Lessons learned from COVID-19 can help us fight climate change

Just like COVID-19, climate change is destroying lives and ruining livelihoods on a daily bases across the world.

Without needing to read academic studies and examining climate models, every farmer and herder in Africa knows the bottom line: the weather is changing and it is changing fast, writes Ibrahim [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]

The pressing need to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine and make it available to everyone everywhere to bring an end to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic resulted in a rare collaboration between world governments, scientists and private drug manufacturers.

The economic and social devastation caused by this catastrophic global public health emergency not only underlined the importance of multilateral international collaboration, but also forced us to acknowledge the glaring social and economic inequalities that exist both in wealthy and poor countries.

The pandemic showed us what happens when political leaders dismiss science and refuse to take the necessary steps to protect all their citizens, and the rest of humanity, from public health crises and other natural disasters. Hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods unnecessarily lost to this disease should serve as a warning to not repeat the mistakes of the recent past, and be prepared for similar threats that undoubtedly await us in the future.

While we do not know what disease outbreaks we may face in the coming years, there is one threat that we know is already at our doorstep: climate change.

Today, climate change is still the most significant threat to global economic and social stability. Scientists say we have a critical and rapidly closing window of opportunity to curb the devastating effects of climate change by limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We know what happens when science is ignored – we have seen the consequences of not taking warnings from scientists seriously in the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic. And we are already paying the price for ignoring climate science – there are more fires, floods, droughts and other unpredictable weather events across the world today than ever before.

While climate change is undoubtedly a global problem, the African continent is expected to be the region hardest hit by its consequences.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently warned that 2016-2020 is expected to be the warmest five-year period in Africa on record, and rang the alarm bells for the fate of agriculture, public health systems, water resources and disaster management capabilities on the continent. A Greenpeace report published earlier this year, meanwhile, warned of extreme heat becoming the new normal in most countries on the continent if the temperature rise caused by global warming is not kept under 1.5 degrees Celsius. If global temperatures rise just 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report said, people living in the city of Lagos in Nigeria would experience heat stress for the first time, as would Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. If the rise in temperatures reach 4 degrees Celsius, Luanda in Angola and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo would also become heat stressed according to the report.

Like COVID-19, climate change is not a hidden threat. Thanks to the efforts of scientists and environmental activists across the world, the international community is aware that if it does not take swift action, climate change will devastate populations and economies across the world. This is why 194 states and the European Union have signed and ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change.

While political leaders and policy makers may need scientific reports and briefings to comprehend the gravity of the looming threat, for rural communities and Indigenous Peoples in Africa and across the world, and for many of my fellow Chadians, the risks are far from theoretical. Without needing to read academic studies and examining climate models, every farmer and herder in Africa knows the bottom line: the weather is changing and it is changing fast.

In my country, Chad, more than half of the people are impacted by floods, droughts and extreme heat. In the Sahel, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, people living in cities and rural communities are all experiencing the consequences of climate change directly.

Much has been said of the economic hardships experienced due to the temporary border closures brought on by COVID-19, especially in landlocked countries like mine. For nomadic pastoralists in the Sahel, who routinely need to cross the border, however, these closures only brought some minor additional challenges. In the last few months, the Sahel region has seen some of the worst floods in recent history. The borders were shut and lives were put on hold not by any government, but raging flood waters. According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 700,000 people have been displaced and otherwise affected by this year’s floods.

Just like COVID-19, climate change is destroying lives and ruining livelihoods on a daily bases across the world. But the media is not giving the same attention to this crisis. While you can find the daily coronavirus death toll or infection rate in any given African country with a simple Google search, getting up-to-date, detailed data on the climate crisis’ effects on the continent is almost impossible. Nobody is bothering to count the lives lost and ruined due to climate change. And if you do not count, if you do not make everyone aware of the magnitude of the crisis, you cannot resolve the crisis.

The weather disasters in Africa often get minimal media coverage. Television channels and newspapers report on any given disaster for a few days, publish the death toll and some statistics on the estimated economic damage, and move on to another story. Yet for those affected, the disaster itself is just the beginning. When their crops disappear under floodwaters or pastures burn up in flames, hunger becomes a daily reality for communities. The natural resources they relay on to survive start to dwindle, water becomes scarce and all this often leads to increased tensions and conflicts. Homes, schools and marketplaces destroyed by natural disasters remain in ruins for years, increasing homelessness. With the destruction of health and sanitation infrastructures, coupled with rising temperatures, diseases like malaria and typhoid become rife, devastating struggling communities further.

Throughout the pandemic, governments in the Sahel region have been trying to educate the public through public advertisements to wash their hands and remain socially distant to stem the spread of the virus. They even imposed lockdowns and penalised individuals who broke the new regulations. However, when floods and droughts caused by global warming engulf our region and devastate our people, they do not issue similar warnings or take precautions. They only offer their prayers and thank any donors for their help. Of course there is nothing wrong with praying or handing out a bag of rice to a hungry family, but are they really doing anything to prevent similar disasters in the future? Are they implementing the policies necessary to prevent global warming?

If we do not act, and act fast, we will experience temperatures up to 6 degrees Celsius higher than today by the end of this century. The future of all our children, the future of humanity at large, is at risk. For this we must all be leaders and take charge of our own destiny. We need to demand that our governments declare a climate emergency and take action. We also need to be open to making adjustments to our ways of life. We do not need to be brave – we just need to be realistic. If we do not adapt, global warming is going to destroy us: with cyclones, flash floods, droughts, fires, extreme heat waves, and wildfires.

As we finally near the end of the coronavirus pandemic, and as governments start to make plans to rebuild economies devastated by this global health crisis, we need to make climate change our new focus. Especially in the Sahel region, where the devastating consequences of climate change are already being felt by many, it is time to declare a climate emergency and embark on a “green” recovery that aims to help not only the masses affected by COVID-19, but also millions of others suffering because of climate change.

Reinventing the economy to be carbon neutral will require strong political leadership, and collaboration between governments and the private sector. But we, the people, can also do a lot to help kick start change. We can demand our leaders to make the climate emergency a policy priority. We can make small changes to our own lives to help protect the environment. We can support those actively fighting for climate justice.

Unfortunately, we cannot defeat climate change simply by isolating in our homes, wearing masks, and creating a vaccine. To defeat climate change, we need to build an entire new political and economic system that does not protect the fossil fuel industry – a new system that can deliver economic prosperity while also protecting biodiversity and reducing carbon emissions.

Luckily, it is not too late. We can still prevent deforestation, restore ruined ecosystems and manage our lands in a way that not only increase productivity but also protect the lives and livelihoods of Indigenous populations. By listening to scientists and working together we came a long way in defeating COVID-19. We now need to use the lessons we learned during this pandemic to tackle the climate emergency.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.