Skip to Main Content

COVID-19, Science and the Way Forward on Climate Change

May 07, 2020
COVID-19, Science and the Way Forward on Climate Change
  • 00:01- So I'm gonna talk about COVID-19, Science,
  • 00:04and the way forward on climate change,
  • 00:06and this talk will be more conceptual
  • 00:09and not so much presenting my research.
  • 00:12So next slide, please.
  • 00:16So firstly,
  • 00:18there's really no evidence that climate change
  • 00:20caused the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 00:23However we should note that climate change does cause
  • 00:27increased spread of infectious diseases
  • 00:29and could contribute to future pandemics.
  • 00:32So simply put, mosquitoes, ticks,
  • 00:35and other disease vectors do better in a warming world.
  • 00:40Floods, which are more frequent under climate change,
  • 00:43spread waterborne diseases, or infections, I should say.
  • 00:47And with regard to future pandemics,
  • 00:50climate change causes migration
  • 00:53of both human and animal populations
  • 00:56and this facilitates mixing of these populations
  • 00:59which could contribute to viruses
  • 01:02spilling over from animals to humans.
  • 01:05Next slide, please.
  • 01:08However,
  • 01:10whoops, could you go back one?
  • 01:12Thanks.
  • 01:13However climate change and enhanced disasters
  • 01:16will exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 01:20I think that's almost guaranteed.
  • 01:22So we could see floods in the Midwest.
  • 01:25We almost certainly will see wildfires
  • 01:27in California later in the season.
  • 01:30Almost certainly we'll see hurricanes in the Caribbean
  • 01:33along the Gulf Coast or along the Eastern U.S.,
  • 01:36and those will produce climate refugees
  • 01:41who will likely be housed in shelters.
  • 01:44And of course, during a pandemic,
  • 01:47we don't want people housed in shelters,
  • 01:49that it's closed quarters
  • 01:52and not a good idea.
  • 01:55There could be destruction
  • 01:56of healthcare system infrastructure
  • 01:58by hurricanes, wildfires, et cetera,
  • 02:02and we could see more overwhelming
  • 02:04of the healthcare systems,
  • 02:06the various healthcare systems
  • 02:08with both disaster-related patients,
  • 02:10in addition to COVID-19 patients.
  • 02:15Another example of how climate change
  • 02:18and COVID-19 pandemic could interact
  • 02:22is the Locust plague, which you've probably heard about,
  • 02:26that's going on in East Africa.
  • 02:27It's been happening for the last several months.
  • 02:30It's thought that very heavy rains in East Africa
  • 02:34precipitated this locust plague,
  • 02:36probably related to climate change.
  • 02:41The Locust plague has been causing agricultural failures,
  • 02:45leading to food insecurity,
  • 02:47leading to malnourished people
  • 02:49who have weakened immune systems
  • 02:51who will be more susceptible to the virus.
  • 02:55Next slide, please.
  • 02:57So there are many parallels
  • 02:59between the pandemic and climate change.
  • 03:01So let me state some of those.
  • 03:03So first, of course,
  • 03:05there have been long-standing warnings
  • 03:07by scientists that have not been heeded
  • 03:10about the risk of pandemics and about climate change.
  • 03:15And since they've not been heeded,
  • 03:17prevention and preparedness efforts
  • 03:19have been woefully inadequate.
  • 03:22Secondly,
  • 03:25for both the pandemic and climate change,
  • 03:28they're both disasters for public health
  • 03:31and for the economy, and we'll get back to the economy.
  • 03:35Both prey on the most vulnerable,
  • 03:37including the elderly, poor and people of color.
  • 03:43For both, an effective response requires early action,
  • 03:48federal government leadership, international cooperation,
  • 03:53and unprecedented societal mobilization.
  • 03:56So for climate change,
  • 04:00these four
  • 04:02responses
  • 04:03have been
  • 04:05extremely poor.
  • 04:07I'd say actually
  • 04:10somewhat better for the pandemic.
  • 04:12We could have a discussion about that,
  • 04:14but also a lot of failings for the pandemic as well.
  • 04:18Next slide, please.
  • 04:22So both crises are urgent, but on different timescales.
  • 04:26For the pandemic,
  • 04:28it will probably play out over a period
  • 04:30of months to several years.
  • 04:34We could say it's the worst acute
  • 04:36public health crisis in a century.
  • 04:39I would argue that it's probably
  • 04:41not the worst, at least not yet,
  • 04:43not the worst public health crisis in a century.
  • 04:45We have to compare it with the tobacco epidemic,
  • 04:49obesity, HIV.
  • 04:55So it remains to be seen where this
  • 04:57pandemic will be situated overall,
  • 04:59but certainly as an acute public health crisis,
  • 05:02it's the worst.
