One of our kids’ favorite bedtime stories involves a melancholy beaver with a fever. On each of the brightly-colored pages, one creaturely friend after another offers a source of comfort, from cool cloths to nourishing soup. Like any good children’s book, it ends on a happy note as the little beaver is revived and cheerfully exclaims, “The best medicine of all is my friends!”
Parenting would be easy if all I had to do was read my kids happy beaver stories. But alas, even three-year-olds can tell when something is awry — and they do not hesitate to ask “Why?”
Which got me thinking about furry friends and fevers — both personal and planetary — to try and explain the Coronavirus to my children. With your indulgence, I’d like to share the less happy adult explanation on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, along with an earnest appeal on behalf of all our kids.
For the past two months, humanity has been reeling from a pandemic fever the likes of which we have not seen since great-granddad’s time. As millions of people get sick with Covid-19 and far too many die, billions more people around the world are forced to shelter in place to stem the virus’ spread. Many are eating from soup kitchens and hungry for their friends. What’s more, there aren’t enough cool cloths and PPE to go around.
But this is not the only fever afoot. For the past two centuries, Planet Earth has had a steadily rising fever of its own. Warming land and seas are causing thousands of furry friends to go extinct each year. In some parts, the heat is so intense that whole forests go up in flames and even the coldest, wettest washcloth can’t put them out. The fever also brings rising sees and raging storms that force millions of innocent people to flee their homes each year, and far too many die. Sometimes, even the soup kitchens get flooded or destroyed.
And if you thought great-granddad’s time was long ago, consider that the rate of global warming we see today is faster than at any time since human beings found their feet and left our furry friends behind some 2 million years gone by.
If the fever symptoms between the climate and Covid-19 are similar, what about their cause? Although our childish selves are prone to see such crises as unfathomable “acts of God”, the God my family worships asks us to “put away childish things” and reason as an adult. Enter science.
Let’s start with a very distant cousin of that furry beaver, the bat. Although scientists are still exploring the specific means by which Covid-19 spread from bats to humans in 2019, the pattern is a familiar one by now. Emerging zoonotic diseases — those transmitted from animals to people like SARS and Ebola — have quadrupled in the last 50 years. Most originate in tropical regions, which are expanding outward from the equator due to global warming. In fact, fully 75% of infectious diseases which threaten human beings originate in wildlife, making species protection a frontline in the fight against pandemics, even as the pace of deforestation and other human incursions picks up.
In a world that is rapidly warming on account of fossil fuel emissions — the primary cause of climate change — disease outbreaks like the Coronavirus are not only more common but more costly too. Epidemiologists have long observed that fine particulate pollution from smoke stacks and tailpipes causes a raft of adverse health effects like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, resulting in over 100,000 premature deaths a year in the United States alone.
When respiratory infections like Covid-19 spread through the population, people with preexisting health conditions due to carbon pollution face a heightened risk of hospitalization and death. Even healthy people are less equipped to fight the disease through their body’s immune system, as pathogens that are exposed to higher temperatures in nature adapt to survive the fever-heat inside the human body.
Thus, the Coronavirus is more than just a public health or economic crisis — it is a climate and conservation crisis too. To ease these interlocking fevers, we must give friendly medicine to all who are sick today and also apply a nice cool cloth to Planet Earth tomorrow, and every day, until the temperature returns to normal. It will not do to simply “restart” the old world; we must brew a new and tastier stew.
Herein lies my Earth Day appeal in the midst of this extraordinary pandemic that has given are planet home a temporary (?) reprieve from pollution. As people in once-smog-filled cities gaze out on distant mountains for the first time in their lives, and country folk like me rekindle our love of nature, and all of us search for joy in a simpler way of life, I do believe the moment for change has come.
What will that change resemble? I’ll ask my kids and get back to you in the next installment.