Sunday, March 29, 2020

Climate In the Time of Coronavirus

“wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.” - Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera 

Full disclosure, I haven't actually read Love in the time of Cholera (GGM of choice at uni was One Hundred Years of Solitude). But what I really wanted to write about right now, was the environment in these trying times of SARS-CoV-2 and its disease counterpart of CoViD-19. The scale and spread of this pandemic have increasingly dominated headlines since late January, when the cases in China began to make the international news. Yet during this time, there has also been concern that the all-consuming nature of dealing with a pandemic has already eclipsed some current natural disasters and may distract from making meaningful progress towards addressing another existential threat - climate change. I'll start with the negatives, and end on a slightly more optimistic note.

Locust Swarm
Locust Swarm in Madagscar. Source: Laika ac
Yes, cancelled meetings and the prospect of economic recovery are likely to derail negotiations and international coordination on climate action, but Mother Nature is letting herself be known in other ways that are just not getting the attention they deserve. And while COVID-19 and complications has already killed over 30,000 people globally, it is important to recognise that persistent challenges like hunger have profound impacts on far more people annually. Climate-change-exacerbated disasters this year have already undermined the ability of residents in many countries across the low latitudes to meet their food and livelihood needs.

In the last few months, locust swarms - the worst seen in 25 years - have decimated crops in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Why are locust swarms more severe under climate change? The likely culprit is a combination of higher CO2, warmer temperatures, and heavier rainfall from cyclones stimulating plant growth and ensuring both favourable breeding conditions and food supply for these little hoppers. Numbering in the billions, locusts can consume 80-100% of the crops in an infested region, furthering undermining food security for tens of millions of people.

In other news, Vietnam's Mekong Delta has experienced extreme drought and salinisation, putting the country's major rice growing region at risk. In contrast, more extreme rainfall has caused flooding and landslides in Brasil. Finally, closer to my current home, people in Australia are still recovering from the bushfires late last year, which burnt nearly 25million hectares of forest and displaced thousands of people. And, on top of all this, the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching ... again.

Although all this makes the world seem like it's falling apart, having a pandemic force the global cogs to a grinding halt has some ancillary benefits. For one, economic slowdown and fewer vehicles seem to have reduced levels of air pollution in some major cities and regions, such as Beijing, China and Lombardy, Italy. On the climate change mitigation side, people are traveling less on both air and land, and emissions have consequently gone down. In the last two weeks, commercial air traffic has plunged 40% from 2019 levels, and airlines continue to cut international routes!

Working from home on those paper revisions
However, the effects on both air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are directly tied to the lock-down circumstances we as consumers currently find ourselves in. A researcher at Yale suggested that the longer CoViD-19 sticks around, the deeper into recession the global economy will fall. This usually corresponds to lower emissions, but also potentially less investment in alternatives to fossils fuels. That said, I do wonder if the current adoption of certain key behaviours - such as "telecommuting" and more awareness around food supplies and waste - might in fact act as a catalyst for shifting behaviours more permanently. If anything, we are testing the boundaries of virtual work, teaching, and socialising environments.

Going back to Garcia-Marquez's all-too-apt warning, in the case of the climate and our environment, we can't afford to wait for hindsight. The loss of lives and damages to communities because of this virus are tragedies. Yet, and perhaps even moreso to avoid further such loss and damage, I think we are confronting an unparalleled opportunity: to build a more conscientious and resilient society, and to embrace some drastic shifts in how humanity currently operates. The question is, will we take the plunge soon, or wait until the wisdom comes to us ...


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