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COVID-19 Is Clarifying the Climate Challenge

While we may be able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic with social distancing, new antiviral drugs, and eventually, one hopes, a vaccine, climate change represents an even larger existential threat, because its effects have no defined treatment or lifespan. There may be a reset button for the post-pandemic global economy, but there is none for the planet on which it depends.

BEIRUT – The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the fragility of the world order. Governments have sought to limit the spread of the virus through lockdowns and travel restrictions, which have stalled economies and created a global recession. Poorer countries, lacking the resources and resilience to mitigate the pandemic, will be hit hardest. Like climate change, COVID-19 will exacerbate global inequalities.

That parallel offers valuable lessons. As with shifting weather patterns and loss of intact ecosystems and biodiversity, COVID-19 is a threat multiplier. Just as policymakers address the short-term effects of greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, governments have scrambled to address the immediate health and economic consequences of the virus, while overlooking broader security risks. And yet, as with climate change, ignoring the socio-political dimensions of the crisis leads to increased instability, extremism, migration, and outbreaks of new or recurring epidemics.

The spread of COVID-19 will affect sections of society most vulnerable to climate change. Disadvantaged populations face higher health risks because of a lack of access to adequate water, sanitation, and health facilities. The poor, homeless, or displaced often lack the ability to self-isolate in the absence of suitable homes, job security, or a social safety net. In the United States, for instance, death rates have been disproportionately high among African-Americans, a reflection of longstanding structural inequalities.

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