What COVID-19 teaches us about climate change

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic feels like being trapped in a yearlong maze, with lots of dead ends, backtracking and no obvious way out.

Yet finding our way through this fear and disruption can help us set signposts to navigate an even bigger threat — that of climate change. With the fastest-warming metropolitan area in the country, scarce water, and an economy partly dependent on construction and outdoor activities, Southern Nevada stands at the leading edge of climate-related impacts.

Reflecting on a few commonalities between the current pandemic and near-term climate peril may help us to better approach, mitigate and adapt to the looming climate catastrophe. Among those commonalities:

Problems that initially seem invisible can blow up into crises when ignored.

Pandemics and climate change both require sustained policy attention over a period of time. Often in our complex lives, it’s easy to look away and focus only on the immediate. A society that values long-term and broad-based thinking is more likely to anticipate and react appropriately.

Liberty, security and a thriving economy all depend on healthy citizens.

The pandemic has laid bare inadequacies and inequalities of our public health system. Climate change effects will likely be worse, and last much longer. Clear evidence links carbon pollutants to myriad heart, lung, reproductive, neurological, psychological and perinatal problems. According to a recent Harvard study, the lung inflammation from air pollution even worsens COVID-19. Other climate risks include threatened water and food supplies, heat-related illness, worldwide displacement of populations and, ironically, more new and emerging diseases. We must build a more resilient health system that includes consideration of climate-related health challenges.

Threats to the vulnerable among us threaten us all.

As a physician in a low-income neighborhood, I see first-hand the wave of COVID-19 sickening low-paid workers and their families. Likewise, climate change most immediately threatens those who work outside, walk and ride buses near vehicle tailpipes, struggle to afford summer electric bills, and lack consistent housing and health care. We who have privilege may not see direct climate impacts now, but like COVID-19, we are all at risk. In both cases, efforts to help the most impacted are the most effective means to manage the crisis for everyone.

In a hyperpartisan environment, building bridges is more effective than demonizing.

I’ll be frank — both COVID-19 deniers and climate deniers make me angry. I’m also angry at those who profit from the chaos and doubt engendered by both crises. But denial is fear manifested in words. Facing existential crises requires courage.

Both ordinary people and political leaders are more likely to summon the courage to change when approached with openness and respect rather than with criticism. Respectful outreach with consistent correct information is more likely to advance helpful policies.

Slowly, Republican leaders in many states have begun to embrace the need to continue distancing and mask-wearing to slow the spread of COVID-19. A mask order may be difficult to enforce, but a culture change led by Republican leaders who wear masks is likely to be durable.

Likewise, Republicans have begun to acknowledge and support climate action. In 2019, Nevada legislators passed a remarkable unanimous, bipartisan renewable-energy plan to make our state a clean energy superpower.

Meanwhile, our federal politics around climate change have too often been locked in lengthy court battles over executive regulations. Regulations may be a useful start to managing a crisis, but durable bipartisan policies require a culture change.

The climate culture shift is well underway. Thanks to the excellent work of the Yale Program on Climate Change communication, we know that majorities of Republicans, especially those under age 40, now support researching renewable energy, regulating CO2 as a pollutant, and favor environmental protection over economic growth. Congress is taking note.

Both crises offer unprecedented opportunities for change.

COVID-19 has rapidly changed the way we work, learn and socialize. In my medical practice, the traditional office visit used to be the only significant way we conducted business, until suddenly in March, we implemented large-scale telehealth. Telehealth is convenient and comfortable for patients and doctors — it is clearly a better way to provide certain types of care. Similarly, our response to climate change is opening exciting new technologies in energy, transportation and agriculture that promise not only carbon reduction but good jobs and a better way to live.

COVID-19 has battered America. Our national pride and confidence are suffering. But we still have a chance to turn this crisis into innovations in education, business, medical treatments and vaccine development. Likewise, leaning into the climate crisis can restore our leadership role in the world.

We need a variety of strong policies with bipartisan appeal and clear benefits to ordinary Americans. One straightforward and equitable proposal is a carbon fee with revenues returned to Americans in a monthly dividend. This will reduce emissions 40% within 12 years while growing jobs, protecting health and making everyone a beneficiary of the clean energy transition. The best way forward for the climate is a plan that uses the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis to enact policies that restore a sense of a united, just and purposeful society

Joanne Leovy is a family physician and member of the Las Vegas chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.