climate change

[OPINION] How is climate change worse than COVID-19 in your life?

John Leo C. Algo
[OPINION] How is climate change worse than COVID-19 in your life?
'Make no mistake: climate change is more than just about disasters'

For the past two years, the attention of the world has been on the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet there has always been an even bigger threat looming around us. 

On February 28, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reminded the world once again of the severity of the climate crisis, through its latest report on the impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability to this global issue. 

Living in one of the most vulnerable nations, Filipinos have experienced the wrath of a disrupted climate due to human activities, through super typhoons, droughts, and other hazards, for decades. But for us to avoid experiencing even more loss and damage in the future, we need to see and understand just how devastating the climate crisis could really be.

Based on this report, here are three concrete impacts by the climate crisis that are worse than those of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Physical and mental health

Make no mistake: climate change is more than just about disasters. The IPCC reports that higher temperatures can also lead to higher rates of mortality and morbidity. Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns have also led to increased cases for different food and vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria.

What you should be concerned about is that zoonoses, or infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans, are emerging in new areas around the world due to climate change. In other words, the odds of having another situation like the COVID-19 pandemic should never be counted out. 

One of the most significant issues to emerge from the pandemic is the value of mental health for a sustainable society. This report reveals that some mental health challenges are linked to climate change impacts such as warmer environments, trauma from extreme events such as typhoons, and losses of livelihoods and culture.

All of this has happened in a world warmer by 1 degree Celsius. At higher levels of global warming, the risks to our physical and mental health would likely increase, presenting direct and indirect threats to different aspects of our lives.

For instance, the risk of dengue would increase through longer seasons and a wider geographic distribution in many regions, which include the Philippines; this may put not millions, but billions of people at risk by the end of this century. Challenges to mental health that have become too familiar to us during this pandemic, including anxiety and stress, would also increase with more warming, especially for vulnerable peoples like the children, elderly, and those with existing medical problems.

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Ecosystems and biodiversity

This pandemic should have made us realize that planetary health is a necessity for peoples’ health. Without proper measures to protect our ecosystems and biodiversity, where the raw materials needed for economic production comes from, our ability to live a sustainable life is compromised. 

Currently, around 3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in conditions considered as highly vulnerable to climate change, from the urban poor to indigenous peoples. Unsurprisingly, a higher proportion of species has become more vulnerable to its numerous impacts. Should you be surprised that the Philippines, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots with poor enforcement of environmental laws and nearly one-fourth of its people living under poverty, is one of the most vulnerable nations to the climate crisis?

In its latest report, the IPCC presents that many natural systems are reaching their limit in terms of adapting to climate change impacts, from higher temperatures to more acidic oceans. These systems include coral reefs, coastal wetlands, and rainforests, which are relevant to the Philippine context. The risk of extinction for endemic species in biodiversity hotspots could become 10 times as high in a 3-degree hotter planet.

Should global warming reach 1.5°C, some measures related to ecosystems-based adaptation will lose their effectiveness, and limited freshwater resources would be more common in small islands. At 2°C, multiple staple crops are at extremely high risk in tropical regions. At 3°C, water management measures would fail in many areas due to issues in water supply. 

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Sustainable development

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health and environmental crisis; it also either slowed down or stopped the economic development of virtually all nations for a long time. It is one of the main reasons why the Philippines experienced a recession last year, the worst in its postwar history. Price hikes on food, water, and electricity, issues with supply of essential products, and the shutdown of many businesses defined our lives for the past two years.

As bad as these trends have been for many Filipinos, the climate crisis, which directly affects our resources more than COVID, presents even bigger challenges in our pursuit of sustainable development. Per the report, our window of opportunity to achieve this future is getting smaller and smaller. 

This would depend on the following factors: existing social and economic inequalities; existing resources, vulnerabilities, culture, and values; policies and programs that could lead to previous and potential greenhouse gas emissions. Every single one of these factors can be directly and indirectly impacted by the climate crisis. 

We should especially understand how this crisis either starts or speeds up the degradation of our environment that is the source of all of our needs. Around 80% of all outcomes related to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals would be negatively affected by the damages brought by climate change to our environment.

The IPCC report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability is only the latest wake-up call for all of us to realize that we cannot go back to the normal we used to know. If you think the “new normal” created by the COVID-19 pandemic is that bad, the climate crisis can easily give us an even worse one if we do not act quickly and decisively enough. 

Why should we wait to find out what that looks like? –

John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines, and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He is one of the reviewers of the IPCC Working Group II Sixth Assessment Report. 

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