Source: Getty Images, Green Matters <https://www.greenmatters.com/p/climate-change-death-toll>
As we sit in our homes and ponder the last thirteen months of our lives, there is a certain dissociation that’s become commonplace. Lack of certainty is no longer cause for panic because we have heard the words “I don’t know” so many times in the last year from world leaders, leading scientists, activists, and public bodies. The people who were supposed to have answers for us came up blank and we have all had to begrudgingly come to the understanding that some things are beyond both our control and understanding. This mystified perception of the pandemic is dually applicable to the very real issue of climate change, which may give rise to the feeling that the hopefulness and relief we feel in coming to the end of this lockdown may not signal the end of this chapter of disaster after all.
The year 2020 has been emblematized as the worst year of many people’s lives. The death toll from the pandemic alone has been devastating - 2.6 million deaths across 200 countries ᶦ. During lockdown, due to the cuts in industry and transportation, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has reported a 17% decrease in carbon emissionsᶦᶦ. Further benefits of the lockdown for the environment include: more people have been walking or biking rather than driving, living simpler lives that include home cooking and prudent spending, and opting to skip taking their next vacation until restrictions are relaxedᶦᶦᶦ. If only life on Earth was the kind of kitschy post-apocalyptic comedy where one year of restrictive policies could knock out one whole global crisis with another. However, this silver lining is only that—a lining. On the inside, we must realise that eventually, restrictions will be lifted, and humanity will return to its destructive industrious habits. The Secretary-General of the WMO said it best: “The Covid-19 pandemic is not a solution for climate change.”ᶦᵛ
In a 2005 report on health risks related to the environment, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that “climatic changes are estimated to cause over 150,000 deaths annually” and more recently CNN reported that number had risen to 250,000 by 2019; the mortality figure is an estimate for deaths caused by “extreme weather conditions”ᵛ. I really hate to be ‘that guy’, but this is a fantasy. Extreme weather conditions do not even cover half of the bigger picture and this astoundingly low figure is part of the problem; it is a misrepresentation of how bad things have gotten. For example, it conveniently leaves out pollution-related diseases, which in the most “severely affected countries…kills more than one in four people”ᵛᶦ. A report in the medical journal Lancet reported that “diseases caused by pollution were responsible for approximately 9 million premature deaths in 2015”—over three times the mortality rate of COVID-19 in a year—and that was half a decade ago ᵛᶦᶦ.
Further, studies and reports circulated by The United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF and the WHO have argued that some “2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely managed drinking water”ᵛᶦᶦᶦ, and this poor sanitation (a direct cause of natural and man-made disasters) kills over 5000 children every dayᶦˣ. To rephrase – around two million children die every year for lack of a sanitary environment. I could go on, but I think I’ve made the point sufficiently well that 150,000 deaths – or even 250,000—annually is not only a misleading figure, it is merely a brush stroke on the full painting.
Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney spoke to the BBC to discuss parallels between climate change and the pandemic, explaining that “one of the biggest issues is you cannot self-isolate from climate…we cannot retreat and wait out climate change, it will just get worse”ˣ. To face facts, once lockdown ends, the new pandemic emerging will be the Climate Crisis. The earth is sick, there is no vaccine, and the death toll will far exceed the monstrous mortality rate of COVID-19; “it will be the equivalent of a coronavirus crisis every year from the middle of this century [onwards]”, says Carneyˣᶦ.
Environmental activism and awareness have been on the rise in the last decade; news reports about the climate crisis are everywhere you look as we fast approach the tipping point. The ‘point of no return’, which scientists writing for Nature have reported could occur within the next decade— is fully contingent on the policy changes and decisive actions taken in the next yearˣᶦᶦ. It’s time we started treating this global issue as what it is: We are in a state of “planetary emergency”ˣᶦᶦᶦ.
ᶦ The Visual and Data Journalism Team, ‘Covid map: Coronavirus cases, deaths, vaccinations by country’ BBC News (London, 16 March 2021) < https://www.bbc.com/news/world-51235105> accessed 16 March 2021.
ᶦᶦ Matt McGrath, ‘Climate change: Covid pandemic has little impact on rise in CO2’ BBC News (London, 23 November 2020) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55018581> accessed 13 March 2021.
ᶦᶦᶦ Renee Cho, ‘COVID-19’s Long-Term Effects on Climate Change—For Better or Worse’ (State of the Planet, Earth Institute of Columbia University, 25 June 2020) <https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/06/25/covid-19-impacts-climate-change/> accessed 17 March 2021.
ᶦᵛ McGrath (n 2)
ᵛ World Health Organization, The Health and Environment Linkages Initiative (HELI): Priority Risks (2021) <https://www.who.int/heli/risks/climate/climatechange/en/> accessed 10 March 2021.
ᵛᶦ Human Rights Watch, Pollution Is One of World’s Biggest Killers: New Lancet Report Says Poorer Countries Are Most Affected (19 October 2017) <https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/10/19/pollution-one-worlds-biggest-killers#> accessed 17 March 2021.
ᵛᶦᶦ Human Rights Watch (n 6)
ᵛᶦᶦᶦ World Health Organization, ‘1 in 3 people globally do not have access to safe drinking water – UNICEF, WHO’ (18 June 2019) <https://www.who.int/news/item/18-06-2019-1-in-3-people-globally-do-not-have-access-to-safe-drinking-water-unicef-who> accessed 18 March 2021.
ᶦˣ Eric Trowbridge and Kate Donovan, ‘Dirty water and poor sanitation kills over 5000 children every day’ UNICEF Press Release, (New York, 19 March 2004) <https://www.unicef.org/media/media_19974.html> accessed 18 March 2021.
ˣ Sharanjit Leyl, ‘Mark Carney: Climate crisis deaths ‘will be worse than Covid’’, BBC News (London, 5 February 2021) < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-55944570> accessed 10 March 2021.
ˣᶦ Leyl (n 10)
ˣᶦᶦ James Ashford, ‘Climate change: what is ‘the point of no return’? UN secretary general warns of global crisis as scientists say tipping points are ‘dangerously close’, THE WEEK (London, 2 December 2019) <https://www.theweek.co.uk/104654/climate-change-what-is-the-point-of-no-return> accessed 18 March 2021.
ˣᶦᶦᶦ Timothy M. Lenton and others, ‘Climate tipping points—to risky to bet against: The growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate changes must compel political and economic action on emissions.’ (2020) 575 Nature 592.