The UN-IPCC Report, “ARS Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis” is a code red for humanity…The alarm bells are deafening. This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres1
Our task is to look at the world and see it whole. E. F. Schumacher2
2020 was one of the hottest years in recorded history3 and the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is now on record as the year with the most named storms.4 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officially announced that July 2021 was the hottest month in recorded history, and 2021 is on track to join the ranks.5
Climate change has never spoken louder. Fires across Australia and California, starving polar bears clutching to a chunk of ice amidst the melting Arctic, and sinking Venice—which scientists attribute significantly to climate change—are no longer just real evidence of the catastrophe, they have also become metaphors for the world.
While this metaphor was in the making, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg staged a protest in August 2018 in front of the Swedish Riksdag (parliament), holding a sign that read “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School strike for climate”). It struck a chord. “School Strike for Climate” spread across the world like wildfire and multiplied during the following year. On May 24, 2019, 1600 strikes were held across 150 countries, gathering hundreds of thousands of protesters. All this led to the 2019 Global Week for Future (September 17-20), during which 4500 strikes across more than 150 countries were held, joined by over 4 million protesters–the largest coordinated climate strikes in world history.
It is as if the center of gravity had shifted. Children and youth gathered on campuses and marched on streets around the world demanding an urgent solution to climate change. In the US, a 9-yr old joined the march, carrying the “School Strike for Climate” banner “Because I’m worried I may not have a future.” Another student, on a college campus, held up a banner, “We are the Green New Deal Generation!”, representing herself and her fellow participants and referring to the growing movement demanding an urgent transition to a renewable energy future.
It shook and shocked the adult world, even prompting some of them to join the movement. Invited to speak before the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019, on behalf of all the children and youth of her generation across the world and the generations to come, Greta Thunberg boldly charged the world leaders:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Instead of waiting for the older generation of international policymakers, government bureaucrats, profiteering industrialists, opportunist politicians, indifferent academics, timid spectators, and deliberate deniers, she called upon the world’s children and youth to take their future in their own hands.
The following day, September 24, prompted by the latest warnings from the UN, based on the Special Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that the rising global temperature must be stabilized by 2030 in order to avert global climate change catastrophe on an unprecedented scale, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that “the world is already set to miss the deadline” and urged the global community to expedite the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (UN-SDGs). He labeled the SDGs a “blueprint for building prosperous, peaceful and inclusive societies on a healthy planet”—and called for a “Decade of Action.”
Then, suddenly, in January 2020, the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) appeared. Within days it turned the world upside down with a catastrophic shattering by a bolt and a creeping power to infect every aspect of daily life we took for granted as normal. We only hear about earlier pandemics in history books, like the Spanish Flu. Starting in 1918 and lasting about 15 months it infected 500 million people—about a third of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 50 million to 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The 2020-21 coronavirus pandemic is real. By October 2021, the pandemic has already taken a worldwide toll of 234 million confirmed cases and over 4.7 million deaths. The spread has slowed in some places, and some lives have been saved. On the whole, however, the virus and its variants continue to spread with periodic spikes. Another historic pandemic landmark is in the making.
The duration of this condition is uncertain, even more so because a rush to reopen the economy and some irresponsible human behavior, such as refusal to wear a mask and safe distancing in public places, mass gatherings (superspreader events), and refusal to be vaccinated have resulted in spikes in some places around the world. The outbreak of variants makes any projection even more uncertain. Also, some places around the world do not have the resources or the infrastructures necessary to adapt to the precautionary measures or the facilities to cope with the spread of the virus. Even with some development of effective vaccines in record times, equitable vaccination worldwide is a challenge that the world seems to be poorly equipped to undertake.
The global focus shifted, and, for a while, the concerns over climate change no longer made the headlines, or seemed newsworthy. The exact origin of the COVID-19 outbreak is still unknown. Hypotheses surround questions like: is it a zoonotic disease—transmitted from animals to humans? An accidental lab-leak? A combination? But, as the search to understand the causes of the spreading virus have continued and scientists, epidemiologists, biologists, public health experts, and environmentalists began to identify the outbreak with environmental degradation, destruction of biodiversity, pollution, respiratory illness, cardiovascular problems, and carbon emissions—for all which climate change is a principal cause—there’s a growing understanding that the global emergency is not to be debated between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, and that the coronavirus pandemic and climate change are not competing priorities to address. Rather, the emergency is compounded by both, posing a challenge that the search for a cure must address both as well as the interconnection between the two. I’ll quote two people who early on brought this understanding to the forefront.
