Sustaining Orange County: UC Irvine Professor On Parallels Between the COVID-19 Pandemic and Climate Change

The realities of the global climate crisis can seem overwhelming. Every day, there’s new information about how the environment and human health are being threatened. And the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic has people wondering about possible parallels.

But there are plenty of Orange County residents fighting to make positive change. We highlight that great work here—from green businesses and university researchers to volunteer groups and civil servants. Passionate locals are working together to create a sustainable future; let them inspire you to take action in ways large and small.

UC Irvine professor of Earth system science Michael Prather is a contributor to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Is there an analogy to be made between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change?
The parallels are really quite scary. It’s just a different time scale. What this pandemic could have done in one year, unmitigated climate change will do over 100 years. Economy collapse, increased inequality, death. The only difference is that we are actually responding to this pandemic and mitigating it. We’re not doing that for climate change.

Why is that?
We think of it as being far in the future, so we don’t do anything about it. We see some of the effects already but not on the level it will be. And if we wait for large-scale damage, it will be impossible to stop it. It will come on like an avalanche. So the question is, are we willing to trust experts? Are we willing to vote for science?

Was there an effect on the environment from everyone staying home?
We’re seeing a lot of the direct emissions changing. That’s great info to have scientifically, but yes, it is temporary—just like on 9/11 when planes didn’t fly and pollution went down temporarily. But this is not the way you want to do it. The good news is, you certainly don’t have to crash the economy to fix our air quality.

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