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Let’s Pay Attention to What COVID-19 Is Trying to Tell Us About Climate Change

It’s pointing us to a healthier and more resilient world if we chose to listen. We have no time to lose.

COVID-19 demonstrates that there is a direct connection between the environment and our health. (Photo: World Learning/flickr/cc)

COVID-19 demonstrates that there is a direct connection between the environment and our health. (Photo: World Learning/flickr/cc)

What do the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change have in common? Both are symptoms of human activity out of balance. They are existential threats whose morbidity and mortality are magnified by the habits of modern life. COVID-19 and climate change intensify the health inequities experienced by people of color and other vulnerable communities. Both threaten our future, but COVID-19 is, we hope, temporary. Climate change may be forever if we don’t change our ways. The factors that make COVID-19 so dangerous also move climate change toward the irreversible.

As a physician, I believe in the health benefits of treating the underlying cause of a health problem. COVID-19 demonstrates that there is a direct connection between the environment and our health. What we’ve learned through this pandemic experience is we cannot ignore warnings from scientists and public health officials. Prevention is more crucial than ever before.

Take air pollution, for instance. We know that burning petrochemicals creates the particulate matter and noxious fumes that lead to ground level ozone or smog, all of which greatly harm human health. In fact, a recent report from the American Lung Association found that nearly 5 in 10 people in the US live in counties with unhealthy ozone or particulate pollution.  Particulate matter is linked to inflammation and many chronic diseases, which make a person more likely to die from COVID-19. Yet, instead of strengthening public health protections during the current public health crisis, the Trump administration is attacking safeguards that reduce pollution in our communities.

The lower levels of smog are a stark reminder of how "normal" activity causes pollution and threatens our health.

Look at before- and during-COVID-19 pictures of the air above virus hot spots. How quickly Mother Nature heals as millions of individuals stop driving gasoline-powered cars! The lower levels of smog are a stark reminder of how "normal" activity causes pollution and threatens our health. Look at what we could achieve if only we make smart decisions now to accelerate the transition to cleaner sources of energy and transportation.

I hope this knowledge motivates each of us to do what we can to conserve energy, invest in solar panels for our homes, trade in our gas guzzlers for electric vehicles, use heat pumps instead of oil or gas to heat our homes and bath water, and find other ways to get fossil fuels out of our lives in order to keep our skies that gorgeous shade of healthy blue.

Because of social distancing, we’ve learned what it means to be apart. Going forward, let’s invest our time, resources and energy into creating the safe, healthy future that all people deserve.  Let’s stop tolerating the irresponsible dumping of pollutants into our air and our water. Let’s get the Environmental Protection Agency back to its mission of protecting human health and the environment, instead of suspending enforcement of environmental laws during a public health crisis. Additionally, we also need to stop handing over billions in taxpayer dollars to oil, gas, and coal companies. 

We can spend more on green infrastructure and less on military machinery. We can have the moral courage to allow the price of things we buy to reflect the true cost to the environment, our health, and to the well-being of the people making those things; while at the same time, making sure that all of us have access to our basic needs for food, shelter, medical care and meaningful work. 

While we’re at it—this is a hard one-- we can admit that it’s not just the fossil fuel industry that is the problem. We buy what they sell, an action with moral and physical consequences. These months with COVID-19 have taught us we are capable of making healthier choices when our lives depend upon it.

Let’s pay attention to what COVID-19 is trying to tell us about climate change. It’s pointing us to a healthier and more resilient world if we chose to listen. We have no time to lose.

Janis Petzel

Janis Petzel, MD is a psychiatrist from Islesboro, Maine who speaks and writes about climate and health.  She is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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