Covid-19, Species Collapse, and the Climate Emergency

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic comes word that the collapse of thousands of wildlife species sparked by the climate crisis could take place as early as the next decade if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced. Just as unsettling: this collapse wouldn’t happen in a long, slow slide, but rather would be far more abrupt than previously thought.

As Alex Pigot, a scientist at University College London and co-author, told a New York Times reporter, “For a long time things can seem OK and then suddenly they’re not. Then, it’s too late to do anything about it because you’ve already fallen over this cliff edge.”

Recent coral bleaching events suggest that ecosystem collapse in tropical oceans may already be underway. Photo by ARC Centre of Excellence licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

The study, published in Nature earlier this month, examined more than 30,000 species on land and in water to determine when climate change would dramatically reduce population levels and what the pace of those changes would be. The scientists identified the hottest temperature that a species is known to have survived and then projected when that temperature would be reached under different emissions scenarios.

The bad news? Abrupt collapse of tropical ocean ecosystems could begin “before 2030” and “spread to tropical forests and higher latitudes by 2050” at the current rate of emissions. On the other hand, if global warming stays below 2 degrees C, the number of species endangered would decline by 60 percent and the number of ecosystems exposed to catastrophic collapse would be limited to less than 2 percent.

The benefits of what one of the researchers called “early and rapid action” on limiting greenhouse gas emissions could hardly be clearer. The extinction of vast swaths of species upon which human survival depends would be avoided, although many people and species would still be vulnerable.

If you see a parallel here to the coronavirus crisis, you’re not alone. Early and rapid action, where it has taken place, has saved thousands of lives. But in those parts of the world that waited too long, once the infections took hold and multiplied  exponentially, it was too late and disaster ensued

So what will it be? Do we take the necessary steps now and prevent the collapse of the ecosystems that keep us alive or do we continue to avoid making the hard decisions and fall off the cliff edge? It’s a stark and unavoidable choice. The one positive thing that could come from the current pandemic, an event that has taken nearly 165,000 lives so far and inflicted widespread economic suffering, would be the wisdom sufficient to make the right choice about the future of our planet.

Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

The sudden appearance and rapid spread of the coronavirus is an unsettling reminder of how chaotic and uncertain the world can be. Seemingly out of the blue, this new and deadly virus is upending life across the globe — the latest reports identify almost 50 countries that have confirmed cases of infection.

In China, the epicenter of the outbreak, manufacturing, construction, and other economic activities have dramatically slowed down and even come to a halt, while air travel in the country has decreased by 70 percent. As a result, China’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past three weeks have declined by 25 percent.

A significant majority of American voters now support the Green New Deal.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that a similar unraveling of daily life is what the climate emergency has in store for us. The sense of foreboding is palpable. The fragility of modern life, its dependence on complex webs of supply chains, intricate social systems, infrastructure, and technology: all of it is up for grabs as we confront an epic series of disasters.

“Not all that long ago,” David Wallace-Wells observed this week, “climate change was a story unfolding only in the future tense.” Now, though, it has come “roaring into the present with a terrifying fury.” The incineration of one quarter of Australia’s forests in a single fire season underscores his point.

The ravages of climate destabilization, of course, are not confined to environmental destruction. Rising sea levels, extended droughts, flash floods, and wild fires are perhaps its most obvious manifestations. But less visible developments such as malaria, malnutrition, and heat stress will just as surely cause death and misery for millions of people as the climate crisis accelerates. If only global warming could inspire the kind of collective action that our fear of epidemics does.

More than ever, we need to remember that our fates as individuals and nations are intertwined. The poorest countries, as well as the most marginalized communities in the developed world, will continue to find themselves exposed disproportionately to the havoc that is underway. Just as doctors and nurses are rushing forward into the fray to care for patients struck down by COVID-19, the more fortunate among us need to act with a keen awareness that we are all in this together. It’s not just a question of morality; the survival of human civilization depends on it. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”