Kathy Baughman McLeod says coronavirus can’t distract us from the fight against climate change

Kathy Baughman McLeod says coronavirus can’t distract us from the fight against climate change
Image: Courtesy Kathy Baughman McLeod
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It took a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders for 1.5 billion people worldwide, but something is finally occurring to us: The future we thought we expected may not be the one we get.

We know that things will change; how they’ll change is a mystery. To envision a future altered by coronavirus, Quartz asked dozens of experts for their best predictions on how the world will be different in five years.

Below is an answer from Kathy Baughman McLeod, the director and senior vice president of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council. She previously worked as the global environmental and social risk executive at Bank of America, managing director of climate risk and resilience at The Nature Conservancy, and the energy and climate commissioner of the state of Florida.

While there is consensus that the coronavirus crisis has increased awareness of the many connections between climate and health, I predict that in five years, it will have set us back in tackling one of the major public health emergencies of our time: extreme heat.

Even before coronavirus spiraled into a global pandemic, extreme heat was killing more Americans than any other natural disaster, and it is expected to affect more than 3.5 billion people globally in the coming decades. In fact, this year is on track to be one of the hottest on record, with highs of 107 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix and almost 118 degrees Fahrenheit in New Delhi in May.  We know these extreme temperatures are driven by climate change and caused by greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide. We are also now learning that even if humans could instantly turn off all of  our emissions, the Earth would continue to warm by about two more degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century.

These facts haven’t changed as a result of Covid-19. The only difference now is that the crisis will make dealing with extreme heat even more challenging. Public health budgets are now decimated because of the economic impacts of the virus; resources are strapped and government funding for vital cooling projects will only become scarcer. What’s more, the intense response of Covid-19 has resulted in deferred climate action—for example, the postponement of COP26, the one and only global policy platform and dialogue on climate, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks—to 2021. And when climate action is delayed, there is potential for an even greater increase in temperatures.

Finally, and perhaps most worrisome, the resulting economic downturn may push many families of the global middle class into poverty—and poverty means increased heat exposure, especially for those living in cities. Because of a phenomenon called the “urban heat island effect,” cities with populations of 1 million or more can be up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than surrounding areas due to high population density, a lack of greenery and shade, and because materials like steel, concrete and asphalt—the materials that make up most cities—tend to absorb and radiate heat.

Studies have also shown that cities’ poorest neighborhoods tend to be hotter, as they have fewer trees and more pavement, and have reduced access to cooling systems like air conditioning. In some neighborhoods of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago for example, up to one third or more households lack air conditioning. And now, strategies traditionally used to mitigate the effects of extreme heat are not possible due to social distancing measures.

All that being said, there are simple, long-term solutions we can implement, but we need to act now to reap the real, long-term benefits. One of the most promising solutions is planting trees— particularly, urban forests, like the Miyawaki mini forests, aimed at restoring biodiversity and fighting the climate crisis, as shaded surfaces can be 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded areas.

Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic will make tackling extreme heat more challenging. My hope for the next five years is that, at the very least, people will intuitively understand that poverty, pollution, and climate adaptation interventions are inextricably linked, and that they have the power and the agency to create greener, healthier, and more heat-equitable neighborhoods.

To read more New Normal answers, click here.