Climate change: Recalibrating our 2020 political agenda

Photo of 2020 California Wildfires
Cal Fire Mendocino/Creative Commons

COVID-19 has sparked a global crisis that has shocked the world, causing a tragic number of deaths and economic hardship for many. The same can be said about climate change, and if no concrete, scientifically driven policies are implemented, the complications will become more severe.

It can be hard to think about an issue like climate change right now: When disaster strikes, particularly at the magnitude that COVID-19 has, it’s in our human nature to worry about our most pressing, immediate needs. However, climate change does not allow for the luxury of time. It is happening whether one believes in it or not, and the effects are cumulative.

In due time, entire ecosystems will die off, and parts of the world will become impossible to live in. The continued degradation of ecosystems will affect every facet of our lives, and its impacts will only get worse as time goes on. Climate change is directly intertwined with food insecurity, the spread of diseases, immigration patterns and the global economy. The death toll and economic consequences of climate change will be much greater than that of the pandemic, and just because the effects are delayed in time does not, and should not, give cause to dismiss their gravity. 

Climate change is also intertwined with the pandemic itself. The current wildfire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, has been the worst one yet. At the beginning of October, it was reported that more than 4 million acres of land in California had been burned, more than double the previous state record of 1.8 million acres in 2018. This shows that the extremity, prevalence and length of climate-related disasters, such as wildfires, floods, heat waves and droughts, are increasing. In the context of the pandemic, standard disaster alleviation strategies, such as mass evacuation and sheltering, have become a risk in and of themselves by increasing the risk of viral transmission and exacerbating preexisting health risks.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is often described as “unprecedented,” several infectious diseases have emerged in recent years, including Zika, Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome and the West Nile virus. Future pandemics are becoming more likely as we continue to destroy the environment. With deforestation, wildlife is congregating in new ways, partly due to the loss of traditional habitats, partly with changing climatic temperatures. Given that 70% of infectious diseases originate in wildlife, we should be deeply concerned about the potential consequences caused by species that are usually separate being forced to come into contact with one another.

The discourse regarding climate change points to a larger issue regarding contemporary American politics: The fossil fuel industry has shaped the political behavior of those associated with it, and its preferences have taken priority over the health and environmental interests of American citizens.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the current Environmental Protection Agency. Given that the organization’s mission is to advocate the protection and wellness of the environment, it is highly concerning that the acting EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry and formerly served as the vice president of the Washington Coal Club. In the time Wheeler has served as the EPA administrator, he has undermined scientific perspectives, allowed unsafe amounts of contaminants in drinking water, reduced Clean Water Act protections and advocated many other changes that are not in the best interest of the environment.

The politicization of scientifically proven issues such as climate change and the pandemic has made it difficult to evaluate the costs and benefits of the proposed solutions, especially given that the worst effects of climate change are still decades away. Considering this, it is absolutely crucial that we make the right choice now. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s $2 trillion plan to fight climate change is the most ambitious climate policy that has been put out by any leading presidential candidate to date. Will this plan come to fruition? Maybe, maybe not. But now more than ever, we need a president who believes in science and understands the need to dedicate serious efforts toward fighting climate change.

COVID-19 offers a unique opportunity to reevaluate the nation’s approach to economic recovery. Climate change has been knocking on the door now for decades, and the longer we ignore it, the more dangerous and irreversible its consequences will be. Global climate change is tied to every political issue discussed in the presidential debates, from the pandemic to mass immigration to the economy. As the name suggests, it transcends local and national boundaries, and it will soon affect all of humanity. The world is at a critical juncture in which the effects of climate change will become irreversible if appropriate action is not taken. Although concerns regarding COVID-19 are undoubtedly at the forefront of our election agenda, the presidential candidates’ attitudes toward climate change will impact us for generations to come, not just in the next couple of years.

Contact Jenny Lee at [email protected].