With the public properly focused on trying to minimize the spread of COVID-19, attention has shifted away from the other global emergency. Evidence is continuing to accumulate of the urgency of the climate crisis however the response to the coronavirus pandemic may be opening ways to more effectively tackle its causes.
Scientists’ status appears to have sharply improved, acceptance of very strong government measures is being demonstrated, and greenhouse gas emissions have gone down significantly in the wake of COVID-19.’ Many of those emission reductions are costing jobs and livelihood, but beneficial changes like less air travel, fewer ocean cruises and more digital replacement of commuting could persist beyond the health crisis.
Emission declines are still to be calculated, but researchers have reported dramatic drops in air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide coming from the same industrial and transportation sources. Declines of at least 30-40% were being seen by early this month in countries as varied as China, South Korea, Italy and the United Kingdom.
“We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” observed a British professor. “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible, to see what can be achieved.”
Acceptance of serious restrictions on personal liberties for the greater good may encourage political leaders to take equally serious action on climate change. Fighting the immediate threat of COVID-19 is however an easier ‘sell’ than the arguably more serious, though slower moving threat posed by the consequences of global heating.
Locally, lake levels this winter set new record highs suggesting that Hamilton’s waterfront trails and homes will again likely face flooding this spring. That’s also bad news for the city’s recently approved budget.
Internationally, the catastrophic fires in Australia were a stark reminder that there are already severe consequences from global heating. Scientists have concluded that the fire heat index for that continent was 30 percent higher because of human-caused climate change, and warn that such fires will be eight times more likely to occur if we allow the planet’s average temperature increase to exceed two degrees Celsius.
And hitting or exceeding that mark looks increasingly likely. So far this year global temperature averages in the first month made it the hottest January ever in the 141-year history of reliable records. Last month has now come in as the second hottest February on record, only exceeded by 2016 which was part of the hottest year yet recorded. This has helped give Europe its hottest ever winter and that much of southern Ontario fell into the category of “much warmer than usual”.
In mid-February Antarctica had unprecedented temperatures. On one of the continent’s islands it climbed to nearly 21 Celsius, while a few days earlier 18.3 Celsius was recorded on the mainland.
While global average temperatures have climbed about 1C, Antarctica is up nearly 3C with resulting widespread melting that if continued at the current rate could raise the planet’s ocean levels by two metres in this century. Little more than a decade ago climate scientists predicted that the continent would see no net loss of ice before 2100.
How much this climate emergency might be slowed down by the experience of fighting COVID-19 remains to be seen.
“There's no way, to spin a microbe or to persuade a virus to compromise, anymore than there is to politicize a CO2 molecule,” observes Bill McKibben of 350.org. “So maybe this will remind us to respect the physical nature of the world and the limits that it imposes.”