What Can COVID-19 Teach Us About Climate Change? Experts Weigh In

While the most urgent challenge now facing the global community is stopping the spread of COVID-19 and mitigating its impacts, the race to fight climate change continues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed every aspect of daily life. Some of the changes—like largescale adoption of telework—may be here to stay. As vaccination efforts ramp up and policymakers plan for a post-COVID future, we have the opportunity to build back better.

What can we do to prevent future pandemics?  How can we take what we’ve learned and make our communities more resilient, healthy, just, and equitable? It turns out, all these issues are related. Examining the striking parallels between the pandemic and climate change shows how.

Health & climate: Common roots, common solutions

“We’ve done a lot to engineer a world where emerging infectious diseases are both more likely and more likely to be consequential, just as we’ve engineered a world where wildfires, floods, droughts and other local consequences of climate change are more likely and more consequential.”

That’s James Holland Jones, associate professor at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, underlining the widespread recognition that climate impacts health and failure to act could make future pandemics more frequent and more severe.

One of the factors is habitat loss. An estimated three of out four new infectious diseases result from human-animal contact, according to the CDC. That has serious implications when it comes to activities like deforestation and mass livestock production—both of which not only contribute to climate change but also increase exposure to diseases from Lyme to Ebola.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, pediatrician and interim director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard University, makes the connection between forest loss and West Africa’s Ebola outbreak. “Likely part of the reason why that happened is because bats that carry Ebola had lost their homes” Bernstein explains. “And so we may be pushing bats into new places by destroying their habitat.”

A warming climate is also more hospitable to mosquitoes–and mosquito-borne illnesses, which already kill about 1 million people per year. As Stanford biologist Erin Mordecai puts it: “It’s coming for you. If the climate is becoming more optimal for transmission, it’s going to become harder and harder to do mosquito control.”

Alarming as that is, the recognition that pandemics and climate change share common root causes points toward common solutions.

Dramatic progress is possible

The dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions is one of the few bright spots in a challenging year. U.S. emissions plummeted 10% in 2020, according to the Rhodium Group, which characterizes the decline as “the single largest drop in annual emissions in the post-World War II era, outpacing the Great Recession of 2009 when emissions dipped 6.3%.” Globally, carbon dioxide emissions plunged a record 2.4 billion tons–the equivalent of taking 500 million cars off the roads. But in this case, the car comparison is almost literal, as mass lockdowns drove a largescale transition from commuting to telework and—notably—contributed to major job losses.

“We don’t want emissions to drop because tens of millions of Americans are out of work, or hundreds of millions of people around the world,” says Rob Jackson, professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University. “That’s not a sustainable path to climate action.”

True, but it’s still an instructive development. With such tangible evidence that human activity causes emissions, maybe a few more skeptics will concede that human activity can also reduce emissions–shifting the focus from debating causes to finding solutions that not only don’t jeopardize jobs but actually generate economic growth.

Inaction comes at a steep cost

While the United States entered 2021 with new daily records for COVID-19 infections and deaths, life is largely back to normal in nations like Australia. On the same date in January that the U.S. recorded 229,712 new coronavirus cases, Australia recorded 16. Housebound millions the world over marveled in November when the island continent’s daily case rate hit zero, the famed Sydney Opera House reopened, and 40,000 fans attended a rugby match.

Although the Aussies have a lower population and distinct geographic advantages, Australia’s success isn’t based on luck. It’s built on quick action and science. In contrast to the rolling, patchwork approach in the U.S., Australia’s prompt action to implement a national lockdown is credited with getting virus spread under control.

“Ideally, lockdowns are only done once and done well,” the proposal’s authors said. “A hard lockdown in the early stages of the virus gives a chance for elimination, and that gives the chance for business certainty and a full recovery.”

To be sure, Australia’s approach is not without economic costs—just as emissions-reducing technologies don’t come free. But Australia’s focused, early action provides a chance to largely spare the nation the more severe, prolonged economic distress the United States is suffering.

There is a clear climate equivalent: Invest in climate solutions now, or endure ever more catastrophic consequences later.

As Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive, puts it, effective preventive action “looks disproportionate to what the current reality is, because you have to react to where that exponential growth will take you.”

