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Ask an Expert: What Pandemic Lessons Can Be Applied to the Climate Crisis?

Map of the globe with COVID-19 virus displayed on it.

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David Heath Cooper is a doctoral candidate in the department of sociology at the University of Kansas. His current research focuses on the Rights of Nature movement, which considers the rights of ecosystems and species. Cooper discusses how COVID-19 and climate change are linked, as well as how our responses to the pandemic—from individual to national levels—can serve as a model to cope with climate change.

COVID-19 is the largest global crisis the world has witnessed in generations. But despite the immense deaths and debilitating health impacts brought on by the pandemic, there are still disagreements regarding the virus's threat.

This back-to-school season sees this playing out in real-time, as mask wars rage on. Unfortunately, kids are caught in the middle.

Society's youngest are also at the center of a tricky conversation when it comes to climate change. The environmental issue has been the subject of heated debate for years. But this summer, as natural disasters raged on, its health impact was front and center.

As the world responds to this current threat, there may be lessons to be learned about how to best adapt to the climate crisis looming before us.

Verywell spoke with David Heath Cooper about how individuals and governments might adapt the current pandemic response to address climate change.

Verywell Health: The COVID-19 pandemic has marked human history. How can we learn from it to respond to other major emergencies, such as those associated with climate change?

Cooper: In one sense, climate change is already here. The recent surge in extreme weather events makes that clear. We’re now on track for a 3-degree increase in average temps. This dramatically increases the likelihood of severe alterations to our planet’s climate.

A recent report identified further evidence that thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic may be slowing down. The effects of this are likely to be even more dramatic than anything to date and could represent an irreversible shift in the climate. How we respond to crises now may provide insights into how we are likely to respond to future crises.

It’s also worth noting that, while the COVID-19 pandemic may not look like the typical climate change emergency, the two are closely linked. Increased human encroachment into natural spaces through urbanization, deforestation, and resource extraction is a primary driver of both emerging infectious diseases and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

David Heath Cooper

While the COVID-19 pandemic may not look like the typical climate change emergency, the two are closely linked.

— David Heath Cooper

Verywell Health: Climate change denial or indifference, from the individual to the policy level, is prevalent. We see similar attitudes toward the pandemic, for example in anti-vaccination rhetoric. Despite this, the U.S. has been able to carry out mass vaccination efforts. How could this relative "victory" inspire efforts to address climate change?

Cooper: Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the key variables when it comes to predicting who is likely to follow government mandates or public health recommendations is trust. Specifically, trust in government, trust in medicine, trust in the media, and community trust are among the greatest predictors for compliance with public health directives.

The same is true with climate change. For instance, public support for policies meant to combat climate change increases with political trust.

Unfortunately, trust seems to be in short supply right now. So, finding ways to increase levels of trust more broadly across the public is a necessary and early intervention that policymakers and community leaders should begin developing now. The upside is that the benefits of such efforts would extend well beyond the concerns of climate change and diseases.

Building trust within communities may be an especially useful avenue for change. Some preliminary data that came out of the early days of the pandemic suggested that higher rates of community trust may have shifted the way people were thinking about social distancing recommendations and stay-at-home orders.

Rather than thinking of compliance as a personal choice, instead, they saw it as an ethical duty—a way of doing their part to help their community. A similar conceptual shift could also encourage support for efforts to mitigate climate change.

Verywell Health: This past week, the U.S. saw large wildfires on the West Coast and major flooding in at least two major cities on the East Coast. These events are shocking to many. How can we transform the shock and fear that many are feeling into inspiration for lasting change?

Cooper: Evidence suggests that experiencing a severe weather event tends to increase people’s concern about climate change. So, put crudely, as these extreme events become more common and widespread, so too will public concern.

However, there is also evidence that new, large-scale risks, like climate change or a pandemic, can encourage new forms of social solidarity. Ulrich Beck argues that new forms of social solidarity emerge as “communities of risk” in which shared exposure to new risks creates, in turn, new shared experiences and new social ties.

In other words, shared risk can help break down old social divisions and create new ones. This provides some hope when we reflect on how important building trust seems to be. And we saw this during the pandemic when people in cities sang to each other from their balconies. There was a sense that we are all in this together.

Beck also argues that catastrophic risks, like a pandemic, cause an “anthropological shock” wherein social values may realign in light of these new risks. Again, we see evidence of this. A common example for many was interrogating the importance of having to go to the office to work. Or even just questioning our work-life balance generally.

We have also seen a marked increase in public support for bold, large-scale government interventions. The pandemic revealed how ill-equipped the free market, small government model of governance was to handle such widespread problems.

These large federal responses to the pandemic have the potential to form the foundation for national mobilization in large-scale state-led programs to address climate change.

Verywell Health: Finally, if you could change anything related to climate change, what would it be?

Cooper: The two biggest drivers of climate change are carbon dioxide emissions and land use change. It would make sense, then, to say I wish those two things would stop—or reach an equilibrium. However, carbon dioxide is just one of many pollutants we pump into the air. Some of these, such as sulfur dioxide, actually have a cooling effect by reflecting the sun’s heat back into space.

David Heath Cooper

We built parks and highways to get us out of the Great Depression. Rebuilding a more sustainable world can hopefully get us through a changing climate.

— David Heath Cooper

Simply waving a wand and saying I wish we could stop polluting our air would likely accelerate global warming (sulfur dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about 10 days; carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years).

In other words, we are already at the point where human activity—no matter what we decide to do— is the dominant influence on our climate and the environment. Our response must meet the scale and scope of this problem.

Treating climate change as a public works project makes a lot of sense to me. We built parks and highways to get us out of the Great Depression. Rebuilding a more sustainable world can hopefully get us through a changing climate.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Caesar, L, McCarthy, GD, Thornalley, DJR. et al. Current Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation weakest in last millenniumNat. Geosci. 14, 118–120 (2021). doi:10.1038/s41561-021-00699-z

  2. Beck, U. (2011). Cosmopolitanism as Imagined Communities of Global Risk. American Behavioral Scientist55(10), 1346–1361. doi:10.1177/0002764211409739