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Lessons from COVID-19 can help us fight climate change, experts say

Thursday, May 7th 2020, 7:13 pm - Experts say that climate change will make it more difficult to respond to pathogens in the future and that there are many lessons we can learn from the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Flatten the curve” became a global mantra as nations implemented orders to physically distance and work from home to slow the spread of COVID-19. Within weeks our daily routines became dictated by statistical calculations, doubling rates and projections based on collected data and the expertise of medical professionals.

Guidance from the projections and following the recommendations from health experts have paid off -- countries like Denmark and Japan are beginning to reopen and millions of deaths have been prevented. The sudden yet widespread embrace of modelling shows us that when we listen to science we can tackle pandemics, which means we can use these same approaches to combat climate change.

“We are all of a sudden, in my opinion anyways, paying more attention to what scientists are saying... you turn on the TV and everybody is familiar with what a model looks like and what an epidemiological curve looks like,” says Péter K. Molnár, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Science at the University of Toronto.

Decades of climate data have had a consistent warning -- uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are causing the atmosphere to warm and this will have impactful consequences on the planet and ourselves. Despite the virtual certainty of the data that correlates carbon dioxide emissions to the rising temperatures, warnings from scientists are often misrepresented in the media or dismissed by global leaders.

“Climate change is a difficult conversation for so many of us, but I think what we’re quickly realizing and appreciating is that the global community has come together to talk about COVID-19, so what would it look like if the global community tackled climate change in this capacity?” says Neil Osborne, Climate & Sustainability Editor at The Weather Network.

Molnár points out that even though global awareness of climate change has existed much longer than COVID-19, the threat of environmental changes that happen over decades is more of an “abstract” thought to process so we’re collectively reluctant to respond.

RELATED: Why we react fast to pandemics but slow to climate change

“Humans are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes,” says political psychologist Conor Seyle, director of research at One Earth Future Foundation, in an interview with BBC. Humans have evolved to focus on immediate threats, Seyle goes on to explain, and we have a tendency towards inaction for future problems. While we know that driving our cars releases carbon dioxide, it is hard to think about the long term risks when we are focused on more pressing matters that are immediately relevant to our survival, such as getting home from work safely.

The pandemic has not only demonstrated that a global community is capable of rapidly collaborating to fight a collective threat, but we’ve seen how our daily lives impact the environment. As factories and commuters around the world slowed, nations saw dramatic improvements in air quality.

In Italy, pollution in the Po Valley, the most industrialized part of the country, lessened. In China, carbon emissions dropped by approximately 100 million tones over a three week period in February, a reduction of more than 25 per cent since the outbreak began compared to the same period in 2019, and roughly 6 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. And, in Jalandhar in the Punjab state of India, people could see the distant Himalayan mountain range, a very rare sight, in the clearer skies.

LESSONS FOR THE NEXT PANDEMIC

COVID-19 is teaching us many lessons about our collective ability to respond as well as what might be in store for us if carbon emissions are not curbed. Molnár says that the impacts of climate change and other activities that destroy our habitats could release pathogens that were previously trapped in the environment, such as viruses that are frozen in permafrost.

SEE ALSO: Dozens of previously unknown viruses discovered in 15,000-year-old glaciers

A growing amount of research shows that environmental degradation, more frequent and severe weather events and temperature changes that affect disease transmission could make pathogens more difficult to respond to in the future. To effectively manage our risk and protect public health, Molnár says that we will need to determine which species could cause widespread impacts, and in the worst-case scenario, another pandemic like COVID-19. Once it is determined that a specific pathogen has the potential for such severe impacts, it will be important to model how they will react to environmental factors.

When asked how society’s relationship with statistical projections will be after COVID-19 is no longer a pandemic, Molnár says that he expects that scientific modelling will become more widely accepted and viewed in the general community.

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