COVID-19, the Environment, and Human Health

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The impacts of COVID-19 on the environment and human health can best be illustrated by the following recent headlines:

  • Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than 1 million people have now died of COVID-19 (NPR 09-28-20)
  • In the United States, we are seeing over 50,000 cases per day that are surging in states across the South, East and Midwest.  (CNBC 10-10-20)
  • The virus has infected nearly 8 million U.S. citizens and it has taken the lives of over 214,000 people to date. (New York Times 10-10-20)
  • The U.S. only has 4 percent of the world’s population but it accounts for over 21 percent of global deaths.  (New York Times 10-10-20)
  • Only cancer and heart disease will kill more Americans this year than COVID-19. The disease has killed four times more people than normally die from diabetes and eight times as many who are the victims of gun violence or automobile accidents. (New York Times 10-06-20)

This relentless bad news has led some to try to find a silver lining. Many have pointed to the significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions that took place earlier this year when so many nations went into varying degrees of lockdown. While these actions threw millions of people out of work, they did reduce national and international travel. In addition, they brought China’s hugely productive and highly polluting manufacturing sector to a grinding halt. Globally, emissions fell by 19% in April compared to the year before. Since then, however, economic activity has started to resume and it is likely we will end this year with emissions only being reduced by 4-7%. (BBC 09-09-20)

As is evident from the graphs below from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), global greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to increase despite what will be a slightly lower rate of emissions this year due to COVID-19.

NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI) (

Caption: NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI)

The Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of climate scientists, estimates that global carbon dioxide emissions would need to decline 7% every year for the next decade to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. (Climatewire 05-20-20). Meanwhile, global sea levels are rising much faster than previously recorded and the extent of sea-ice in the Arctic is declining at a rate of 13% per decade. On land, rising temperatures have produced droughts and heatwaves in many parts of the world as well huge wildfires.

The flip side of finding a silver lining is to place blame. Some environmentalists have blamed the pandemic and climate change on insatiable human desires for food, shelter, travel, excitement, and interpersonal interaction. These critics think we are getting what we deserve for our profligate lifestyles and excessive rates of population growth.  

Earlier this year I shared with my students a vigorous refutation of this view by Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University. In a piece titled, “I am a Mad Scientist,” she wrote:

We are never going to be able to sacrifice our way out of climate change, especially not on the backs of the people who have historically done most of the sacrificing. There is an entrenched system that extracts [carbon dioxide] CO2 from the ground and pumps it into the atmosphere, one that results not from inherent human badness but from the choices of a few humans with power. Confronting that system will take work. We need to build things: wind turbines, solar panels, public transportation, denser cities, fairer societies. We don’t need purification. We don’t need absolution. We need to get to work. (Drilled News 04-22-20)

We also need to trust scientists. Last week, over 230 scientists in Iowa issued their annual statement on Climate Change.  It is titled, Iowa Climate Statement 2020: Will COVID-19 Lessons Help Us Survive Climate Change? These brave scientists make four powerful points, which I summarize below:

  • The best available science remains by far the most reliable source of information regarding the twin perils of climate change and Covid-19.
  • The cost of late action with regard to both crises far outweighs the costs of prevention and preparation.
  • Building community resilience against multiple threats is critical, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Inequity reduces resilience, leaving poor communities, particularly communities of color, disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate-related natural disasters, just as they are to Covid-19.
  • COVID-19 recovery plans have revealed unprecedented opportunities to address climate change while simultaneously rebuilding the economy. Nations around the world are now developing “green economic stimulus plans” that will help rebuild economies, put people back to work, and build resilience against the perils posed by climate change and future pandemics.

I want to close with this comment by Aaron Bernstein, director of Harvard University's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment: "With COVID, nature is really trying to tell us something. . . Frankly it's trying to rid us of a dangerous delusion that we have that our health is separate from the environment."  (Climatewire 04-02-20)

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