Climate Change, COVID-19, and Threat Multipliers

Things are changing so rapidly around the novel coronavirus pandemic, that just when I’m ready to write or post something, I come across more data and analyses. So prepare for a data dump!

I’ve been thinking about what the coronavirus means for the various ecological crises we face: nutrient imbalances, the loss of wild animals and insects, soil erosion, and of course climate change. I wrote last month about Ecology in a Time of Coronavirus, and how The Entire World is Focused on a Single Problem. Let’s look for a second at climate change.

Pennsylvania Sedge is an early-blooming plant found in dry woodlands (pictured here on 4/10/20 in a small 2 ac remnant oak woods). It is one of thousands of native plant species that form the base of photosynthetic pyramid on which our life depends. It is expected to fare well in the hotter and drier climate predicted for our region.

We know that climate change is going to be what the U.S. Department of Defense calls a “threat multiplier.” Our normal human troubles of international relationships, immigration & trade, natural disasters, and the like, now all have an additional wild card that adds complexity & cost. For example, farmers have always had to worry about pests, disease, genetics, markets, and rainfall. Climate change adds additional stressors to this system. The risk is that some of the systems we rely on make crumble under this additional burden.

Similarly, COVID-19 is a threat multiplier. As Pope Francis has pointed out, we were already suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, alienation, income inequality, and ecological degradation (addressed in Laudato Si and elsewhere). COVID-19, in some ways, has multiplied these threats, especially to the vulnerable. But in other ways, as I think everyone has now seen, it has also prodded us to seek new behaviors of solidarity, courage, and simple kindness.

COVID-19 has also proved to be a “threat multiplier” to the fossil fuel industry, driving a massive decrease in energy demand and a drop in oil prices:

While I certainly feel for individuals who rely on the industry to feed their family in the short term, it is beyond clear that energy industry needs to rapidly shift to renewable energy as fast as possible. COVID-19 is now providing us with an opportunity to seize.

As you may have read, China responded to the pandemic with a nearly complete shut down of economic activity. On March 8, a team of researchers calculated that the reduction in pollution had saved 20X as many lives that were lost directly by the virus (click the link to see their important caveats… they are not saying COVID-19 is a good thing).

You may have seen the reports from cities around the world where citizens are seeing distant mountain ranges for the first time (without all the air pollution) and the rivers and lakes are healing themselves. It is a very powerful and visible preview of the world we could build.

We can’t completely stop diseases from emerging, or seas from rising. But as moral agents, we can still choose how to respond, individually and collectively.

There is no wasted effort. Yes, we need to get intelligent about it, and consider the highest and best use of our skills and resources, but it matters. The scale of the suffering matters.


I apologize for not having a longer & more cogent post. There is just so much out there right now! Despite working from home full time right now, I don’t even have the time (or brain energy) to read them all. Please pick and choose the resource below that catch your interest, and tell me what you are thinking.

The first article is by our dear friends at AIRE (who helped with our solar installation): False Dawn: don’t mistake a coronavirus clear sky with a global warming shut-off switch (AIRE)

How our responses to climate change and the coronavirus are linked (World Economic Forum)

Carbon Emissions Are Falling, But Still Not Enough, Scientists Say (NPR)

After the Coronavirus, Two Sharply Divergent Paths on Climate (Yale e360) Some policy experts are optimistic that victory over the coronavirus will instill greater appreciation for what government, science, and business can do to tackle climate change. But others believe the economic damage caused by the virus will set back climate efforts for years to come

Spillover Warning: How We Can Prevent the Next Pandemic (Yale e360) h Author David Quammen has tracked the spillover of viruses from animals to humans for more than a decade. To avoid future pandemics, he says, we must rethink our relationship with nature and recognize how our choices can lead to dangerous disruptions of the natural world.

Analysis: Coronavirus set to cause largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions (CarbonBrief)

Q&A: A Harvard Expert on Environment and Health Discusses Possible Ties Between COVID and Climate (Inside Climate News)

US coal companies batten down the hatches as COVID-19 poised to slash demand (S&P Global)

Coronavirus: ‘Nature is sending us a message’, says UN environment chief (The Guardian)

In this lagniappe episode [of The Energy Transition Podcast], we ask: what are some unanswered questions about the energy transition from five years ago, but that seem answered today? And what are the new questions that have emerged over the past five years which remain unanswered today?

The coronavirus outbreak is part of the climate change crisis (Al-Jazeera) Therefore, climate action should be central to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 – The Low-Carbon Crisis (Bloomberg NewEnergy Finance) At the end of last year, in a comment piece for BloombergNEF entitled Peak Emissions Are Closer Than You Think, I predicted that energy-related CO2 emissions would peak and then drop by around 5% within the next decade.  Never before has one of my big predictions been proven quite so right quite so quickly – albeit for entirely unforeseen and tragic reasons

Coronavirus Holds Key Lessons on How to Fight Climate Change (Yale e360) When the COVID-19 pandemic is past, societies may adopt some important measures that would lower emissions, from more teleconferencing to shortening global supply chains. But the most lasting lesson may be what the coronavirus teaches us about the urgency of taking swift action.

Shifting Gears: The Climate Protest Movement in the Age of Coronavirus (Yale e360) Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Fridays for Future, the youth climate campaign, was seeing numbers of protesters decline and its calls for action falling short of its goals. Now, the movement is recalibrating its strategies to try to usher in the next phase of a global campaign

No One Is Buying Canada’s Oil: A Preview Of The Near Future New Normal (CleanTechnica)

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