As a doctor who works in an emergency room, I have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a university professor in pediatrics and global health, I have also been anxiously engaged in the discussion about the impact of climate change on the health of the world’s most vulnerable.
The parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are striking. Both are global public health emergencies. Both simultaneously rely on trust in science and trust in a sense of common humanity. Both can seem abstract, even while the scope and implications of both can feel overwhelming. Both require bold and comprehensive public policy and bipartisan political support, even while the response to both has at times been hampered by disinformation that seeks division rather than solutions.
But I’m also struck by the differences.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused almost complete economic paralysis. In contrast, many economists and businesses believe that a comprehensive response to climate change would actually stimulate the economy, creating jobs for middle- and working-class Americans. Amid the harsh realities of COVID-19, our response to one planetary crisis — climate change — could offer a much-needed lifeline to our pandemic-ravaged economy.
But the most striking difference between COVID-19 and climate change is the dramatic disparity in the state of the science. While our understanding of what COVID-19 does to individuals and populations is evolving quickly, there remain huge gaps in our knowledge. New symptoms crop up daily; testing modalities have variable levels of accuracy; the degree to which infection results in subsequent immunity is uncertain; and we are still unclear how the virus affects children. All of this, while the world collectively holds its breath for scientists to find effective treatments and a vaccine.
This contrasts starkly with the science of climate change where the state of our knowledge is deep and the result of decades of intense study. With overwhelming scientific consensus, we know its causes, we know its effects and we know what to do to stop it. Without a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, we will breach thresholds within a decade, beyond which the climate-related risks to the public’s health rise dramatically.
Here, too, comparisons with COVID-19 are helpful: as devastating as the human and economic costs of this pandemic have already been, they stand to be orders of magnitude less severe than what we can expect with climate change — particularly for children and for the poor.
Yet, we can take heart. Utah’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic heralds the critical need to respond as a unified community to a clear and present threat to our health. We now see the scale of adjustment we are capable of and we see the ability of people to mobilize when an emergency is made clear. Put simply, we cannot defeat COVID-19 if we do not act in unison as a community. Similarly, we need a unified response to climate change.
When it comes to protecting the public from a rapidly changing climate, we are woefully behind where science and expert consensus tell us we need to be. Let us learn from this unique moment in time to plan and make the necessary changes to combat the threats of climate change.
We are capable of leading the way through a major public health challenge. If we can confront climate change in the same way, we have the opportunity to lead our nation in making the transformative changes that will protect our communities, enliven the economy and lead to a more resilient society.
Jeff Robison is the director of the Global, Rural & Underserved Child Health Program at the University of Utah School of Medicine and a pediatric emergency medicine physician. He also serves on the board of Utah Clean Energy. His views are his own.