Mar 16, 2020
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Climate Change Has Lessons for Fighting the Coronavirus

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Scientists have repeatedly said that global emissions must be reduced by half over the next decade in order to keep average temperatures from rising to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, from preindustrial levels. A failure to do so is likely to usher in catastrophes as early as 2040, including the inundation of coastlines, worsening wildfires and droughts.

Those warnings don’t spark much policy change. We are not told to do the climate equivalent of coughing into our elbows. We are not discouraged from flying. Instead, sales of sports utility vehicles soar. The Amazon burns so more soy and cattle can be produced.

The dangers of to human life, though, are already being felt. Climate change was linked to a crippling drought around Cape Town in 2018. Heat waves in Western Europe last summer resulted in hundreds of additional deaths, according to government agencies. In England alone, over the course of two months, there were an additional 892 deaths, mostly older people, while in France that number was 1,435.

A study by University of Chicago researchers projected that, by 2100, climate change would kill roughly as many people as the number who die of cancer and infectious disease today. As with the European heat waves, the most vulnerable in society will bear the brunt. “Today’s poor bear a disproportionately high share of the global mortality risks of climate change,” the paper concluded.

But here’s the big unknown: Will the effort to revive the global economy after the pandemic accelerate the emissions of planet-warming gases, rather than avert climate change? That depends on whether the world’s big economies, like China and the United States, use this moment to enact green growth policies or continue to prop up fossil fuel industries.

This was to be a crucial year for global climate goals, with presidents and prime ministers under pressure to get more ambitious about reining in greenhouse gas emissions when they gather for United Nations-led climate talks in Glasgow in November. The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, has leaned on world leaders to announce more ambitious targets and to end what he called “vast and wasteful subsidies for fossil fuels.”

In a speech this week, Mr. Guterres hinted at another deficit faced by both the health and climate crises.

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