Are We Prepared for a Climate Crisis in the Middle of a Pandemic?

With the need for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be discussing how we will handle displaced peoples and limited resources should a climate disaster occur. It is not a matter of if this will occur, but when.

Three-and-half-years ago, I started writing about a fictional apocalypse scenario. My head was spinning with catastrophic scene after catastrophic scene the day after we elected a president who had a disdain for science. After a long and drawn out night, it felt as if the progress we were making on climate change and environmental protections, though slow, was not only over, but doomed. While the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t what I envisioned that night, COVID-19 only exacerbates the climate catastrophe scenarios that I imagined, leaving us in a very fragile state.

Climate scientists have been warning about climate-related displacement for some time. After flooding, tornado, forest fire and hurricane events, people are often left without a place to live. According to a New York Times article from last September, the first half of 2019 saw a record 7 million people displaced around the world as a result of weather-related events. Some countries address this by moving people into tents and camps. Here in the U.S., people are typically moved to emergency shelters, which are often large and overcrowded spaces with strained resources.

Along with loss of shelter often comes the loss of basic necessities. Extreme weather events almost always require additional resources such as food, water and yes, even toilet paper. Seeing that grocery stores are running out of many needed items, we need to begin considering how those impacted by climate events will get the resources they need while the rest of the population is also trying to maintain their needs.

In essence, the current displacement issue presents a two-fold problem that exacerbates the coronavirus issues we will already be struggling to address. First, emergency shelters are the antithesis to social distancing, meaning a climate crisis could heighten the chance of exponential spreading of COVID-19. Second, the additional need for attention to displaced populations will place a heavy burden on resource availability, social service and medical workers. As it stands, these workers will already be dealing with an unprecedented pandemic.

Just last summer, Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that coordinates health needs and preparedness among various sectors, warned about the need for localized plans to address community responses to climate disasters, noting that it is best to make these plans in times of calm. Unfortunately, we do not have that kind of time or space. We need local, state and federal officials to immediately begin making contingency plans for extreme climate disaster scenarios while also considering their local capacity to deal with COVID-19. We need to be asking when (and not if) people are displaced from climate disasters, where will they go? How will they get there? How will they receive necessary resources? And most importantly, who will care for them?

Where previously placing people closely together in stadiums or gyms while sharing resources may have been a reasonable response, it will not work in the current environment. We must avoid close quarters for evacuees and placing high-risk people in vulnerable situations. Additionally, we must ensure resources and necessities can be distributed in a way that avoids mass crowding and sharing. As it stands, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be completely overburdened with handling the coronavirus. This means the burden of care may fall to nonprofit volunteers and everyday citizens who must be protected in the same way we are working to protect first responders.

We cannot sit idly by hoping we will have some relief from another crisis. Last March, Eastern Iowa and Western Nebraska faced record level flooding. And tornadoes hit the country in record numbers last April, with Texas bearing the brunt of the burden. Moreover, this year saw more early spring flooding in the South. On March 20, my hometown experienced emergency evacuation-level flooding.

We can no longer prevent the extreme weather events that affect us; that opportunity has likely passed. We need to start thinking now about how we will prepare and what affected communities will look like. Depending on the extent of time needed to flatten the curve of COVID-19, we will almost certainly face an extreme weather event before we are in the clear for gathering in large groups again, and this will derail our attempt to dampen the spread of COVID-19.

There is one bright spot, however. Since the disaster scenarios began playing in my head that evening in 2016, I have been humbled by the resolve and kindness people show in times of crisis. Seeing people on social media call for responsible social distancing and shopping for necessities in as-needed quantities this past month has been comforting. It is also uplifting to see how people are offering their time and services in helpful ways, such as sewing face masks and organizing mutual aid groups in neighborhoods. These glimpses of humanity are a necessary antidote to the waves of eco-grief that can consume us.

While I am not trying to scare people into a frenzy or encourage preparation for a doomsday scenario, I do hope we begin to think more seriously about how we will prepare for climate crises that are inevitable and impending. And I hope this encourages us to think more seriously about how we can curb the advancement of climate change and protect our most vulnerable citizens. If I’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it is that many people are often able to think rationally and collectively in times of crisis.

The key to combating major climate change disruptions is in the strength and action of communities. Seeing communities band together quickly to respond creatively and humanely in this strange time is not only reassuring, it gives me hope that we can also band together to fight the parallel crisis of climate change’s worst effects.