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Global threats: How lessons from COVID-19 can prevent environmental meltdown

July 02, 2020

Epidemiologists highlighted the dangers of Covid-19 in its early stages, but their warnings went largely ignored until rising infection rates forced policymakers to take action.

Likewise, climate and environmental scientists have warned, for decades, that human activity is triggering global heating and another mass extinction could occur if countries do not enact regulations to reduce their environmental impact.

Covid-19, climate emergencies, and mass extinction all share striking similarities, according to an essay co-authored by David S. Wilcove, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs and the Princeton Environmental Institute at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

Wilcove and his co-authors draw analogies between Covid-19 and environmental threats, especially with regard to their "lagged impacts."

That is, a lag exists between the first few cases of Covid-19 to the worldwide pandemic it has become. The same is true of ongoing environmental crises. Human-induced shifts in climate and habitat can seem minor now but will have catastrophic effects down the road, the authors wrote.

Early intervention is necessary in order to contain them and prevent future damage.

Multiple analyses have confirmed that delaying "stay at home" orders increased the mortality rates due to Covid-19 in many countries. If lockdown had been enacted just one week earlier, there would have been approximately 17,000 fewer deaths in the United Kingdom and 45,000 fewer deaths in the United States, according to the co-authors.

On a global level, the world is on track to experience a net temperature increase of +2.0° C. With early action, this could have been reduced to a net increase of +1.5° C. Although this difference appears insignificant, it has grave ramifications.

Since early intervention was not taken to reduce this global heating, an estimated 62 to 457 million more people will be exposed to a broad range of climate risks. Early intervention is also crucial for species conservation; when action is delayed, species losses increase, and conservation efforts become less likely to succeed.

While intervention is often delayed under the premise that it will interfere with peoples' livelihoods, the researchers posit that the opposite is true.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that economic growth will be lower in countries with higher current rates of Covid-attributed deaths. This means countries that delayed lockdown to sustain their economic stability could ultimately lose out in the end, just as climate change will curtail economic growth as countries delay reducing their environmental impacts.

"The notion that paying short-term costs may be vital to securing longer-term prosperity is echoed in several assessments of the overall economic consequences of responding to the climate and extinction crises," the team wrote. "On both environmental fronts intervening now rather than delaying further is critical to securing our future wellbeing and that of our children and grandchildren."

The magnitude of these issues require policymakers and citizens to look beyond self-interests and make choices that will safeguard society's most vulnerable populations as well as future generations.

"In the Covid-19 crisis, this means young and working people making sacrifices for the older and more vulnerable. For the climate and extinction crises, effective action requires wealthier people forgoing extravagance both for the present-day poor and for all future generations," the team wrote.

In moving forward to address these challenges, it is essential that governments listen to and act in accordance with independent scientists. Their voices have gone ignored by policymakers who can create the changes necessary to avoid global catastrophe, the team believes. This requires coordination and cooperation on the international level, not just local or federal.
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Wilcove drafted the essay, "COVID-19: Analogues and lessons for tackling the extinction and climate crises," with a team of scientists and policy experts from the United Kingdom and the United States including Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge, Brendan Fisher of the University of Vermont, Georgina M. Mace of the University College London, and Ben Balmford of the University Exeter Business School.

The article was made available online June 28 through Cell Press.

Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

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