The hits came this week in rapid succession: A cyclone slammed into the Indian megacity of Kolkata, pounding rains breached two dams in the Midwestern United States, and on Thursday came warning that the Atlantic hurricane season could be severe.
It all served as a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed 325,000 people so far, is colliding with another global menace: a fast-heating planet that acutely threatens millions of people, especially the world’s poor.
Climate change makes extreme weather events more frequent and more intense. Now, because of the pandemic, they come at a time when national economies are crashing and ordinary people are stretched to their limits.
Relief organizations working in eastern India and Bangladesh, for instance, say the lockdown had already forced people to rely on food aid by the time the storm, Cyclone Amphan, hit. Then, the high winds and heavy rains ruined newly sown crops that were meant to feed communities through next season. “People have nothing to fall back on,” Pankaj Anand, a director at Oxfam India, said in a statement Thursday.
The worst may be yet to come.
Several other climate hazards are looming, as the coronavirus unspools its long tail around the world. They include the prospect of heat waves in Europe and South Asia, wildfires from the western United States to Europe to Australia, and water scarcity in South America and Southern Africa, where a persistent drought is already deepening hunger.
And then there’s the locusts. Locusts.
Abnormally heavy rains last year, which scientists say were made more likely by the long-term warming of the Indian Ocean, a hallmark of climate change, have exacerbated a locust infestation across eastern Africa. Higher temperatures make it more inviting for locusts to spread to places where the climate wasn’t as suitable before — and in turn, destroy vast swaths of farmland and pasture for some of the poorest people on the planet.
While the risks are different from region to region, taken together, “they should be seen as a sobering signal of what lies ahead for countries all over the world,” a group of scientists and economists warned this month in an opinion piece in Nature Climate Change.
The impacts will not be equal, though, they added. They stand to exacerbate longstanding inequities, the experts said, and “put specific populations at heightened risk and compromise recovery.”
All those extreme weather hazards are made more frequent and intense by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which drives up temperatures on land and in the sea.
The lockdowns around the world have resulted in a sharp drop in greenhouse gas emissions, but the decline has been nowhere near enough to shake loose the thick blanket of gases that already wraps the planet.
And even if lockdown measures continued for the next several months, global carbon emissions would drop by between 4 to 8 percent from last year, according to a range of projections carried out by researchers, the latest of them published in Nature Climate Change last week. As punishing as that could be, socially and economically, it would not make a dent in overall warming trends.
The impact of the accumulated warming is already felt by those who were in the eye of Cyclone Amphan this week: those who live in the delta regions of eastern India and Bangladesh, and who are at the mercy of intensifying heat waves, sea level rise, storm surges and super cyclones like this one.
In rural Bangladesh, for example, the storm punched through embankments. Seawater ate the paddy fields. Mud and thatch homes collapsed.
Frequently Asked Questions and Advice
Updated May 20, 2020
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?
There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.
The slow burn of climate change has increasingly made it tough for many to make a living farming and fishing, as generations had before them; many workers had migrated to urban areas nearby to earn a living. The lockdown has put an end to that coping strategy. Migrant workers in India have been trying to head home in droves.
Traditional ways of coping during storms are now more dangerous, too. Evacuating people to cyclone shelters has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in past storms, but aid workers now worry that the virus could spread quickly in shelters.
In India, the city of Kolkata, which was pummeled by the cyclone, is repeatedly cited as one of the most vulnerable to the cumulative effects of climate change, all the more so because of poor urban planning. Its 14 million residents live cheek by jowl, and hunger still stalks many of them.
The United Nations Development Program this week warned that global human development, which takes into account education, health and living standards, was set to decline this year “for the first time since the concept of human development was introduced in 1990.”
The extreme weather events of the last few days, coming on top of the coronavirus pandemic, throw into sharp relief, said Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in England, the perils of underestimating the impact of compounding risks.
Economic recovery policies that governments enact after the pandemic lifts, she said, would impact the trajectory of emissions for decades to come.
“Reconstruction post Covid-19 should be shaped in a way that reduces our vulnerability,” she said. “That means both to prepare for extreme climatic risks, and to reduce emissions that underpin the climatic risks.”