COVID and Climate Change: The Power of Collective Action

If we can take anything from COVID-19, it’s that we are not separate from nature as much as we’d like to believe.

No matter where we may be or how removed we are from the mercy of the natural world, we still live within it, not above it. Our economy is overrun with businesses that have operated off the idea that polluting and draining natural resources are mere externalities, not damages to a system that we ultimately rely on. Coronavirus is showing us otherwise.

Instead of despairing over what seems like the harbinger of irreversible change, we can, and should, use this opportunity to consider what we can learn from this.

The First Takeaway: Collective action matters.

As we’ve seen from the global response to the spread of coronavirus in effort to “flatten the curve,” individual behaviors together can actually have an extraordinary impact.

It’s easy to justify using a plastic water bottle instead of a reusable one with the thinking, “not using one plastic bottle won’t save the environment.”

In the face of an issue as large as global warming, making an individual effort can seem like a hopelessly ineffectual endeavor. The effects of massive quarantines on the environment revealed the power of collective action: animals began returning to public spaces, China banned wildlife trade along with their emissions being reduced by a quarter, and New York’s carbon monoxide levels nearly halved. Sadly, as normal activity resumes, these changes revert, but we should use this as evidence of the strength of collective influence.

If everybody decided to reuse more and consume less, we would see a startling impact. Simply taking the subway or metro reduces emissions per passenger mile by 76% and encourages energy conservation. Carpooling saves 20 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon that your friend would have used to drive themselves. Other things we can do are to reduce food waste – 40% of America’s food supply goes straight to the trash – and try to switch to renewable energy. Even the littlest efforts toward saving resources can have impacts through the supply chain and reduce carbon emissions.

The Second Takeaway: Continuing the status quo will only get more dangerous.

As the climate continues to warm, humans will see consequences in the forms of resurfacing of ancient viruses, the spreading of existing ones, and potentially unknown repercussions.

The more we destroy the environment and its natural systems, the more pandemics we will invite. Trapped in the rapidly-melting Arctic sheets are diseases that haven’t been seen in the world in millions of years, for which humans lack immunity. In 2016, a young Russian boy died and 20 others were infected when a reindeer killed by anthrax was melted from the permafrost. Residuals of the 1918 flu that killed nearly 3 percent of the world’s population have been found by scientists in Alaska.

Even more concerning are preexisting diseases that could be evolved or spread by climate change. The tropics are currently expanding 30 miles per decade because of warming, bringing with it an expanding range of tropical disease. Yellow fever, once confined to the Amazon Basin, has spread into metropolitan areas. Malaria and Lyme are both diseases likely to be spread by warming as well. Historically, disease was often limited by area and would stay contained to a local population. Globalization has exacerbated the risk of which we are facing the consequences today – consider what may have happened if the Black Death, which wiped out more than half of Europe, had existed at the same time as airplanes.

For all the knowledge we have about potential impacts, it’s likely there is much about the challenges climate change will impose on human health that we remain completely in the dark about. In May 2015, almost two-thirds of the population of small antelopes called “saiga” in Central Asia were extinguished in a “megadeath” over only a few days. The area of land strewn with bodies was approximately the size of Florida. The cause, which initially perplexed scientists, was eventually discovered to be a bacteria living in their tonsils, previously harmless to their hosts and weaponized by the particularly hot and humid weather that season. In terms of impacts on humans, scientists know next-to-nothing about 99 percent of the bacteria living in our bodies – and certainly cannot predict how climate change will affect them.

At some point, we will all be facing the effects of climate change with the same urgency and panic, and again we will be wishing we did something while we could.

It can be generally agreed that most of the world was unprepared for COVID-19. In America, we are seeing the alarming results of our belief that we could stay uniquely isolated from such a pandemic, a reflection of our belief that we can stay isolated from nature. There are parallels throughout: the pandemic provokes uncertainty for the near future, and on a larger scale, climate change destabilizes the future entirely. The rapidity of the pandemic’s development makes it all the more glaring. At some point, we will all be facing the effects of climate change with the same urgency and panic, and again we will be wishing we did something while we could.

No matter how insurmountable climate change seems, we still have a chance to tackle it. Of course, without minimizing the need for change in the larger systems of government and business, we cannot underestimate the impact of our own actions. While we fight for essential structural changes in our laws and policies, we can be conscientious of the mentality we all have towards the way we live day-to-day. We may all feel like specks within a massive system, but we are still a part of the whole. We have to begin to think as such.

Jessica King is a rising senior at Washington University in St. Louis studying English and computer science. Originally from the Bay Area, Jessica is hoping to pursue a sustainability graduate degree and work as an environmental consultant after she graduates. She has been a lover of nature since she was a child building fairy houses in trees and still loves to camp and hike. When she’s not working on WashU’s satirical paper or doing volunteer teaching at schools about environmental issues, Jessica enjoys listening to music and writing eco-poetry.


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