  • 05:05With regard to climate change,
  • 05:07the timescale is decades to centuries,
  • 05:11and it's possibly the worst
  • 05:12public health crisis in human history,
  • 05:15depending on what we do over the next decade or two.
  • 05:18Next slide, please.
  • 05:22So both crises can be solved by science.
  • 05:26For the pandemic, we've been talking a lot, of course,
  • 05:29about physical distancing, testing,
  • 05:32contact tracing, quarantining, PPE,
  • 05:36ventilators,
  • 05:38the need to develop through scientific research
  • 05:41antiviral medications, as well as a vaccine.
  • 05:47So I think it's pretty clear
  • 05:49how science needs to be used to solve the pandemic.
  • 05:53With regard to climate change,
  • 05:55scientists have shown that it's real,
  • 05:58that it's caused by humans,
  • 06:00that it's harming public health,
  • 06:02and that the longer we delay, the worse it will get.
  • 06:06And through science, we actually know what the solution is,
  • 06:10which essentially is to convert
  • 06:11from a fossil-fuel-based economy
  • 06:14to a renewable-energy-based economy.
  • 06:17That's a tall order, but as we'll talk about, it's doable.
  • 06:21Next slide, please.
  • 06:25So, the world economy has taken a big hit, as you all know.
  • 06:30It's gonna need to be rebuilt
  • 06:33and I would suggest that there are
  • 06:35two paths for rebuilding the world economy.
  • 06:38There's the path backwards,
  • 06:40in which we would double down on our fossil fuel economy,
  • 06:43or the path forward,
  • 06:45in which we would seize this unprecedented opportunity
  • 06:49to build a renewable energy economy.
  • 06:52Next slide.
  • 06:55So first, the path backwards.
  • 06:58This path would pit the environment against the economy.
  • 07:02It's a tried-and-true tactic that's been used
  • 07:08and we continue to rollback environmental regulations
  • 07:11and suspend enforcement.
  • 07:15There will be stimulus infrastructure
  • 07:18and/or infrastructure packages,
  • 07:20no matter what the path,
  • 07:22and the path backwards,
  • 07:24that we'd have a package that first has no
  • 07:28environmental requirements for bailed-out industries,
  • 07:31like airlines, cruise ships and industrial agriculture,
  • 07:35and that, second,
  • 07:36resuscitates and entrenches the fossil fuel industry,
  • 07:41which as you know, is currently kind of on its heels,
  • 07:44and
  • 07:47the path backwards will attempt
  • 07:49to do that for decades to come.
  • 07:52Next slide, please.
  • 07:54So then there's the path forward.
  • 07:56So first, I would say,
  • 07:59and this isn't the main part of the path forward,
  • 08:02but I think it's important to note,
  • 08:05we would retain what we've learned during the pandemic.
  • 08:08So that would include
  • 08:10reducing business travel by relying
  • 08:13more heavily on video conferencing.
  • 08:15We've all or a lot of us have really
  • 08:18taken up video conferencing in a big way
  • 08:20and we know how to do it and it's actually quite useful.
  • 08:28And of course, if we reduce business travel,
  • 08:30that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 08:33We could see an increase in remote working,
  • 08:35which many of us have been doing
  • 08:37and we've got a taste for that.
  • 08:40It's not that hard to do,
  • 08:42and that would also decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 08:46We could produce more of our own goods,
  • 08:48such as drugs, medical equipment,
  • 08:51and personal protective equipment
  • 08:54in order to reduce vulnerability
  • 08:55to globalized supply networks.
  • 08:58So that would reduce shipping
  • 09:00and also greenhouse gas emissions
  • 09:03and we can convert
  • 09:06healthcare systems from single-use to reusable PPE
  • 09:10masks, gowns, gloves.
  • 09:13Single-use is tremendously wasteful
  • 09:15and has a larger greenhouse gas footprint
  • 09:19than doing reusable.
  • 09:21Next slide, please.
  • 09:25So the main element of the path forward
  • 09:27is to heavily invest in renewable energy.
  • 09:31So the foundation of a transition
  • 09:34to a renewable energy economy
  • 09:37is to generate electricity with renewable energy.
  • 09:41So once that's done, we can electrify transportation,
  • 09:45heating of buildings, and industry.
  • 09:49All of that's gonna require a huge amount of electricity.
  • 09:52So it's important to develop
  • 09:54energy efficiency and conservation,
  • 09:56which could include
  • 09:58dense well-designed livable cities
  • 10:02that are a lot more energy efficient,
  • 10:05developing mass transportation,
  • 10:07which is also much more energy efficient
  • 10:09than
  • 10:12single-occupied automobiles,
  • 10:15and high-speed
  • 10:17inter-city trains to replace regional air travel.
