COVID and Climate: Learning From One to Use On the Other

I have mentioned the concept of “constructive destruction” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic before (June 16, 2020). By necessity, our status quo is being disrupted, but that also means we are beginning to grow in unexpected ways. At my college, we are now completely focused on remote teaching. We are trying to optimize it, given that it might continue to be a good teaching tool even after the pandemic ends.

We are currently in the middle of two global disasters that make our life miserable. One, COVID-19, was caused by the emergence of a deadly, contagious virus; the other, climate change, is being triggered by our economic activities and their subsequent disruptions of the atmospheric chemistry. COVID-19, by its nature, is a relatively fast event. It is growing exponentially, with a doubling time that can be measured in days or weeks. Climate change is a longer-term disaster but its growth is also exponential, with a doubling time that we can measure in generations (25 years). Most of its growth comes as feedback from the original disruption of greenhouse gases (July 10, 2018). COVID-19 is a self-limiting pandemic since its replication depends on the availability of carriers. This limit can come either from herd immunity (May 12, 2020) or an effective and available vaccine and/or medications. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people will likely lose their lives.

The last global viral pandemic of this scale was the Spanish flu, which raged from 1918-1920. As we fight to minimize the current pandemic, maybe we can learn strategies that will aid in climate change mitigation. Climate change is not self-limiting and it is not an exaggeration to say that it could lead to the extinction of humanity.

Studies have been done on the impact of climate change on human health (November 27, 2018) so it’s no surprise that the National Academy of Medicine dedicated a special event to discussing connections between COVID-19 and climate change. I got an invitation to attend. One of the “advantages” of the lockdown is that you don’t have to factor in traveling and hotel reservations to attend conferences that you might be interested in (good for me, bad for the tourist industry, especially for airlines and hotels).

Bill Gates, the keynote speaker at the event, connected the two disasters and warned that as bad as COVID-19 is, climate change will be much worse. In both disasters, changing our behavior is key to mitigation efforts. We need to learn from the pandemic both how to cooperate globally and how to set up (and follow) concrete plans for the future. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the keynote speaker for the session on COVID-19, while Sir Andrew Haines played the same role in the climate change session and Dr. Sanjay Gupta served as moderator.

We can look at the connections between COVID-19 and climate change from several angles, both past and future.

Not only did people discover 2,000 year old palm seeds in Israel several years ago, they were able to propagate a new palm tree from them.

A tree grown from a 2,000-year-old seed may bring its sub-species back to Israel, where it once flourished, after a millennium-long absence.

The seed was one of six discovered in 1963, in a jar in Herod the Great’s palace at the Masada fortress in Israel. Radiocarbon dating found that the seeds, preserved by the arid climate, were from sometime between 155 B.C. and A.D. 64.

Unfortunately, not all ancient things being uncovered are good ones. Climate change-triggered thawing of permafrost may resurrect terrifying disease-causing agents that could put COVID-19 to shame:

The thawing of the permafrost also threatens to unlock disease-causing bacteria and viruses long trapped in the ice.​

There have already been some cases of this happening.

In 2016 a child died in Russia’s far northern Siberia in an outbreak of anthrax that scientists said seemed to have come from the corpses of infected reindeers buried 70 years before but uncovered by melting permafrost.

Released from the ice, the anthrax seems to have been passed to grazing herds.

Scientists have also warned that other dormant pathogens entombed in frozen soil may be roused by global warming, such as from old smallpox graves.​

In 2014 scientists revived a giant but harmless virus, dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, that had been locked in the Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years.

In truth, however, regardless of how much we learn about disaster mitigation from COVID-19, any such efforts for climate change will require leadership. A week from now, the US will elect a president, congress, and one third of the senate, not to mention many local government officials.

The second and last presidential debate took place in Nashville, Tennessee. Comparatively, it was exemplary. The Commission on Presidential Debates proved that it is made up of fast learners. Unlike the first debate (see October 6th blog), they limited this one to only 6 topics. The newly imposed mute button afforded each candidate two uninterrupted minutes for each of the 6 segments before they could contradict each other. It worked. That, in combination with the much more effective moderator (Kristen Welker of NBC) produced a much more “civilized” debate. Of course, this is no accident. It is very difficult to moderate a discussion when the participants talk on top of each other, so a mute button made things much more controllable. The personalities of the two candidates came clearly through and both got the full opportunity to state their cases. The factual grounding of the discussion was much more problematic. Indeed, almost every publication devoted huge swaths of space to fact checking the candidates’ statements. Some print versions lent less space, making the topic much more manageable (in The New York Times at least). The Washington Post announced, “At debate, Biden makes relatively few gaffes while Trump breaks fact-check meter.”

I was waiting for the climate change section, which ended up being the last full topic and garnered about ten minutes of discussion. In his two minutes of uninterrupted presentation, President Trump provided an unintelligible version of his take of the Biden’s climate change plan.  Here is how Forbes (a publication that often favors Trump) covered it:

Why Does Trump Think Biden Wants To Shrink Everybody’s Windows?

President Donald Trump insisted Thursday night during the final presidential debate that Democratic opponent Joe Biden is pining to knock down buildings and shrink their windows, a bizarre and inaccurate riff on Biden’s climate plan that has quickly turned into one of Trump’s go-to attack lines.

Science Magazine delved a little deeper into the matter.

Anybody who is even slightly familiar with climate change knows that mitigation requires global energy transition to zero-carbon-emitting fuels. You can only continue to use fossil fuels if you can capture the carbon dioxide they produce before it gets to the atmosphere. The timeline for that transition is in general agreement: by mid-century. The somewhat controversial part is how to get there with minimal economic drawbacks. VP Biden proposed a plan for how to do so. President Trump, in his two minutes, “redefined” Biden’s strategy as a commitment to destroy the oil industry. Republicans later claimed this as the key takeaway from the entire debate. This was a strategy particularly aimed at Texas and Pennsylvania. Both states have long histories with the fossil fuel industry and their votes could sway the election.

