Amid its horrors and tragedies, the coronavirus pandemic has driven home a startling reality. Travel bans and lockdowns have cleaned the globe, flushing the murk from Venice's canals, clearing Delhi's polluted smog, making distant snowy peaks visible for the first time in years from the shores of the Bosporus. With humans in retreat, nature reclaimed what was once its own in whimsical ways: Goats strutted through villages, antlered deer grazed on manicured city lawns and mountain lions found perches by suburban fences.
U.S. scientists still predict 2020 will be the hottest year on record, even as experts forecast the largest annual drop in carbon emissions in modern history — a direct consequence of the pandemic's freeze on human activity, trade and travel. The crisis isn't uniformly good news for the planet: For example, satellite data shows that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is at its fastest pace in years, with environmental officials otherwise sidelined or preoccupied by the outbreak.
The pandemic is not just a reminder of the human impact on the environment, including the significance of man-made emissions on global warming and air pollution. It's also similar: an imperceptible menace that knows no borders, overwhelms aging infrastructure and bedevils policymakers and politicians who struggle to grapple with the scale of the threat.
"A good way to think about the coronavirus pandemic is that it is like climate change at warp speed. What takes decades and centuries for the climate takes days or weeks for a contagious disease," New York University climate economist Gernot Wagner wrote last month. "That speed focuses the mind and offers lessons in how to think about risk in an interconnected world."
The question now is who's learning what lessons. The commemorations for the 50th annual Earth Day saw a litany of prominent climate campaigners link action on that front to the experience of the outbreak. For years, climate scientists have been calling on governments to "flatten the curve" — that is, reduce emissions to lessen the likely catastrophic toll global warming will exact on societies in decades to come.
In the Boston Globe, former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry pointed to evidence suggesting climate change could be a "threat multiplier" for zoonotic and pandemic diseases. He also took aim at President Donald Trump and other politicians who cling to positions outside the scientific consensus and impede collective action.
"Just as in today's pandemic, progress has been halted by finger-pointing, denial, replacing real science with junk science, misinformation, and flat-out lies, elevating political hacks instead of scientists and experts, refusal to work with allies and even adversaries, and leaving states and cities to fend for themselves," wrote Kerry.
"The coronavirus pandemic has delivered sharp and painful reminders of our collective vulnerability and the value of paying very close attention to reality," wrote physicist Mark Buchanan. "If there's any good to come out of the current tragedy, it may be in helping to persuade a few people to help tip the scales and get our leaders to take the next looming issue much more seriously."
The Trump administration isn't quite set on tipping the scales. Stimulus money the White House has been empowered to spend in the pandemic's aftermath may go to U.S. fossil fuel companies that were already in financial trouble before the crisis. On Earth Day, Andrew Wheeler, Trump's administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, sought to shift focus away from climate change to government efforts to curb pollution.
"We're taking climate change seriously," Wheeler told The Washington Post's PowerUp newsletter. "But it's not the only environmental issue that we face as a planet."
But away from the White House, others are seeking to take the lead. Under the aegis of the World Economic Forum, major financial firms — including some that may help manage elements of the federal response to the pandemic - have pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Campaigners are calling for government stimulus to fund sustainable development projects that could build the green economy. The World Bank is proposing linking governments' post-pandemic spending to greener infrastructure projects and future disaster-proofing.
In Washington, there's a cautious hope that the urgency presented both by climate change and the pandemic may cool the geopolitical tensions between the United States and China and force greater global collaboration.
"We all breathe the same air and we're all going to live with the same rising seas," Michael Chertoff, a former head of the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration, told Today's WorldView during a webinar this week. "And whatever we may disagree about some things, we're going to need to sit down with them and our like-minded allies and everybody else and figure out what can we do collectively to protect the global commons against either pandemic diseases or disastrous climate change."
But, as Slate's Joshua Keating noted, the opposite may well be true, given the growing hostility between both countries. He added that some right-wing parties elsewhere in the West have already seized on the threat of climate change not as a call for collective action, but as a justification for limiting migration and unraveling globalization.
"It's not hard to imagine a future U.S. administration, rather than denying the increasingly obvious reality of climate change, using it to argue that the country needs tougher immigration controls and fewer refugees," wrote Keating. "The alternative, they will argue, is to be overwhelmed by the human invaders and see our own natural resources depleted in the way other countries already have."
Ishaan Tharoor wrote this piece for The Washington Post.
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