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COVID-19 and its Relation to Climate Change

Gerry Ruygrok, Chair

I have held off writing this article because of the Covid-19 outbreak. I was going to write about pipelines etc. but it isn’t what is on our minds right now. Also, you don’t want to hear more detail or digestion of the outbreak especially since what I say now may be completely out of date by the time of publication.

I suggested in my last article that the climate movement is an opportunity to galvanize our community. Just like the pandemic, which is in some ways bringing us closer together as a community, it is also isolating each of us within our homes. However, with the news of the pandemic saturating the media, our community is acting to ‘flatten the curve’ so as not to overwhelm the health care system.

This is what I hope the community will do in light of the equally disturbing threat of global warming. But it is like the frog sitting in a pot of cold water and turning on the heat. The frog will never leave the pot, although I’ve never tried it. The pandemic is more like throwing the frog into a pot of boiling water. In the former case, we may not act on climate mitigation and emissions reduction fast enough to prevent runaway global warming. With the pandemic we, the government and businesses are taking decisive and daily actions that will have major impact on our economy yet save those at risk of getting sick.

The statistics are staggering and now everyone knows what an exponential curve looks like. It scares the living daylights out of us to put it nicely. It is predicted that we may all get exposed and half of us will get infected. The saving grace is that fully 80% of those infected will survive with only mild symptoms.

There are two questions that come to mind following this thinking. “How is the pandemic affecting our climate?” And “How will we, as a community, continue to take action against a warming climate by embracing the city’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050?”

Well I’m not a scientist as you well know but let me try to make some predictions. The pandemic, we know, is having a major impact on lowering carbon emissions. Satellites can now see through the smog over large cities like Beijing and Wuhan. Common sense tells us, that when most cars are parked in their driveways in Los Angeles and there is next to no traffic on the highways in all cities around the world, that the carbon emission intensity is diminishing. Factories are closed, and air, land and sea travel has decreased significantly. The oil price is the lowest it’s been in 20 years and is still going down.

One benefit of a low oil price is the slowdown at marginal production facilities such as the Athabasca tar sands, U.S. Green Shale fracking developments and deep basin gas production out in western Canada.

Contrast that with the increased use of latex gloves, masks, face shields, gowns, plastics and sanitizer in hospital settings. I think this must be diminishing our carbon footprint since it is occurring on a global scale. Keep in mind though, with manufacturing stopped and oil pricing down, there is little incentive to build more electric vehicles or buy them? Low production creates demand and therefore higher prices.

I believe the pandemic has significantly decreased atmospheric carbon but not enough to slow our progression to runaway global warming. If only our effort to save lives from the covid-19 pandemic could be extended to a sustained effort to achieve the net-zero carbon emission target of our city.

The good news is that with our demonstrated willpower, humans and communities are capable of effecting the necessary changes to save lives in times of a health crisis. So theoretically we could do the same for our climate. The challenge is to get the frog to jump out of the hot water before it boils. It’s a matter of sustained effort over several years and being able to connect the positive outcome with our efforts and sacrifice so we continue the process. We can never take our foot off the gas pedal again.

Make no mistake; as we sacrifice our small businesses, our investments and our freedoms in the short term for this emergency, so too will we need to sacrifice our current way of thinking, our short-sighted resource consumption practices, and our modes of transport and energy use in order to eliminate a global climate emergency. The only difference is the timescale of these emergencies. So how do we create a long-term sustained effort to stabilize our climate? We cannot wait until 2030 when the planet reaches irreversible global warming (ie. when average world temperature increases 1.5 deg. C. from the 1990 level) to start to make these sacrifices.

Here is the way I see it. Let’s use this time to reset our lives and consider our true needs and lifestyles. The reason we know so much about this virus is because it dominates our conversations. That must happen with the climate emergency. Conversations must include climate and the state it’s in so that we all become aware of the issue and what’s at stake. The more we know, the more we understand. And the more we understand, the more we accept we must make changes and yes, sacrifices too.

Think globally and act locally. Making progress towards our climate goal in Mississauga will induce other cities to do the same. We are learning from sustainable climate activities adopted in other cities and inspired by young people like Greta Thunberg. Isn’t it better the be the example and lead the way?

The governments are essential in this time of crisis. They are helping with funding, messaging and policing but also restricting our freedoms and enforcing compliance since declaring health emergencies. It is clear that these measures are working to minimize the impact of a full outbreak. We need our governments to adhere to the targets set by the Paris Agreement of 2016.

How do we nudge these governments into greater action? Well in a democracy we vote for representatives who respect and listen to our desires and needs. The best way to do that is to engage in climate conversations and place pressure on government officials to act in our favour and in the best interest of the climate. When we are aware of climate issues and their impacts on the planet, when we make our voices heard and when we change our personal choices to support a net-zero carbon emission goal, governments will listen and make climate a priority.

Through organizations like Mississauga Climate Action (http://mississaugaclimateaction.ca/), we can leverage our efforts and activities to support the city with their Mississauga Climate Change Action Plan. (https://yoursay.mississauga.ca/climate-change/).

So in conclusion, support our community in climate conversations; support all governments to enact positive climate budgetary decisions; and finally, get involved by supporting MCA and others to get the message out and who network with partners and governments towards their common climate goals.

Covid-19 will be conquered with steadfast global efforts. So too, as a unified and focused community, will the climate be stabilized. Support the MCA vision of “A community where a healthy environment and economy co-exist”. Thanks for listening. Until next time, stay healthy and safe.

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