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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine and Health

Social Variants of Concern: COVID-19 and the Future of Climate Chaos

By guest contributor Nehemiah Olson

Both COVID-19 and climate chaos are caused by semi-invisible threats which require significant international, intergovernmental, and social cooperation. Of the many things we have learned from the COVID crisis, one of them is that humans are bad at estimating risk; especially when it involves invisible threats such as microscopic viruses or something as ambiguous as “climate change”. Sadly, when these “invisible” threats finally become manifest and we therefore realize the urgency of action, it is often too late to mount a response that will prevent catastrophic losses and long-term devastation; at which point, the best we can hope for is survival. And, even if we were able to accurately assess the risk, our COVID response indicates that it would be nearly unimaginable that we would be able to mount a coordinated international response to such a global threat as climate chaos.

In sum, if our COVID-19 response is any indication of what our response to climate chaos will be, we are doomed.

As we did with COVID, we will do everything in our power to push the burden of climate change onto the poor and disinherited. All the while, we will try to live as close to the status quo as possible – going on, trying to pretend that nothing is wrong. We will try to “learn to live with it,” consequently, leaving behind those who literally cannot live with it and dooming ourselves to unknown and avoidable risks. Scientists are already expressing surprise and alarm at emerging weather patterns such as simultaneous historic heatwaves at both poles, indicating that the risks may be more significant than we have previously imagined. These risks are not equally distributed as island nations and other low-lying areas will be underwater in the next century and many others will experience unlivable weather patterns. As such anomalies become more common, we may begin to apathetically talk about this as the “new normal.”

We will watch as climate violence causes needless and unspeakable deaths. The first mass casualties will be seemingly “distant” and “exotic” places. Our pity will go out to them, but the countless deaths won’t be enough for us to change our approach. On the contrary, our current vaccine nationalism will be mirrored by climate nationalism. We will demonize those from nations who have suffered most violently from the effects of climate change and, subsequently, will selectively close our borders to the nations of people whom we fear will bring “their” disease, poverty, and “primitiveness” inside our borders.

The rich (countries and people) will hoard away more supplies than are needed (i.e., water, food, land, shelter, etc.) because they may them “sometime down the road” in some hypothetical future while hundreds of thousands will literally be dying from a lack thereof. This won’t stop the rich from blaming and criticizing poorer nations for their “inadequate response” to climate change, even though the rich nations are the most responsible climate criminals – emitting the most carbon and participating in impossibly unsustainable resource consummation.

We will run around pointing fingers at who is to blame for this (e.g., Democrats, Republicans, China, the USA, the poor, etc.). This constant blame game will distract us from combatting the underlying etiology of climate chaos. Climate change and COVID both require massive coordination and cooperation, yet the petty pride of the powerful will stand in the way of the partnership that is required to prevent climate collapse. Indeed, the powerful will most likely use such divisiveness to intentionally draw out the crisis since the crisis will prove to be good for consolidating capital.

Many will complain about how our “response” to climate chaos is worse than climate chaos itself. More will complain about how our response to climate chaos is “ruining the economy;” which, truly, will be the experience of the average worker who will find it increasingly harder to earn a living wage. Nevertheless, corporations and CEOs will figure out how to leverage climate violence to make unprecedented profits and gains for their shareholders.

As COVID has already choked millions to death, so too will climate chaos. Yet, the lives of the rich and powerful will go on uninterrupted; indeed, they will traverse new frontiers on the spaceships they built in order to escape the unbreathable air created by their pollution.

Eventually, we will give up the fight against climate chaos because the sacrifices required to combat it will become too hard and economically “unsustainable.” We will try with all our might to return to normalcy – eating and drinking, dancing and laughing, all while fire and flood will be waiting to devour us.

The COVID crisis was and is just a foreshadow of what we will experience with the climate crisis.

These social variants of concern, these ways of thinking and doing which have continued to prolong the COVID pandemic, are deeply entrenched in society and its structures. These “invisible” threats will not magically disappear as much as we think, pray, and wish them to. Indeed, a proper response will take all our collective effort.

The older generations of world leaders and politicians are suffering from a chronic myopia which prevents them from seeing past the next election cycle. The rich, even more short-sighted, cannot see past their quarterly gains. Yet, those who are young see with clarity that their future is being auctioned off to the highest bidder. The young are, consequently, joined increasingly to those whose histories have been marred by stolen futures: Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQIA2S+ individuals, the impoverished, colonized, exploited, and marginalized. If we are to have hope, it will emerge and be embodied by the leadership of this growing collective who refuse to be disinherited of their futures no more.

Another future is possible. In order to get there, we must, with all our creative powers of human solidarity, make saliently visible the risks and effects of climate chaos and global inequity. We must work against systems that turn issues of human life and death into economic and political calculations which occur far from those most affected by them. We must work toward creating alternative structures based on cooperation and compassion instead of competition and self-interest. Our existence depends on it.

Nehemiah Olson is a medical student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, whose interests include social medicine, liberation theology, and global health. IG: @liberationmedicine Twitter: @liberation_med

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