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Don't forget about climate change during coronavirus

Greta Thunberg and other climate activists are calling for digital strikes and activism, through hashtags like #ClimateStrikeOnline.  – Photo by Photo by Twitter | The Daily Targum

Good news is something we're all actively seeking out in the current historical moment we’re living in. It’s important to stay informed and get your information from reliable sources, but we can't forget to take an occasional breather in difficult and uncertain times. In the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis, humanity is uniting in novel ways now. 

Brilliant and brave healthcare professionals are taking moments from their hectic days to be creative — some are making TikToks, while others are displaying their musical talents on YouTube. In order to properly follow stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules, celebrations like Easter and Passover were being enjoyed over Zoom this past weekend. A glimmer of joy in my week was that One Direction may briefly unite for its 10th anniversary later this year. 

One thing that really seems to be catching everyone’s attention as we stay indoors is how the view outside our window has evolved, thanks to our absence. In India, where air pollution looms large against the backdrop of dense urban populations and rapid economic development, a nationwide lockdown has left the country of more than a billion people at a standstill. 

In the capital of New Delhi, the smoggy air has subsided and the India Gate monument can be seen surrounded by a bright blue sky. In the northern city of Jalandhar, the Himalayan mountains have revealed themselves clearly in the landscape after decades of pollution and industrialization. 

Last week, Ying Ying and Le Le, two giant pandas in Hong Kong, finally mated after 10 years of residing in an Ocean Park enclosure together. The giant panda is a vulnerable species and conservation and breeding efforts have been incredibly difficult to successfully execute in the past.

Italy, once the epicenter of the pandemic, still faces high coronavirus mortality rates, but the canals of tourist hotspot Venice have never been more clear in recent years. But, nature has not returned to the complete and exaggerated levels of normalcy that we all think it has. In March, social media accounts perpetuated a false news story of dolphins and swans gracing the waters of the Venetian canals and this lead to the creation of the viral “we (humans) are the virus” meme online. 

In reality, environmental degradation and climate change remain the world’s biggest policy issues in the long term and it will take more than a global pandemic to miraculously address these issues. 

Recent research in epidemiology shows that the environment and climate change are closely connected to the transmission of zoonotic diseases like the coronavirus. As deforestation and habitat destruction run rampant across the world’s forests and jungles, there is a greater chance of a virus “spillover” between animals and humans due to increased physical proximity and interaction between different species.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Meehan Crist, a writer-in-residence in biological sciences at Columbia University, explains that a world at home means climate action and research is no longer at the forefront of people’s and governments’ priorities right now. 

Airlines are grounded for an indefinite, but temporary duration of time and people will resume using transport once the curve of new cases per day eventually flattens. Carbon emissions can return to their normal, harmful levels once the crisis is over, but it is in our best interest to address the coronavirus and climate crises simultaneously. 

To think along the lines of the “we are the virus” meme approach when looking at the state of our environment today is incorrect and frankly, ineffective. “Humans are part of nature, not separate from it, and human activity that hurts the environment also hurts us,” Crist said. 

In an effort to restore global markets post-pandemic, governments should not have to choose between the economy and environment. The recovery policies leaders put forth need to strike a balance in addressing the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis’ immediacy, while also having the long-term effects of global warming in mind.

Crises, such as the public health one we face now, may provide opportunities for “disaster capitalism” to take shape in society, said Naomi Klein, a Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in media, culture and feminist studies at Rutgers. 

Disaster capitalism allows people in power and private industries to exploit a vulnerable public. It's closely related to the “shock doctrine,” a political phenomenon where people tend to focus on the shock of a new crisis and the powerful push for policies that are detrimental to the public’s wellbeing in the long-term. 

The socio-economic shock of the coronavirus needs to be urgently addressed and has our total attention. Meanwhile, the climate crisis temporarily fades into the background and makes way for governments to push for environmental deregulation.

In the United States, the current administration has rolled back a number of environmental regulations concerning pollution, carbon emissions, fossil fuels and infrastructure and planning over the last few years. Scientifically backed facts on climate change have taken a back seat in matters of public policy and a greener future becomes increasingly distant with each passing day. 

For instance, the recent relaxation of some former President Barack Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for the automobile industry would allow more of America’s gas-guzzling vehicles to emit dangerously higher amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

In early March, China announced that it would be modifying the environmental supervision of firms and giving hard-hit businesses more time to address their environmental issues, in order to improve with the post-coronavirus economic recovery. China insists that this leniency in supervision is not equivalent to relaxing environmental standards or regulations. 

On a more positive note, the Chinese government recently also enacted a nationwide wildlife trade, a consumption and farming ban that will need to be carefully enforced to catalyze long-term change. The novel coronavirus is suspected to have originated from bats or pangolins at a wet market in Wuhan, China, where live animals of different species are traded and zoonoses have a very high chance of spreading.

While many of us stay safe and within our homes, let’s not forget about the world outside and our responsibility to protect it. We live in incredibly uncertain times, but it is imperative that when we get to the other side of the coronavirus crisis, we continue fighting to keep ourselves and our world healthy and our leaders accountable.

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