Climate change is already disrupting and destroying the ecosystems upon which we all rely for food, housing, and clothing. Climate change is a threat not only to our health, but to humanity’s very existence on this planet.

All around the world, communities are calling on their governments to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis better, stronger, and more resilient. This pandemic has laid bare the fragility and vulnerabilities of our economy and our society. We have experienced the human health risks of living on a planet in which the natural systems are out of balance. We have experienced that the actions of individuals can have a dramatic effect on the health of a population.

While COVID-19 has been a significant public health crisis worldwide, the prestigious medical publication, the Lancet indicates that climate change is the biggest threat to public health of the 21st century. The health of hundreds of millions of people around the world are already impacted by climate change. It’s already disrupting and destroying the ecosystems upon which we all rely for food, housing, and clothing. Climate change is a threat not only to our health, but to humanity’s very existence on this planet.

“Climate Change is the biggest threat to public health of the 21st Century”

While climate change risk may, at first glance, appear to represent a risk that is either far off in the future, or that will occur only in faraway countries, let’s not forget how remote the risk of COVID-19 to Canadians appeared just last year, and how much its presence has altered our daily lives. Already, the effects of climate change are being felt in Canada. They are putting our health and safety at risk: we are witnessing flooding, sea-level rise, more frequent and intense storms, longer heatwaves, forest fires, and more disease-carrying insects.

Response to the pandemic around the world offers insight into the role of government leadership, acceptance of science-based policy, and individuals’ responses to a shared crisis. This experience has led to three key lessons that can be applied to addressing the climate crisis.

Lesson 1: People can change their behaviour in the interest of protecting themselves and others

In early 2020, we experienced a remarkable shift in the actions of the global population. Our priorities shifted away from short-term bottom lines to more long-term thinking. As a society, we are looking out for one another. We are keeping our physical distance from one another and wearing masks, not just to protect ourselves, but to protect those around us.

We have proven that people worldwide can work together to support a cause that is greater than ourselves. We can make small sacrifices in the face of crisis to support a healthier future. Travelling less, working remotely, and supporting local businesses are becoming our new normal and can result in significant greenhouse gas reduction.

Lesson 2: Prevention and timely mitigation are crucial to crisis management

Government response to the pandemic varies from region to region, across the world and within countries. But one common thread emerges: when faced with a significant health threat, full scientific understanding of all aspects of the COVID-19 virus did not prevent governments from acting in a precautionary manner, providing recommendations and implementing restrictions to protect public health.

Although the effects of climate change, and actions taken to mitigate it occur on longer timescales than pandemics, it has long been touted that early action to combat the climate crisis is critical. Delaying action by a decade significantly increases the cost of response. The longer we take to implement concrete policies, the closer we come to being overwhelmed with devastating, irreversible changes to our environment and jeopardizing our health and well-being.

Lesson 3: Addressing a global crisis requires long-term commitments

We have been fighting COVID-19 for over a year now, and early evidence suggests the virus may be with us for the long haul. The restrictions in place to protect public health may be causing fatigue, but we must endure. Individuals and governments must keep our collective well-being at the forefront of our decisions and actions.

As we shift to a low-carbon economy and move forward on meeting our Paris Climate Agreement targets, we must persevere and embrace a new normal. And not revert to “business as usual.” This will take time and commitment, but we will be healthier in the long term.

Changing for a better tomorrow

Despite pandemic fatigue, we are all trying our best to hang in there and follow public health directives until widespread vaccination becomes available. But there is no vaccine for climate change. Let our experience with the COVID crisis serve as a practice run for the important decisions and changes needed on a global scale to overcome the climate crisis.

“There is no vaccine for climate change”

We need to flatten the curve of climate-change risk, to change our behaviours to align with the best available science to ensure that our actions do not result in overwhelming global temperature rise. We need to make the drastic changes required to meet our targets under the Paris Agreement. And we need those changes to start now, in every aspect of our economy as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.

Melanie Langille is an environmental scientist and vice president of the Foundation for Resilient Health, a project of the New Brunswick Lung Association.
 © 2018 NBEN / RENB