COVID-19 and Climate Change: We must do better

by Ira Dreyfuss, Public Affairs Advisor
Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health

September 2020

As COVID-19 paralyzes and traumatizes our communities and the rest of the world, the climate crisis functions as an incubator for a cascade of future disasters of similar or worse impact. Our future depends on our capacity to see the links between these disasters and effectively address them.

David Pollack, MD, makes that point in a column about climate and mental health in Psychiatric News. Dr. Pollack is Professor Emeritus for Public Policy in the Department of Psychiatry and Division of Management at Oregon Health and Science University. He draws upon his ideas and those of two other thought leaders: Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Here are some highlights on climate and the coronavirus: Rising temperatures let vectors like mosquitoes and bats remain virulent longer and migrate into new areas, bringing new infectious disease outbreaks. As the environment deteriorates and global trade and travel continue, infectious disease pandemics become more likely.

As for how it affects society: There is no substitute for preparation, without which, time is lost trying to catch up to the problem. Dr. Pollack references Friedman – manage the unavoidable so you can avoid the unmanageable. Case in point: our snarled and disrupted supply chains.

When you dismiss science, you can get blindsided by fact. Facts can develop fast – SARS-Cov-2 – or more slowly than a pandemic, e.g., climate change. Wishing, denial, and disavowal do not make them go away.

We should remember that we are only as resilient as the most vulnerable. Pandemics and climate change affect disadvantaged people in many predictable ways. Hospitals are swamped with patients, many from populations with preexisting factors associated with social determinants and societal structural inequities.

We can expect more pandemics and a worsening climate crisis. Dr. Pollack says we need to think long-term and comprehensively; to prioritize public health over short-term profit.

We must cooperate more, within the United States and globally. These are problems that may only be effectively addressed by global collaboration. –Dr. Pollack also says America’s healthcare system should protect everyone, with healthcare for all.

The bottom line: The pandemic and the climate crisis show us what happens when we try to deny or dismiss reality. We must do better. Lives and livelihoods depend on it.