COVID-19 should wake governments up to the potential of climate catastrophe

For decades, the scientific community has gradually issued more pointed warnings about the dangerous impact that our changing climate will have on humankind and the earth’s ecosystems. With 2020 being one of the warmest years on record in the arctic, the unique town of Churchill, Manitoba is experiencing first-hand the effects rising temperature and melting ice will have on our world.

Northern Manitoba is an important climate research location with scientists travelling from around the world to Churchill each year. This small town is famous for the areas intersection of arctic, tundra and boreal forest.

Although many Manitobans have not experienced the arctic landscape first-hand, many of us are acquainted with the alarming climate research conducted in our own backyard. It’s a fact that ecosystems around the world — and in our own province — are changing drastically due to anthropogenic influences. But, after a disastrous year like 2020, these warnings should be taken more seriously than ever before.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became increasingly clear that we cannot live separated from our social and environmental contexts — an insight that has been shrouded by division and individualism. It is now undeniably clear that we exist in an interconnected world — both physically and holistically akin.

Whether this reality is acknowledged or not, our collective actions produce global impacts, and disasters like COVID-19 leave no life unchanged.

Before the novel coronavirus made its way to Manitoba, our government and citizens were given a couple of short months to prepare. Looking back, most of us were unaware of how devastating this disease would be. But, just like climate change, expert epidemiologists were warning the world about a global pandemic decades before COVID-19 materialized. Few were listening.

It’s impossible to travel back in time and alter our initial response to COVID-19, but we will not have any excuses when it comes to the global threat of climate change.

As water levels continue to rise, desertification rates of land are also increasing due to higher precipitation levels and storms are becoming more severe. The higher precipitation levels are leading to less predictable torrential rainfalls which wash away or re-evaporate quickly, leaving the land dehydrated and stripped of essential topsoil. The three-fold crisis of desertification, sporadic torrential rainfall and flooding is displacing millions of people.

Changes in the climate, as well as climate events like hurricanes and monsoons, have always impacted the movement of people. However, the continued destruction of our ecosystems will exacerbate migration and conflict, forcing an unprecedented number of people to migrate to new cities or countries.

Climate change contributes to slow onset events such as desertification, rising sea levels and pollution. It’s these gradual shifts in the climate that will leave millions of people with no other option but to abandon their land.

While farmland continues to degrade and drought persists in several regions of the world, sea levels are rising. An estimated 230 million people live one metre below sea level. Additionally, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, oceans could rise by more than two feet by 2100.

Due to compounding factors related to climate change, quantifying environmental migration on a global scale is a challenge. By looking at specific regions, the World Bank estimates that by 2050 the world may see 143 million internal climate migrants from Latin America, East Africa and South Asia alone.

Although scientists continue to improve their estimates on exactly how many climate migrants the world can expect, one thing is clear — our response to this crisis will define international relations in the twenty-first century.

The global community is completely unprepared to handle mass environmental migration, as well as other adverse effects of climate change, including intensifying competition for food, increased border stress and future pandemics that may be linked to the pestilence left by decaying ecosystems.

Currently, there are no legally binding agreements accommodating nations that are already experiencing climate migration.

Organizations like the United Nations that establish systems to protect refugees do not have resources to extend those services to climate migrants — including the millions of people who are already displaced by weather hazards like floods and hurricanes each year.

As weather events become more extreme, the time to prepare for ascending crises shrinks. The fact that we have yet to systematically address climate migration exposes our apathy but continuing to ignore this problem after suffering through COVID-19 will be completely inexcusable.

As constituents of a wealthy nation capable of climate change mitigation, it’s our responsibility to be informed and force our politicians to improve climate change policy.

Climate change is a form of inequality; the wealthiest nations are typically the ones who produce the most anthropogenic emissions per capita, yet it is usually poorer nations that are adversely affected by its consequences.

The primary goal must be to help areas most affected by climate change adapt and maintain a level of stability in their communities.

It’s no longer enough to support policy makers and leaders who “believe” in climate change. We need representatives who will begin implementing strategies to address climate change systemically.

Researchers from around the world have repeatedly warned us about our impact on the environment since the first UN Earth summit was established in 1972. It’s time to listen to the experts and learn from the mistakes we made throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Climate scientists are kicking and screaming for governments to open their ears and cooperate. Perhaps now that they see the cataclysm of COVID-19, we can hope that climate change enters into global governments’ agenda with a red marker.