  • 10:22Parenthetically air travel is one of the complicated issues
  • 10:27with regard to accomplishing zero greenhouse gas emissions
  • 10:31because we don't know yet how we're gonna fly airplanes
  • 10:36without burning fossil fuels.
  • 10:40Then the final element that I'll mention
  • 10:42that's related to all this
  • 10:43is carbon dioxide capture and storage.
  • 10:48Unfortunately the world has dithered so long
  • 10:51with regard to reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • 10:54that in addition to reducing emissions,
  • 10:58we're gonna have to also
  • 11:00capture and store CO2.
  • 11:03Now that could be done through natural mechanisms
  • 11:05by reforestation, and also agricultural soil management,
  • 11:10which, unfortunately, that might not be enough.
  • 11:13And so people are trying to develop technologies
  • 11:17to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,
  • 11:19and then store it underground.
  • 11:21Those technologies are not there yet,
  • 11:24but we could invest in research on those technologies.
  • 11:30Next slide, please.
  • 11:34Then the final part of the path forward that I see
  • 11:37is to invest in science education and literacy.
  • 11:41So the COVID-19 experience I think shows
  • 11:43that people respond to clear
  • 11:46science-based messages from trusted sources.
  • 11:49So
  • 11:51it hasn't been perfect, obviously,
  • 11:53and we haven't seen those science-based messages
  • 11:57from some of our leadership,
  • 11:59but we have seen it from other leadership,
  • 12:01a lot of the governors,
  • 12:03from medical leadership, such as Doctor Fauci and others,
  • 12:08and it's actually been to me quite remarkable
  • 12:14how much adherence there has been
  • 12:17to the physical distancing.
  • 12:20Now we might see some degradation and change in that.
  • 12:24There's gonna be political demagoguery
  • 12:27and there's a lot of misinformation on the internet,
  • 12:30but nevertheless I think
  • 12:33we could point to a positive experience
  • 12:34with regards to science communication for COVID-19.
  • 12:39So we need to do the same thing with climate change
  • 12:41and we need to educate the general public, policy makers,
  • 12:45medical and public health professionals,
  • 12:47and really students at all levels about climate change,
  • 12:50about its public health impacts
  • 12:52and the feasibility of both solutions.
  • 12:55Next slide, please.
  • 12:58So this is
  • 13:00a little complicated,
  • 13:01but I think it's an important slide.
  • 13:03So I'll walk you through it.
  • 13:06This is looking at generation of electricity
  • 13:09by different types of renewable energy
  • 13:12and it's comparing the cost in dollars per kilowatt hour
  • 13:18on the y-axis
  • 13:19between 2010
  • 13:22and 2018.
  • 13:24It's important to note the kind of light tan coloring,
  • 13:29and that's the fossil fuel cost range.
  • 13:34Now, just to go through this quickly, then,
  • 13:38you could see that for bioenergy, geothermal, and hydro,
  • 13:42that those are all at the lower end
  • 13:44of the fossil fuel cost range.
  • 13:47Then very notably for solar
  • 13:50voltaics,
  • 13:51between 2010
  • 13:53and 2018, we saw a dramatic drop in costs.
  • 13:57We're now, in 2018,
  • 13:59the cost is in the low range of the fossil fuel cost range.
  • 14:03Concentrated solar power,
  • 14:05which is another type of solar power,
  • 14:08that I won't go into the details,
  • 14:10there's been a very dramatic drop as well,
  • 14:13although it's actually still a bit
  • 14:15above the fossil fuel cost range.
  • 14:18And then for offshore wind,
  • 14:19has gone down to the mid range for fossil fuels
  • 14:23and onshore wind is
  • 14:25at the lower end now in terms of the range of fossil fuels.
  • 14:29So the point I'd like to make here is
  • 14:32that fossil fuel advocates
  • 14:35say renewable energy would be nice,
  • 14:38but it's really not feasible, it's not cost effective,
  • 14:41but the fact is that that's not true,
  • 14:44that we've reached a point technologically
  • 14:47that it is feasible to make this transition
  • 14:50from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  • 14:52There are still a few technological
  • 14:56improvements that need to be made,
  • 14:57such as battery storage of energy,
  • 15:01but it's really there
  • 15:04and so this is very feasible.
  • 15:07It just requires political will
  • 15:10and the necessary investments.
  • 15:13Final slide, please.
  • 15:16So I'd like to end
  • 15:18with this quote that, "optimism is a moral imperative,"
  • 15:23and that's because pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • 15:28So I think
  • 15:29we have a long road ahead with regard to climate change,
  • 15:33but it's important to have optimism
  • 15:36to motivate and sustain our work.
  • 15:39So, thank you.