In this topsy-turvy year, the world has been waylaid by a viral pandemic. But a larger and more intractable menace churns in the background, continuing to wreak havoc while humanity’s attention is diverted. Climate change remains arguably the most pressing threat we face as a species. And despite signs of hope earlier this year as lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic grounded airplanes, shuttered businesses, and garaged cars, the problem is not abating. Humanity must be able to fight disease while simultaneously keeping our sights trained on the persistent and snowballing effects of global warming. If we are not up to this task, the hell of 2020 will pale in comparison to the challenges we’ll face.
The first few months of the pandemic provided a glimpse of what a planet given respite from the relentless pressure of modern human inhabitance might look like. In April, people in Punjab, India, snapped photos of the Himalayas, more than 100 miles away, a sight usually obscured by smoggy skies. The International Energy Agency published a report that same month that the globe was on track to reduce CO2 emissions by 8 percent compared to 2019 levels—an unprecedented drop.
All this sounded like a rare spot of good news in an otherwise disconcerting year. But alas, the sense that nature might be able to quickly heal over the scars of human activity was short-lived. As economies reopened, we took back to our petroleum-fueled modes of transportation, and fossil fuel–powered factories revved back up to continue their belching of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. By mid-May, levels of several air pollutants in China, including ozone, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter, had rebounded to concentrations above levels recorded in April and May of last year, according to an analysis by the Finland-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. And globally, CO2 emissions have been creeping back up as the planet’s human inhabitants return to something close to business as usual. By early June, global emissions had rebounded to within 5 percent of mean 2019 levels, up from an average 17 percent reduction in early April, according to data published by the Integrated Carbon Observation System.
There have also been negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the environment. Pre-pandemic, humans were already dumping an unbelievable amount of plastic—8 million metric tons per year—into our oceans, the eventual destination for much of our waste. But with the uptick in the use of products such as disposable plastic packaging, bags, and cutlery as well as personal protective equipment, this year is set to outpace 2019’s outflow of plastic waste by 30 percent, according to a paper published in June in Environmental Science & Technology.
While a pandemic the size and scope of COVID-19 demands immediate attention, action on climate change and other environmental crises cannot be shelved. Wildfires in the western US and hurricanes in the South remind us that even though we’re busy trying to address a pressing public health emergency, global warming isn’t put on pause. This persistent concern should inform how we strategically emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and enter a world where we live with the chronic problem of SARS-CoV-2 and likely future epidemics. “Any economic recovery packages designed to help economies fully rebound need to focus on zero-carbon climate resilient investments that address unemployment but avoid locking us into a new high-carbon future,” Bob Ward, a policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, told The Guardian in June.
I was heartened to see that, in both the US presidential debate and the US vice presidential debate that have been held as of this writing, climate change questions were posed to the candidates, something that did not occur in the debates running up to the 2016 US election. After the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, humanity must learn to navigate a world changed by the ravages of a novel virus at the same time that we address not-so-novel problems with how Homo sapiens affects our planet and the organisms we share it with.