Temple experts explain COVID-19 and climate change similarities

Examining inequalities revealed by the pandemic can help create an effective approach to climate policy


As the world copes with the COVID-19 pandemic and administers vaccines, the international cooperation required to reach herd immunity reminds Melissa Gilbert of the global efforts needed to tackle climate change. 

“We are interconnected,” said Gilbert, chair of Temple University’s department of Geography and Urban Studies. “We’re not going to be able to draw a boundary around the United States, and say ‘Well, we’re just going to protect people in the United States from climate change.’” 

Both climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have global impacts, disproportionate effects on different socioeconomic groups and are highly urgent. International leaders’ cooperation to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and distribute vaccines provides an example for addressing the effects of climate change, Gilbert and other Temple experts said. 

Global consequences

Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic both have far-reaching effects and countries must cooperate to enact global policy changes, said Kevin Henry, a geography and urban studies professor. 

International organizations like the United Nations and World Health Organization are leading the global fight against COVID-19 by bolstering health care systems, enabling laboratory testing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines, according to the UN.

COVID-19 has resulted in over three million deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 dashboard. The economic downturn from the pandemic pushed 88 million people into poverty this year, according to the World Bank.

Climate change similarly has severe global impacts, but it is more difficult to quantify the number of people who have been negatively impacted, Henry said. 

Rising global temperatures and air pollution contribute to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Natural disasters, which are more frequent and intense due to climate change, have more than tripled since the 1960s, and result in 60,000 deaths annually.

In January, the U.S. re-joined the Paris Agreement, an international agreement that the U.S. helped create in 2015 that was signed by 197 countries to limit global warming and address the negative effects of climate change, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

The Biden Administration rejoining the agreement after the Trump Administration pulled out in November 2020 is a positive step towards international cooperation against climate change, Henry said.

Unequal impacts on socioeconomic groups

Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic must also be understood as intersectional with racial inequality, and fighting these crises requires an approach that accounts for socioeconomic disparities, said Christina Rosan, a geography and urban studies professor. 

Health-wise, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted poorer communities in the U.S. and worldwide, with people in low-income countries receiving just 0.2 percent of vaccinations administered globally as of April, while those in high and upper-middle income countries have received 87 percent, according to the WHO.

At a local level, Philadelphia residents living in high-income ZIP codes are vaccinated at twice the rate of those in low-income ZIP codes, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

As climate change effects like rising global temperatures and air pollution become more pronounced, communities with lower incomes who can’t afford air conditioning or access healthcare will suffer the most, Gilbert said. 

Low-income communities of color suffer the most from the urban heat islands, or areas with little tree cover or green space and more black surfaces that absorb heat, Rosan said. In Philadelphia, these areas can be up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit hotter during the summer, according to a Temple University policy brief

“The problems are intersectional and the policy response has to be intersectional,” Rosan said.

In Philadelphia, residents of the higher income neighborhood, Society Hill, have a 20-year longer life expectancy than those living in Strawberry Mansion, a lower-income neighborhood, according to a 2020 Temple University policy brief. 

People of color are more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 due to factors like discrimination in health care, less access to higher education and wealth gaps, according to the CDC. 

In Philadelphia, African Americans account for 37 percent of COVID-19 cases but 44 percent of COVID-19 deaths, according to the City of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 dashboard.

“It’s affected everybody’s daily lives in very profound ways, but it has been exacerbated by the inequities that already existed,” Gilbert said. 

Governments should offer the same robust response required to aid vulnerable populations amid the climate crisis as was required during the pandemic to research, manufacture and distribute vaccines, Henry said. 

Legislators should prioritize poorer communities by creating policies to address the financial repercussions of the pandemic and climate-related disasters, especially because low-income communities are more likely to struggle amid the economic downturn triggered by each, Henry said.

Looking to the future

The United States did not initially respond aggressively to the COVID-19 pandemic due to poor planning and a lack of recognition for the severity of the pandemic, Henry said. This is similar to responses to climate change, and both issues reveal a distrust in science that must be overcome, he added.

“As we look for new policies to deal with climate change, I think you’re going to end up with the same thing, there’s going to be people that just don’t believe that it actually is a problem,” Henry said. 

The essential difference between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change is the solution to the problem, Rosan said. While the vaccine will most likely lead to the end of the pandemic, climate change is an ongoing crisis because many of its impacts are already unavoidable even if countries quickly reduce emissions, she added.  

Glaciers are melting and contributing to rising sea levels around the world as Earth’s surface temperature increases, according to NASA. Sea level and global temperatures are projected to continue rising throughout the century, leading to increased rainfall, droughts, heatwaves and hurricanes. 

Gilbert finds hope in the younger generation’s dedication to climate change activism. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement makes connections between climate change’s effects and racial inequality by advocating for environmental justice and forcing politicians to address environmental racism, she said. 

“We need to hold our elected officials accountable, and we need to show them our strength,” Gilbert said. “I think the younger generation has done an amazing, amazing job, and I think they need to keep doing that.”

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