Fighting Covid and climate change: What does this mean for climate science?

Graffiti sketch of the planet Earth in Pennsylvania, USA. (Matt Rourke/Keystone)

The pandemic has caused interruptions in the work of the scientific community, particularly among climate scientists. This has led to reduced productivity in some environment programs and leaving gaps in climate data. The online dialogue held by the Geneva Environment Network on Thursday, 02 July, brought together experts from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) to discuss exactly this. A video recording of the webinar is also available.

Why is this important? The impacts of Covid-19 go beyond health, touching upon a wide range of human activities. Scientific and policy work is no different. The major disruption wreaked by the pandemic have affected the work of scientists and policy-makers around the world, leading to delays in vital research and reports regarding climate change, such as the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report. However, despite setbacks, the pandemic has also produced new areas for research that can only deepen the knowledge of coronavirus and climate change.

Indirect impacts. Although climate change has no direct influence on the spread of the virus, it has indirect impacts on its transmission, scientists have found. According to Oksana Tarasova, chief of the Atmospheric Environment Research of (WMO), peer-reviewed papers have demonstrated the following:

  • Socio-economic impacts due to lockdown measures increase the vulnerability of communities to climate extremes;

  • Environmental conditions, such as exposure to certain ambient air pollutants, may aggravate Covid-19 symptoms;

  • There are possible co-morbidities of Covid-19, related to other climate-sensitive diseases, such as seasonal influenza;

  • Weather alters human behavior that can in turn increase the risk of disease transmission.

Growing evidence linking air pollution exposures to higher risks of serious illness and death from Covid-19 has amplified calls upon policymakers to reduce pollution so as to reduce disease risks during future waves of infection.

New questions, challenges. The pandemic has also created important questions for the scientific community, underlining the linkages among biodiversity, human health, and climate. Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC’s adaptation assessment (Working Group II), mentions that if climate change remains unabated, there will be extreme effects on biodiversity. An increase in average global temperatures of 4°C will affect more than 20% of all species, particularly in the tropics. Pörtner adds that abrupt changes in biodiversity can increase human exposure to wildlife.

“Climate change is affecting and will further affect ecosystems including animal distribution and abundance patterns... These encounters come with an elevated risk of transfer of viruses.”

Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC report that looks at mitigation opportunities and potential (Working Group III), asks if mitigation strategies can be adjusted in light of experiences with the virus. Skea says, “Covid has exacerbated existing inequalities which provides a particular challenge [in poverty-alleviation and sustainable development].” At the same time, by looking at the pandemic’s short- and medium-term impact on emissions, and changes in human behavior, governments can identify new paths towards a greener recovery.

Demands for better science. The pandemic has revealed gaps in current methods of data collection; for instance, new problems posed by grounded planes that cannot collect information for weather forecasts.

“While other Earth observations are negatively affected by COVID-19, space-based measurements on climate, environment and society continued, largely without interruption” says Sara Venturini, Climate Coordinator of GEO. As such, there has been a “very strong increase in demand especially for Big Data Analytics services, both from commercial players and public entities.”

As Tarasova notes, all good science begins with good observations. What this disruption has shown is that the long-term effects of the virus on the climate — and vice versa — need to besubjected to more rigorous testing.

“We need really good science, and really good observing and modeling systems to attribute the role of policies and what you do on the ground with expected effects.”