Coronavirus and climate change: How to deal with converging crises

By Dawn Stover | July 8, 2020

US lower 48 temperature forecast July 14-20 2020The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a heat wave for much of the lower 48 states through July 19. Credit: Pivotal Weather

The first sign of trouble was more puzzling than alarming: A fan suddenly stopped working. If you put your ear next to it, you could still hear a faint hum coming from the motor.

Then a light bulb flickered and went dark. I guess it’s time to change that bulb, I thought. By the time I finished unscrewing it, my husband was reporting heavy static on a cordless phone. It dawned on us that we might have a malfunction in one of our house’s electrical circuits, so we flipped the breaker for the suspect circuit.

We were still scratching our heads when we heard two loud popping noises in the walls. Now we really had a serious problem. We shut down the main electrical line to the house and contemplated our situation: no power, no water (our well pump runs on electricity), and no internet service. We needed help—at a time when all non-essential workers in our state had been ordered to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two days later, a utility worker finally came to our house and used a tool to identify the area where our buried service line had most likely broken—a spot well beyond the electricity meter where the utility’s responsibility ends. I asked him to recommend someone to fix the break. “Any electrician should be able to do it,” he said. “If you can find one.”

I left messages for electricians all over town. Only one even called me back, and only to say that he might be able to take a look in a couple of days. In the end, a handy neighbor repaired the line for us. By that time, I’d had five long days to think about all the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic is about to collide with other crises.

What will happen, for example, when an extreme weather event happens in the middle of a pandemic? Then the virus will really hit the fan. And it’s only a matter of time.

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Coronavirus + climate change. Extreme weather events have happened throughout history, but they’re becoming more frequent and more intense because of human-driven climate change. Now imagine a summer heat wave, hurricane, wildfire, or flash flood striking an area where COVID-19 is also sweeping through the population.

Heat waves are already engulfing Arizona, Texas, and other states hard hit by the coronavirus. Some 40 million Americans could see temperatures above 100 degrees in the coming week, and the heat wave is expected to last at least two weeks.

In Phoenix, where the temperature reached 111 degrees yesterday, the pandemic means fewer cooling and hydration stations are open than in a normal summer. Many malls, libraries, and pools are also closed. For those who seek shelter in an air-conditioned building and may take public transportation to get there, congregating with others may increase the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus. “The COVID-19 pandemic amplifies health risks for many people in hot weather,” warns a technical brief from the Global Heat Health Information Network.

“The lists of people who are more vulnerable to heat are the same lists of people who are more vulnerable to covid,” says Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington who focuses on climate change and human health. They include older people; those with underlying health conditions; people with mental health issues; people with limited access to health care; people living in crowded housing; and farm workers.

As America’s population ages, its susceptibility to climate change (and new viruses) will only increase. An estimated 12,000 Americans already die of heat-related causes annually, and more than 80 percent of them are over 60.

Compounding factors. Heat waves aren’t the only compounding factor for the coronavirus. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a busier-than-normal 2020 hurricane season, with the possibility of three to six major hurricanes this summer. Mississippi has already experienced flash flooding this month. Wildfires in Arizona are spreading smoke in the Navajo Nation, which already faces a high coronavirus infection rate.

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FEMA says it is ready for anything, but emergency planning relies heavily on evacuating people and housing them in mass shelters where social distancing may be impossible. And in a normal year, firefighters and other emergency responders would share meals and tents in bustling camps where the coronavirus is now a concern.

Any natural disaster will only add to the impacts of a pandemic that is already converging with economic recession and civil unrest. Charles Branas, chair of the epidemiology department at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, calls the current situation a “syndemic,” meaning that he sees the various disasters as being synergistic and exacerbating a major pandemic.

Like climate change, the pandemic seemed distant and unreal until it was already upon us. Now both urgently require a society-wide response. Scientists have offered clear recommendations about how to solve these problems. However, the coronavirus won’t subside without broad social cooperation on behaviors such as physical distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing—an expanded version of the neighborly help that solved my electrical problem.

Similarly, the climate won’t heal without a new “healthcare system” for the planet that has strong support from the general public. It shouldn’t take another year of killer heat waves, mega-fires, and other disasters to convince Americans that we’ll never get back to “normal” by ignoring what’s happening around us.

What if I had ignored the popping sound of arcing electricity? If I wanted to burn my house to the ground, that would be a good way to start.

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