For many people around the world, 2020 was intended to be a year of clearer vision and progress. However, months into this new decade, the world is at a standstill and its future remains largely uncertain due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Such uncertainty is compounded by the fact that the relationship between COVID-19 and other global challenges such as Climate Change is not inversely proportional. Put simply, the rise of COVID-19 does not mean that other global challenges such as Climate Change have diminished or become any less problematic. Yet, these two particular challenges are intertwined in more ways than one.
Hello, it’s me, Mother Nature
Apart from being two crises of global proportions, the origins of COVID-19 and Climate Change are also similar. Climate change can be described as long-term shifts in weather patterns and while this is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, it is exacerbated by the presence of greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere, due to our burning of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has similar linkages. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transferred from animals to humans. This infectious disease is said to have originated from a wild animal in a poorly regulated wet market in Wuhan China, where persons sell fresh meat, live animals and wildlife. In both instances, our actions are at the foundation of the crises we confront. Could it be that mother nature is trying to send us a message?
COVID-19 and Climate Change: An Unhealthy Relationship
According to a report by the UNEP in 2016, Climate Change is a major factor for disease emergence, with mounting research suggesting that outbreaks and epidemic diseases will occur more frequently as the climate continues to change. Additionally, human activities such as deforestation, which contributes to climate change, is making human and wild animal contact more frequent due to the destruction of habitat.
COVID-19’s impact on Climate Change, particularly our ability to address it, is equally negative. As a global challenge, climate change necessitates an international response, where countries acknowledge their common but differentiated responsibilities. In many ways, countries around the world have been taking steps to combat climate change, albeit at a slow pace. However, COVID-19 has affected this momentum. With stay-at-home orders being seen in almost every country, it has not been business as usual for entities at the forefront of climate action. The European Union has delayed deadlines for some key elements of its forthcoming Green Deal (its regional strategy to combat climate change) and one of the United Nations Climate Change agencies (UNFCCC) has postponed its landmark Climate Change Conference (COP26), where states were expected to present their updated and strengthened national climate change plans. Closer to home, the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre in Belize and the Climate Change Unit of the OECS have been forced to limit some of their plans and activities or shift them online, where possible. Moreover, the duration that some of these limitations will be in place remains unclear and will differ from country to country.
So where does this reality leave us? How do we as a Caribbean region and members of the international community move forward in the face of these very real threats? Cyclone Harold in the Pacific earlier this month should have been enough to show the Caribbean that it is possible to face the repercussions of COVID-19 and Climate Change simultaneously. Even in our own backyard, the Bahamas faces the dual task of using its limited resources to recover Hurricane Dorian in 2019 and respond to the pandemic.
As such, in the short term, as the hurricane season approaches it may be wise for governments and citizens to not utilize all of their resources in the response to the pandemic. In the longer term, assessing the possibilities for intertwining climate resilience and green growth strategies into our COVID-19 economic recovery plans could be useful. Internationally, we should urge the larger countries, especially the major emitters of greenhouse gases to adopt a similar approach to their economic recoveries. This could prove to be a major turning point in the fight against Climate Change. Lastly, we depend heavily on climate finance to build our resilience in the region and the reality of COVID-19 and Climate Change could perhaps present Small Island Developing States with a stronger case to advocate for greater finance and efficiency with accessing climate finance.
Ultimately, the advent of Climate Change and COVID-19 is rooted in how we as humans interact with nature. Therefore, it simply cannot be business as usual and our ability and willingness to respond to these intertwined global challenges will likely determine our prosperity in the near future.