would provide to addressing global warming, critical medical needs, and other challenges.

More than anything else, the scary problem in addressing these challenges is mistrust of government — and science — by a surprisingly large and growing segment of the population. This group increasingly demonizes government — and politicizes science itself. We must address this phenomenon head-on if we are to overcome the societal discord blocking real progress.

There are three lessons that we should take from our attempts to address COVID-19 and climate.

First, better understand — and communicate — the connections between a warming planet and disease transmission. As the earth heats up, disease-causing organisms are emerging more rapidly, animal vectors are increasing, and the interval between outbreaks is dropping. At the same time, the International Energy Agency reports that the pandemic is “curbing investments and threatening to slow the expansion of key clean energy technologies” so vital to fighting climate change. On the plus side, COVID-19 is cutting global energy use as we learn to conduct more and more business, education and policy making online.

Second, get our toolbox in shape. We must continue to invest — aggressively — in the solutions that will dig us out of the pandemic, climate change and other global challenges. The one-two punch of federal infrastructure spending and the pending Build Back Better bill is a great place to start. We must also double down on support for CDC, NIH and FDA, the agencies tasked by Congress to prepare us for the next pandemic.

Third, and most importantly, find common ground on climate, pandemic control, and other increasingly politicized global challenges. Bringing health and environmental advocates to the table with business leaders and politicians can expand opportunities to both “do good and do well” and thereby help depoliticize these problems. At the same time, government policy making should strive for open processes, rigorous technical analysis, and ear-to-the-ground communication. Opportunities to “reach across the aisle” should be aggressively pursued at all levels. The Problem Solvers Caucus in the U.S. House is a good attempt, with its commitment to finding common ground between Democrats and Republicans on key issues facing the nation.

Fashioning technically smart and politically savvy responses to climate and COVID — that also address the significant interplay between the two — will help us both beat these intersecting challenges and better confront the other global crises we face.

Dr. Steven Galson was Acting U.S. Surgeon General, Chief Medical Officer at EPA and DOE, FDA’s Director of Drug Evaluation and Research, and a senior executive at Amgen.

Dan Reicher, senior scholar at Stanford’s Woods Institute, was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy and DOE Chief of Staff, Google’s Director of Climate and Energy, and founding director of the Stanford Center on Energy Policy and Finance.

Tags anti-science Climate change Coronavirus COVID-19 Human impact on the environment Joe Biden pandemic politics Politics of climate change Science

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