New research on coastal flooding is one of the latest studies to illustrate that point. The report from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researcher Sean Vitousek studied 200 coastal areas in the United States, projecting that 70% of them could see major floods each year by 2050. By 2100, flooding levels typically observed only twice per century could be a daily occurrence in 93% of these areas.

“You take high tide, add on an extra meter, and you’re exceeding thresholds at every high tide,” Vitousek said. While many cities are building flood barriers, Vitousek emphasizes that’s not enough. Using an all too familiar term, Vitousek urges that action to cut greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to “flatten the curve” on sea-level rise.

Inequitable community impacts

Another parallel between coronavirus and climate issues demands attention: Both health crises and climate crises disproportionately hurt people of color.

Predominantly Black counties have experienced three times the rate of infection—and six times the rate of COVID-related death—as white counties. We don’t yet know all the reasons why COVID impacts are so much worse for communities of color, but we do know that at least one of the potential solutions traces back to air quality.

It’s well-known that exposure to polluted air is linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases—underlying conditions we know increase risk for coronavirus patients. Drawing on data collected in almost 3,100 U.S. counties, Harvard researchers found that exposure to fine particulate matter “is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”

Even before the pandemic, disproportionate air pollution exposure for low-income neighborhoods and communities of color was an urgent issue. A 2017 study from the Clean Air Task Force and the NAACP found that African Americans are 75% more likely to live near refineries and other polluting facilities, and Black children had a 500% higher death rate from asthma than white children.

It’s an unacceptable disparity, and both health policy and environmental policy must grapple with it.

The way forward: Vaccine success proves science works, but only in tandem with collective action

Nearly miraculous,” “a remarkable feat,” “orders of magnitude faster than any vaccine ever before”— the unprecedented efforts by the global scientific community to develop effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time may finally be the light at the end of pandemic tunnel.

Yet science alone can’t turn the tide. Neither can government policy. Distributing the vaccine requires complex coordination at the city, county, state, and national levels. It depends on action from the government, the public, schools, the media, the health care sector, and private businesses.

As a parable for climate action, the implications are both sobering and inspiring.

It’s sobering because of studies titled, “Why relying on new technology won’t save the planet.” As tempting as it may be to hope for a scientific silver bullet that will reverse decades of inaction, climate scientists warn that that thinking is dangerous to progress.

“For 40 years, climate action has been delayed by technological promises,” stated Lancaster Environment Centre researchers Duncan McLaren and Nils Markusson, who authored the report.

“Putting our hopes in yet more new technologies is unwise,” they continued. “Instead, cultural, social and political transformation is essential to enable widespread deployment of both behavioral and technological responses to climate change.”

Here’s where the inspiration comes in: We have climate solutions and growing momentum to act. A 2020 Pew Research survey found 63% of Americans believe climate change is affecting their community, and 65% believe the federal government should do more to address climate change. As the Biden administration follows through on its pledge to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement and pursue other climate policies, a political shift may be in reach.

Along with the “political transformation” cited by researchers, “technological responses” are critical. This is perhaps the aspect of the challenge where we’ve been most effective so far.  A climate vaccine, so to speak, is already here. It exists in countless forms. From building renovation to low-carbon materials, from passive design strategies to solar photovoltaic arrays, solutions abound—and that’s just in the architecture and design sector. Sustainability technology is becoming ever more advanced, accessible, and affordable.

Like the COVID vaccine, these technologies must be implemented throughout communities to be effective. That’s up to all of us, and it’s a top priority for architects. Through partnerships with civic leaders, programs like the 2030 Commitment, and public outreach campaigns like Blueprint for Better, the architecture community is working to ensure widespread adoption of techniques to mitigate and prevent climate change impacts.

By pulling together, architects, homeowners, engineers, contractors, and community leaders can take the pandemic’s hard-won lessons and build a better, more sustainable future.


The Blueprint for Better campaign is a call to action. AIA is asking architects, design professionals, civic leaders, and the public in every community to join our efforts. Help us transform the day-to-day practice of architecture to achieve a zero-carbon, resilient, healthy, just, and equitable built environment.

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