The first is by Gaurab Basu, MD, MPH, Co-Director, Center for Health Equity Education & Advocacy (CHEEA) with the Cambridge Health Alliance, Health Equity Fellow at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Instructor in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School:
The link between coronavirus and climate change starts with its origins. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease—an infection that made the leap from animals to humans. Viruses like this pose a growing threat because our ecosystems are in peril. Climate change, deforestation, pollution, and encroachment into natural habitats have fundamentally disrupted our equilibrium with nature and other species. Human activity has decimated the ecological buffer nature has provided us to temper the spread of diseases that could be the source of the next pandemic. Testing, vaccines, and treatment solutions for COVID-19 cannot come soon enough, but neither can they prevent the next pandemic unless we clearly and forcefully advocate for restoring our ecosystems and biodiversity.6
The second by Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School; Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (Harvard C-CHANGE); and a Pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital:
Burning fossil fuels has immense health consequences because it produces air pollution, and air pollution particularly harms children, including by putting them at risk of respiratory infections. While we don’t have direct evidence that air pollution is making COVID-19 spread, we do have evidence that air pollution can speed the spread of other viral and bacterial respiratory infections. Breathing polluted air is particularly a problem for children in low- and middle-income countries, where a major cause of under-five mortality is pneumonia. Air pollution contributes to a large share of these pneumonias. By preventing burning fossil fuels, we can improve air quality, and give children a better shot at avoiding and surviving potentially life-threatening respiratory infections.7
There’s also a growing concern that, even after the pandemic phase is over, climate change is here to stay—with potential outbreaks of new infectious diseases and deaths due to climate change. The coronavirus pandemic is a warning. The variants now spreading around the world could be an indication.
Furthermore, both the coronavirus pandemic and climate change are inseparable from the state of the economy. The economic paralysis due to the coronavirus pandemic and the devastating impact of climate change speak louder each day. The logic is simple: A healthy and sustainable economy depends on the quality of public health and functioning industries and institutions, as well as a healthy environment. These simply cannot be ignored or viewed as conflicting priorities. Moreover, the consequences of the pandemic, such as mounting medical waste, discarded PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), accelerated use of chemicals and toxins, overnight return to accelerated use of plastic bags, Styrofoam and other packaging, etc., while necessitated to cope with the crisis, forebode an environmental nightmare in the making, with a heavy price tag. For some countries that could mean mounting debt beyond bankrupting not only the present, but also the future.
We all want the economy to revive as soon as possible. The devastating impact and losses due to the pandemic must not be underestimated. At the same time, for the economy to revive and sustain, we must also address the crisis fundamentally. In doing so we might even be surprised that, instead of the economy being a one-way victim of the coronavirus pandemic, the global obsession with economic growth at any cost—anti-environment and inequitable—itself is a root cause of the unleashing of the pandemic. It’s time to break out of that vicious cycle.
In short, due to their entwined nature, it is futile to talk about any solution to either the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, the collapsing economy or the environmental destruction without holistically addressing their interconnections.
It’s a challenge, but there’s also hope. As the search for a sustainable solution continues—reduced carbon emissions, cleaner air, improved public health and immunity, and rejuvenation of flora and fauna, sustainable economy—all of which can be enhanced by a transition to renewable energy, the need for such an urgent transition, too, is becoming a recognized priority. As the catastrophic consequences of relying on nonrenewables have become inescapable, while the economic, environmental, and political advantages of renewables have become more identifiable and accessible, a global transitional trend has been in the making. The lessons from the pandemic experience have begun to make more and more sense, and the paradigm-shifting transition to renewables, too, has been gaining greater socio-cultural acceptance and momentum. Without undermining the challenges, it can also be said with confidence that never before have we come this close for such a transition to become a realistic possibility. Never before have we come this close to envision a future powered mainly by renewable energy achievable through realistic actions. Several scientific analyses of the potential and projections—and the experience gained from implementation of renewable energy technologies over recent decades, driven by major advancements and breakthroughs—have prompted some countries to even set their goals of transitioning to 100% renewable energy within a foreseeable future.8
Alongside the devastating consequences of the pandemic, ironically, the lockdown has offered some critical lessons. It has forced humans to take a refreshing break from the rat race that we call a lifestyle. Not without challenges and limits, working from home and spending more time together has also led to rediscover the value of family experience. Drastically reduced cars and other transportation on the road fueling the rat race during rush hours through crowded streets and traffic jams have cut down pollution and spewing of CO2 into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change. It’s as if Nature has put a hold on the so called “normal” and given us humans a time out—both as a warning and an opportunity—to reflect and regain some values that make our life and living healthier, safer, more meaningful, more united as a global community, and in harmony with Nature—of which we are a part.9 Air smells and feels better and is healthier, and vegetation looks fresher. Animals come out of their exile due to human encroachment and roam on vacant streets with confidence, as Harry Smith, NBC News American television journalist reported, it’s as if they are saying, “we were here before you.” Daytime looks brighter, and more than before—the night sky glitters.
