Though you may drive nature away with a pitchfork, she always returns
– Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, poet 65 BC to 8 BC)
And Nature (interestingly Horace considered Nature a lady) always returns with a vengeance. The coronavirus and its relatively rapid spread is proof of that. We have been pouring greenhouse gases into our atmosphere for years now and causing as yet not fully understood changes to our environment. True, the coronavirus may have developed anyway, but it is likely to have been at least accelerated by global warming, if not entirely caused by same. Indeed, scientists of all nationalities concerned with such matters on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) predicted some time ago a rise in new diseases and new plagues as the world warms.
It is not the first time Humankind has faced the consequences of its own collective folly; the Black Death of the mid-14th century was directly exacerbated, if not entirely caused, by Humanity's failure to regulate its own pollution – as was the great influenza outbreak in 1918; both these occurrences highlighted, not so much a systemic failure, as a failure in having any systems at all in place to control and manage waste (along with an almost total lack of understanding as to what was really happening).
The same is true today when mass stupidity and greed have kept us pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; since 2015 there has been a 4% rise in the amount of such dumped skyways despite our intellectual knowledge of the damage being caused – and that knowledge having been with us since the 1960s, if not earlier. The IPCC made it clear way back in 2007 that the rider on the pale, wan horse would gain substantially as disease swept the planet. They then anticipated an advance of malaria – over the years the greatest disease killer of human beings – into more northerly climes. That has not happened to any extent yet, but coronavirus appears an effective substitute.
There is still hope – but hope to be viable has to be linked to action. The necessary steps being taken to limit the advance of COVID-19 are also steps that are linked and intertwined with the steps to limit global warming. The Copernicus Sentinel-SP Satellite, launched in April of 2014 as part of a dual satellite system, has, as one of its functions (the other might well be to spy) the task of monitoring world pollution levels. It specifically records atmospheric pollution and it has recently reported sharp drops in emissions over Italy – in line with that country's industrial shut-down. The same results have been recorded by NASA's Aura satellite over China – again consistent with China's self-imposed restrictions. In fact, as much as 200 megatons of carbon dioxide is estimated as having been stopped from entering our atmosphere.
As shut-downs spread throughout our world this figure can only increase – and that is good (although not the manner in which it is being achieved). The challenge will be to maintain that progress and, to do so, we will have to accept the trade-off which is that our extravagant way of life will have to be modified – and modified massively. Leisure activities, such as foreign holidays and sea cruises, will have to be severely curtailed; more people will have to be encouraged to work from home, motor-vehicle sales restricted and attendances at sporting and entertainment events controlled: as against this public transport can be encouraged by lowering fares and developing new routes: that has the down-side of bringing more people together but coronavirus will not always be with us. And there is also the need to discourage meat-eating and the frequent purchasing and throwing away of cheap clothing – both activities linked to additional greenhouse gas emissions.
These restrictions and changes are certainly not pleasant and, assuredly, the economies of nations will be ruined by their implementation – but global warming will destroy economies much more thoroughly anyway if left unchecked. Already panic has set in on the world's stock markets as share prices plummet in free fall (Saga shares, for example, were once £2.30 per share; they are now around 15 pence). To a certain extent, this fall in share prices and the continued change in living styles will, in itself, help to reduce wealth inequality in the world (again this may be a good thing in itself but certainly not the manner in which such is being achieved). In turn, all this will inevitably lead to unemployment – and on a massive scale – forcing a need to restructure our world systems (bearing in mind that this particular plague could well be only the first of a number given the continued rise in global temperature).
But if we accept the new restrictions and adapt to them we then have a good chance of surviving as a species and can offer our children some sort of future to develop upon. If we do not do something soon about global warming, we are going to find that we are going to waste a lot of pitchforks and that there may not be that many of us left to use them.
Bill Paterson is a writer based in Glasgow