Waterloo Stories - There is no vaccine for climate change — but there is a treatment

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

IC3 member and climate expert, Juan Moreno-Cruz, discusses climate change during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The original article is featured in Waterloo Stories.


By Natalie Quinlan
University Relations

COVID-19 has seen the world retreating indoors. Restrictions on travel, physical interaction and social gathering has resulted in reduced pollution levels and improved air quality around the world  but for how long?

“These are small changes that will simply be reversed as soon as we go out again,” Juan Moreno-Cruz says, a professor with the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development. “The impacts on the planet such as biodiversity, ocean pollution and climate change are long-term problems not solved by a few weeks of slowdown of economic activity.”

Scientists around the world have been tracking the decrease of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), the gaseous air pollutants produced by road traffic and other combustible fossil fuels, during this time of isolation by seemingly record-breaking amounts. In Madrid alone, the European Environment Agency has reported a decrease in NOlevels by 56 per cent in just six days when lockdown measures were implemented.

While optimists point to a decrease in pollution as the silver-lining during an otherwise difficult time, Moreno-Cruz says short-sighted policies that got the world here in the first place will be with us for the foreseeable future unless changes are made.

“Given lack of decisive action by all levels of government, the actions required to address climate change are more costly than they would have been had we taken serious action three decades ago.”

With that in mind, Moreno-Cruz emphasizes that any comparisons between COVID-19 and climate change are mostly unwarranted.

“Our goal with the pandemic is to reduce harm for our most vulnerable while we wait for a vaccine,” Moreno-Cruz says. “With climate change, there is no vaccine, just treatment, so similar to the COVID response, we must look at ways to reduce harm to our vulnerable planet and populations as we manage long-term transitions towards a new energy system.”

Looking forward, Moreno-Cruz says that if our leadership  with a renewed understanding of urgency from COVID-19  can truly confront climate change with significant global action, we can actually begin managing the deadliest impacts of climate change.

“What we have learned from our response to COVID-19 is that it is possible to help the most vulnerable in our society when there is willingness to do so,” Moreno-Cruz says. “Even casual observers can identify that the first wave of support implemented by the Canadian government has been focused on the most vulnerable populations, increasingly covering larger sections of society and for extended periods.

“I hope we learn from this political climate and create sustained policies to reduce inequality and poverty in Canada and around the world. This is the best way to limit future suffering from climate change and other global environmental and health problems.”

Q and A with the experts: COVID-19 and climate change

People in India can see the Himalayas for the first time in decades. Sea turtles are nesting again on Thailand’s beaches. All over the world, the earth appears to be healing – but are these changes permanent? What happens when the world goes back to work?

Professor Juan Moreno-Cruz of the School of Environment answers our questions about COVID-19 and climate change.

How has COVID-19 and our responses to it impacted Earth?

The impacts of our economy on the planet such as loss of biodiversity, ocean pollution, and climate change are long-term problems not solved by a few weeks of slowdown of economic activity.

We have seen a reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gases that are linked to economic activity. These are small changes that will simply be reversed as soon as we come out again, hopefully with a better plan to manage our economy in the future.

Are there practices from containing COVID-19 that we can apply to tackling climate change?

I don’t believe there are practices from containing COVID-19 that can be directly applied to climate change. Our goal is not to solve climate change, but to reduce harm as we manage a very long-term transition towards a new energy system. Our goal with the pandemic is to reduce harm while we wait for a vaccine. 

There is no vaccine for climate change.

COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are similar in one important way. Under all scenarios of future climate change, as we are seeing with COVID-19, the poorest and most marginalized people suffer disproportionately more.

What we have learned from our response to COVID-19 is that it is possible to help the most vulnerable in our society when there is willingness to do so. We need to reduce inequality and poverty in Canada and around the world. This is the best way to limit future suffering from climate change and other global environmental and health problems.

What should ‘getting back to normal’ look like in a post-COVID world?

My hope is that we begin to focus on issues like inequality, poverty and environmental degradation. I hope we begin to vote for representatives that are capable of delivering change. It is only through political action that we will rebalance our relationship with our planet.

I hope we recognize the importance of the health system and fund it appropriately; I hope we recognize the importance of our teachers and we fund them appropriately, and I hope that we recognize that we have the means to reduce inequality and marginalization if we have the willingness to do so.

The University of Waterloo has a number of experts available for comment on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here to see the up-to-date list.

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