Two Steps Forward

COVID-19 and climate change: A healthy dose of reality

It’s too early to tell whether COVID-19 is linked in any way to the climate crisis. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; we’ll likely never know for certain. Still, consider the global health crisis currently upon us as a warm-up act for a climate-changing world.

In the immortal words of the ‘70s rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

For nearly two decades, health officials around the world have warned about the rise of infectious disease from a warming climate. The Pentagon, for example, started raising concern back in 2003 in an independent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense. It warned that “As famine, disease and weather-related disasters strike due to the abrupt climate change, many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity.”

In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon officially recognized climate change as a factor worthy of consideration in national security planning. “Warmer temperatures can also exacerbate the introduction and proliferation of heat-related illnesses and disease vectors, such as mosquitoes, into vulnerable regions,” it noted. In 2014, in a Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, it warned of “the emergence of new strains of disease.” That report called the effects of climate change “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad.” 

Note that even America’s defense establishment didn’t see these impacts striking at home so much as “abroad,” leading to global security threats. It concluded:

Countries that have the infrastructure and capability to report and track the spread of an outbreak of disease are able to save more lives. Detecting, diagnosing and determining the origin of a pathogen will enable U.S. authorities to better respond to future disease outbreaks and identify whether they are natural or man-made.

Good old days?

Such warnings seem both prescient and obvious today, given the global scramble to corral COVID-19. But it also provides an opportunity to plan for the next infectious outbreak, and the ones after that.

Indeed, climate change could make the coronavirus seem like the good old days.

“Infectious disease transmission is sensitive to local, small-scale differences in weather, human modification of the landscape, the diversity of animal hosts, and human behavior that affects vector-human contact, among other factors,” write the authors of the Third National Climate Assessment, produced by more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee and reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. It warned:

The public health system is not fully prepared to monitor or respond to these growing disease risks. The introduction of new diseases into non-immune populations has been and continues to be a major challenge in public health. There are concerns that climate change may provide opportunities for pathogens to expand or shift their geographic ranges.

Clearly, this is not a “someday” situation. According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization since 2017, “As man-made climate change has taken hold over the last four decades, dozens of new infectious diseases have emerged or begun to threaten new regions, including Zika and Ebola.” Moreover, he writes, “Bubonic plague, spread by rats and fleas, is predicted to increase with warmer springs and wetter summers. Anthrax, whose spores are released by thawing permafrost, could spread farther as a result of stronger winds.”

Bubonic plague. Anthrax. Suddenly, coronavirus feels rather tame.

So, how are companies faring? It’s early days, but the outlook isn’t exactly encouraging.

A survey released last week by the Institute for Supply Management looked into how companies are dealing with coronavirus. It found nearly three-fourths of U.S. firms reporting supply-chain disruptions due to virus-related travel and transportation restrictions, and more than eight in 10 believe that their organization will experience some impact because of COVID-19 disruptions. Of that 80 percent, ISM found that one in six are adjusting revenue targets downward an average of 5.6 percent due to coronavirus, with some companies saying revenue could drop as much as 15 percent.

Writes Jeff Berman in Supply Chain Management Review: “The findings are staggering on multiple levels and, while unintentional to be sure, they ought to put supply chains on high alert, in the very unlikely circumstance they are not already, at this point.”

It’s not just supply chains, of course. McKinsey & Co. last week laid out three scenarios for business as a result of the pandemic: a “quick recovery,” a “global slowdown” and a “global pandemic and recession.”

For now, let’s be optimistic and assume the middle path — that the world is facing merely a global slowdown, not a recession. Among the impacts, according to McKinsey:

  • Small and midsize companies would be more acutely impacted.
  • Less-developed economies would suffer more than advanced economies.
  • Service sectors, including aviation, travel and tourism, would likely be hardest hit, accelerating the wave of consolidation, especially among airlines.
  • A steep drop in consumer demand would impact suppliers that operate on thin working-capital margins.

Clearly, much remains unknown, notably the impacts on individuals, especially in the service sector — the Walmart cashier, the Starbucks barista, the Uber driver and countless more gig-economy and low-wage workers.

And we don’t yet know the silver linings: the potential rise of telecommuting and virtual events; positive changes in social norms, from hygiene to handshakes; paid sick leave, especially for minimum-wage and contingent workers; more centralized emergency response, as the United States once had in its Civil Defense System during the Cold War; and the strengthening of the social fabric, especially at the neighborhood and community levels. Indeed, good things can come from dreadful times.

All of this is to say that the current outbreak is providing an object lesson about what it means for business to be resilient — as individuals and organizations, as well as in infrastructure and supply chains. And it is showing, quite vividly, what it’s like when we aren’t. 

There is no roadmap for this. We are in uncharted territory. We are hurtling into the unknown.

Will the lessons of coronavirus extend beyond the crisis itself, or will we revert to what had been standard operating procedure in both the public and private sectors? Can there be some good that comes from this — for workers, companies and their value chains? How can we improve our response and resilience so that we're ready for the next one?

We’d better get started figuring this out. We have a window — a painfully clear window — on what’s coming next, and a window of opportunity to align our organizations, value chains and systems of commerce with this strange new normal. As I said, COVID-19 could be but a taste of our collective future.

No one can say we didn’t see it coming.

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