Planet Earth has been infected with a deadly virus. That virus is the fossil fuel industry and its greenhouse gases that seriously threaten humanity as well as most life on earth — and sooner than you might think. The sooner that preventative measures are taken, the more lives will be saved.
Sweeping through the world like a morbid wildfire, Covid-19 has displayed a combustive nature. Lurking at the surface is another beast of pandemic proportions: the climate crisis. This pandemic and the climate crisis have much in common: they both involve complex and chain-reactive processes at the microscopic level that lead to overwhelmed societies and sobering morbidity. Moreover, the destabilized climate plays a key role in the proliferation of pandemics like Covid-19.
Another key parallel between the climate crisis and Covid-19 is about preventative action. According to a recent study, the United States could’ve seen 700,000 fewer infections as well as 36,000 fewer fatalities if it had started Covid-19 shutdowns just one week earlier. The same logic is true of the climate crisis — except on a much larger, and even more lethal, scale. If governments take bold actions now to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions they will save countless lives. If, on the other hand, governments fail to make dramatic changes, many more lives will be lost — potentially on the scale of hundreds of millions. Trump’s administration failed the public in their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Governments must not make the same mistake with the climate crisis.
Recently, some have celebrated the 17% decline in greenhouse gas emissions occurred due to decreased fossil fuel consumption worldwide due to the pandemic. While this is a substantial start, it is not close to enough. Human societies must strive for carbon neutrality or even carbon negative emissions as soon as possible. The sooner this happens, the more lives will be saved. The good news is that this whole process can be positive for the economy, bolstering jobs just when so many have been lost: a “$1 million investment in energy efficiency creates around eight full-time jobs, nearly three times as many as an investment in fossil fuels.”
Why are these reductions in greenhouse gas emissions so important and how are human lives threatened? Let’s look into the complex and alarming facts that define the planet’s current infection.
The climate crisis acts as a viral catalyst of complex effects that work together to compound their lethal impacts on human societies. These quickly spin out of control, especially if there is a failure to respond. And just as Covid-19 acts as an underlying vulnerability that compounds other crises, the climate crisis acts as a multiplier, aggravating future challenges.
As the climate heats up due to fossil fuel combustion and the greenhouse gases that trap infrared heat in the atmosphere, a series of compounding effects take place. Methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas emitted by animal agriculture and natural gas extraction, gets released from melting permafrost. As more ice sheets melt, more blue ocean and brown dirt gets exposed in the Arctic and Antarctic — this increases planetary warming through the albedo effect where darker planetary surface absorbs more heat. As rainforests get overheated and destroyed, they lose their ability to effectively act as carbon sinks for atmospheric carbon. This is, in turn, heats up regions around the forests and reduces precipitation, creating droughts and even deserts. With increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, trees in the arctic hold less moisture and the arctic then heats up.
At this point there is the problem that parts of Planet Earth become literally too hot for human beings. All this global heating leads to record temperatures, heat stress and heat death. Some cities, and whole regions, become uninhabitable. Coastal areas get flooded, sometimes permanently. There are more and more climate refugees around the world.
The oceans also die. Ocean acidification and anoxicity suffocate marine life, fish populations disappear. The millions of people who rely on the ocean for their primary source of food would be in trouble. But there would be serious cascading effects from the loss of ocean life well beyond food sources. And as we see in ecosystems, losses of certain aspects of the system can produce trophic cascades that impact on the whole system. As we’ve seen in dealing with coronavirus, the compounding effect of one underlying vulnerability enhances the impacts of other challenges.
Our planet has a deadly virus. But it is not human beings; it is the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels that define the Petrolocene era. Pandemics will proliferate and the whole living system of our planet will start to face systemic health failures if the cause of this infection is not addressed and eliminated. The global virus that is the climate crisis has already contributed to the current mass extinction event; it might be relevant to note that all previous mass extinctions involved dramatic changes in climate.
Let’s think about the year 2070. If dramatic actions to end greenhouse gas emissions are not taken, the world will be in chaos. Droughts, famines, pandemics and climate displacement will lead to staggering casualties. Governments will be overwhelmed and many nations will fall. The seams of society will come undone — and they will seep into every corner, nook, and cranny of human society. But as with many of the worst natural disasters that strike people, the reality is unimaginable until it actually happens: you might not believe your house could ever burn down until you’re standing there looking at the ashes. No one imagined that dam crumbling, that reactor imploding, or that virus locking us down in our homes for months… until they happened. Somehow humanity must overcome its disbelief in these kinds of scenarios because this time the house is our whole planet.
All told, the climate crisis is a planetary pandemic of unprecedented proportions. And it is spreading extremely quickly right now. Bold action must be taken to save lives. No human being, no matter how much wealth and resources they may have, will be able to avoid these catastrophic and overwhelming effects. A private jet or yacht may do well for temporary emergencies, but they are no match for persistent societal breakdown. The cascading effects of such a crisis will touch every living thing on the planet but there is hope for society to address the suffering: we must band together our human family in bold response to this deadly crisis, and we must act now to start fighting for the lives that are at stake.