Meanwhile, to the contrary, the oil companies themselves seemed much less concerned. Many of them (more in Europe than the US) are already busy incorporating the transition into their own business models, and will continue to do so no matter who wins the election.

In their National Academy of Medicine presentations, Mr. Gates and Dr. Fauci touched on the similarities between COVID-19 and climate change in how they impact our everyday behaviors. I will try to expand on this issue in the future.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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13 Responses to COVID and Climate: Learning From One to Use On the Other

  1. Roksana Jasiewicz says:

    I think it’s scary that the melting of permafrost could lead to an outbreak of another disease.
    On another note, reading the part about President Trump, VP Biden, and windows, I remembered the shrinking of windows being mentioned during the debate, which is something I have long forgotten about.

  2. Vlad Kryshtal says:

    From this post, the relevance between climate change and the novel coronavirus, it is prominent that these two do have an effect on each other. Let alone our government has shown little interest in lowering carbon emissions as well as green house gasses. Since the Trump presidency has started, one of the first actions was to take America out of the Paris climate change pact, which France started to gain a world agreement and collaboration like the UN. However instead of deciding world affairs like the UN, the Paris climate change pact battles on how to save our planet as one collective human race. Americas capitalist economy enjoys fossil fuels as it is something that can be bought and sold, this shows our priorities in the country for money over a healthy earth.

  3. Kate says:

    How do the governors of the countries don’t understand the importance of the climate for the future, both for their own countries and for the future of the whole world? The melting of permafrost could cause another epidemic that they couldn’t control. It’s terrifying…

  4. jasjot parmar says:

    The president neglecting and downplaying of the virus and its connection to climate change locks us in a current dangerous cycle of neglecting the environment that causes to releases these potential deadly diseases, which in turn forces us to not take direct intervention in climate change leading to more natural disasters and loss of life.

  5. rumbai says:

    The Texas Politics Project has compiled the results of unofficial elections in Texas.

    Seeing the results of the 2020 US presidential election, there are indications of cheating in Texas
    In an effort to begin to understand the 2020 elections in Texas , the Texas Politics Project has compiled the unofficial (indicative) election results from the 2020 presidential election in the United States of America on November 6, 2020, and compared them to the results of the recent Texas election . These results are broken down by general conceptual aggregations (eg “The Big-6”) and regional (eg the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including surrounding counties). The “Top-of-Ticket” table includes the results of the presidential election ( Pilpres US) for 2012, 2016 and 2020, but also the results of the 2018 gubernatorial election for comparison, given the large increase in votes and relevant shifts in vote acquisition during those elections. The senate table includes results for the 2020 and 2018 US Senate elections in Texas . Again, the 2020 results are unofficial, collected on November 4th, 5th, and 6th from either the Texas Secretaries of State or the respective regional registries’ websites. The index below links to that geography table. Visit site

  6. Aidan J. Lawrence says:

    I wasn’t aware of the fact that other dormant pathogens that were entombed frozen soil may be roused by global warming. I hadn’t thought of this. This could bring up a seriously overwhelming problem. Especially now, with a health crisis/pandemic occurring.

  7. Travis Burge says:

    During the initial worldwide lockdown, humanity drastically reduced transit. This caused a resurgence of wildlife. Wild boar roaming towns, an increase of pink dolphins sightings off the coast of Hong Kong, whales becoming more territorial (many are killed by shipping vessels, they sink after they die). Some might say out of sight, out of mind. This damages the ecosystem of the ocean. But there is always hope.

    Nature heals itself without human interference. Humanity must work with nature instead of against it. I have started thinking that perhaps humanity has reached an advanced technological level many times in the past, but due to natural disasters or manmade ones society breaks down, and it is the people closest to nature that eventually rebuild(e.g uncontacted people’s around the world, Sentinelese…just to name one such group). The survival of these groups help to continue humanity’s survival.

  8. Mariia Zakharova says:

    I like the comparison of the climate change and COVID-19. I think people really should learn how to work together on both these serious issues and understand that each one of us can make a difference. We should stop thinking only about ourselves and our own comfort, and start thinking about the comfort of other people and of our planet.

  9. Mariia Zakharova says:

    I like the comparison between the climate change and COVID-19. I think people really should learn how to work together on both these serious issues and understand that each one of us can make a difference. We should stop thinking only about ourselves and our own comfort, and start thinking about the comfort of other people and of our planet.

  10. Xu Wang says:

    We see that the U.S. government does not take initiative on climate change which will cause more pandemic like coronavirus, another article I read about the pandemic is caused by animals contacting the human population but why will they? It turns out that in the past decade’s humans have been constantly deforesting and causing pollution on the homeland of the animal which results in their movement to the human population. So instead of reacting after a disaster happens, we should step ahead of the game and find the fundamental reason and solve them such as climate change.

  11. Pascal Fischer says:

    beyond frightening that Trump has no solid plan to tackle the issue of climate change. He continues to denounce scientists and their research. hopefully this won’t be a concern after this coming election.

  12. Kristina Wetterich says:

    It is definitely a little scary that trump seems to not have a solid climate change plan! We can only hope that whoever ends up winning the election, that they will hopefully incorporate a great, science-based climate change plan so that we can finally save our planet..

  13. Kristina Wetterich says:

    It is definitely a little scary that trump seems to not have a solid climate change plan! We can only hope that whoever ends up winning the election, that they will hopefully incorporate a great, science-based climate change plan so that we can finally save our planet.

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