The recent catastrophic flooding across western Europe are signs of climate change’s arrival. Meanwhile, places around the world battle the rise of COVID-19 variants. But it turns that these two challenges of climate change and pandemics are not only similar but related.
Both climate change and pandemics are risks that have been severely underestimated — because they produce events of rare occurrence. But their potential economic and health losses are enormous. Our 2016 paper on pandemic losses with Dean Jamison and Larry Summers, former U.S. treasury secretary, emphasized these similarities.
Back in 2016, a pandemic was a vague concept because it is so rare. The pandemic as a concept had not been experienced by most people, except those in countries who battled avian flu or SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). While everyone now knows what a pandemic is, we may approach climate change with vagueness at our own peril. Do we know what climate change looks and feels like?
Knowing is not enough. We need to prepare locally. How will we make changes as we move into the future? Because the risks of these challenges are undervalued, preparedness too is neglected. Somehow, we think that, by doing nothing different, we will not be subject to a terrible fate. This is a kind of insanity.
The similarities between climate change and pandemics do not end there. Just as climate change is worsened by deforestation, so too are emerging infectious disease and “zoonotic diseases” of animal origin worsened by environmental degradation and encroachment on wildlife terrains, increasing the displacement and spread of novel pathogens to humans. Thus, climate change and COVID are related cousins; they are both born from similar underlying causes. Remarkably, COVID dampened growth of CO2 emissions and let Mother Earth breathe a little. As we saw locally, reduced economic activity briefly protected endangered species.
Both challenges face battles of misinformation. The education of our society to understand and prepare against these challenges is therefore crucial. Ignorance during the pandemic has been fatal. More than ever, scientists have an ethical responsibility to communicate the science locally, and that the failure to do so can be disastrous. On the positive, the pandemic also given optimism, through interdisciplinary governance and tools such as forecasting and health analytics to help inform decision makers, such as our work with the Hawaii Pandemic Applied Modeling Workgroup (www.hipam.org/).
For both, the precautionary principle applies. In the face of uncertainties, choosing a more cautious approach may lead to less overall harm. Human overconfidence — if not arrogance — is exploited by both. Disproportionate socioeconomic impacts and inequalities are worsened, too. We need an enduring commitment to tackling these inequities.
Both climate change and pandemics present so many challenges. I continue to see two main challenges — the first is the challenge of collective action. We need substantial team effort of disparate individuals, communities, societies, and countries to work together. As trite as the saying goes, no place is safe until every place is safe. But has COVID helped us to reconceive our notion of global and collective citizenship and teamwork and that we are all in it together? I’m not sure.
The second challenge is that of resilience. In the face of tremendous economic, health and psychological challenges, how do we help make not only our societies more economically resilient but how do we make our minds and our emotions more resilient? What is the role of human connection and communities in making us more resilient? Through strengthening our connections and communities to each other, through building a sense of teamwork and unity, we may be able to weather any crisis that comes our way.
Victoria Fan is interim director for the Center on Aging and an associate professor of health policy at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. This piece was adapted from remarks given to the 2021 East-West Center Alumni Conference on July 17.