This is a universal lesson and an opportunity—not an opportunity to celebrate but, taking to heart all the challenges, pain, suffering, tragedies, deaths and losses, to give this devastating condition a meaning and a purpose for the global community to mature, survive and sustain. We are at it together and we must act on it together. This could not be better said by anyone than by the Dalai Lama:
In this time of great fear, it is important that we think of the long-term challenges—and possibilities—of the entire globe. Photographs of our world from space clearly show that there are no real boundaries on our blue planet. Therefore, all of us must take care of it and work to prevent climate change and other destructive forces. This pandemic serves as a warning that only by coming together with a coordinated, global response will we meet the unprecedented challenges we face.10
And by Dr. Jerry Brown, CEO of JFK Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia:
The pandemic has proven that no one nation is supreme. It is time we forget our differences and fight this disease as a united force. We have to understand that no matter how small or weak a country or person may be, there is something he or she has to offer to the good of the world. If we think it is a disease belonging to the Africans alone, or the Chinese, we are getting it all wrong. As long as we continue to have COVID-19 in one country, the rest of the world is not safe. We must work together to defeat it.11
Neither climate change nor the coronavirus pandemic knows any borders. There’s no local or national long-term solution to either of these worsening catastrophes, and no place in the world is safe unless the whole world is safe. And there’s no sustainable economic recovery in the presence of these catastrophes. At the same time, there’s no alternatives to our coming together as a global community to address them effectively. Amidst the global scenario dominated by divisiveness, petty nationalism, competitiveness, inequities, hostility and distrust—the threat to sustainability has put forth before us as a common humanity both the urgent task and an opportunity to take a united and collaborative stand to act on the threat with a holistic approach by connecting the dots between the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, the economy and renewable energy. “United we stand, divided we fall”—human wisdom that can be traced back to an Aesop’s fable 2,600 years ago, has never been more critically relevant. At this critical hour, can we regain that wisdom? Human survival depends on it—and time is of the essence.
- N. Secretary-General António Guterres, quoted in Chestney, Nina, and Januta, Andres, “U.N. sounds clarion call over humans ‘irreversible’ impact on climate,” Climate change: IPCC report is ‘code red for humanity’ [Video] (aol.com); and “ARS6 Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis”, IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Sixth Assessment Report (ipcc.ch)
- Schumacher, E. F., A Guide for the Perplexed (Harper & Row, 1977), p. 15
- Basu, Gaurab, MD, MPH, grist.org/fix/want-to-prevent-the-next-pandemic-this-doctor-is-prescribing-climate-action/.
- Bernstein, Aaron MD, MPH, “What combating climate change can teach us about fighting COVID-19,” www.unicef.org/globalinsight/stories/what-combating-climate-change-can-teach-us-about-fighting-covid-19. Also, Hersch, Thomas, “Build back better! A call for a Green Deal and a green Marshall Plan for the Global South to tackle the two-fold Coronavirus and climate crises,” Climate & Development Dialogue, Issue 04, August 2020. cprdbd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Climate-and-Development-Dialogue_COVID-19-Issue.pdf
- Jacobson, Mark Z., Delucchi, Mark A., Bauer, Zack A.F., …, Wang, Jingfan, Weiner, Eric, Yachanin, Alexander S., “100% Clean and Renewable Wind, Water, and Sunlight All-Sector Energy Roadmaps for 139 Countries of the World.” web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/CountriesWWS.pdf
- A thought I have expressed more fully in a poem, “A Time Out for Humans.” mittalsouthasiainstitute.harvard.edu/2021/05/south-asian-poets-of-new-england-pen-odes-to-mother-nature-in-25th-annual-meeting/%C2%A0
- The Dalai Lama, “Thoughts, Not Prayers,” TIME, ibid, p. 54
- Brown, Dr. Jerry, “How to Conquer A Pandemic,” TIME, ibid, p. 41