By David Jenkins, Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship
I am always a bit skeptical when advocacy groups tie a seemingly unrelated problem that is driving the headlines with their own cause. So naturally, red flags went up when news stories popped up early in the pandemic trying to connect the emergence of COVID-19 to climate change.
While it is true that some diseases, such as the Zika virus, have spread to our shores in large part due to climate change, there is no such evidence regarding the emergence of COVID-19 and its initial spread.
However, a lot has changed over the past eight weeks. The huge spike in coronavirus cases here in Florida—as well as in Arizona, Texas, and other southern states—tells a different story.
Normally, fall and winter are regarded as prime time for the spread of viruses because people spend most of their time huddled indoors in close proximity. Flu season, for example, typically abates in the spring and summer as folks head outdoors more.
This phenomenon prompted President Trump to infamously proclaim that by April “as the heat comes in” COVID-19 “miraculously goes away.”
That was a foolhardy prediction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is we’re dealing with an entirely new virus that even now, after six months and more than 149,000 U.S. deaths, we are still only beginning to understand.
So, to paraphrase a Tina Turner song, what’s climate got to do with it?
Climate change is one big reason the president’s prediction backfired.
The heat has indeed “come in.” Unfortunately, it has been in the form of a relentless and sweltering heat wave that drives people indoors — where the virus spreads most efficiently— even more so than Florida’s mild winters.
The heat index in much of Florida over the past several weeks has been hitting 105 degrees. Such extreme heat also serves to discourage the use of masks, which become less comfortable as the temperature and humidity rises.
It is no coincidence that the states where COVID-19 is now raging are all states in the southern half of the nation that have been experiencing a heat wave.
With oppressive summer heat becoming the norm, old assumptions and historic trends about the spread of viruses are no longer valid. Even with less transmissible viruses like the flu, Floridians could very well be facing year-round outbreaks.
The worse may be yet to come. Scientists predict that South Florida will soon see more than 120 days a year where the heat index exceeds that 105-degree mark.
Sunny, hot days also cause increases in ground-level ozone, which occurs when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, refineries, and other sources chemically react in the presence of heat and sunlight.
Breathing this ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and airway inflammation. It also can reduce lung function and harm lung tissue.
Elevated ozone presents a health risk anytime, but especially so as we deal with a respiratory illness that exploits lungs damaged—and made more vulnerable—by pollution. There is strong evidence that exposure to airborne pollutants is a risk factor for dying from COVID-19.
A Harvard University study in April found that people who have lived in U.S. counties with greater long-term pollution exposure had significantly higher mortality rates from COVID-19. A study of air quality in northern Italy found a similar correlation.
The pollutants implicated in such studies have also been found to compromise our immune systems.
To take this climate and COVID-19 connection one step further, it is notable that the same measures needed to reduce air pollution linked to virus vulnerability — cleaner energy, more electric vehicles, and putting a price on carbon emissions— are the same ones that address the pollution responsible for climate change.
Climate change neither spawned COVID-19 nor brought it to our shores, but it is playing a significant role in the virus’ spread and severity.
That Tina Turner song “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” is about someone trying to deny the undeniable role of love in a relationship. When it comes to this pandemic we are all suffering through, one thing is equally undeniable: climate change has a lot to do with it.
David Jenkins is president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national organization with more than 6,000 Florida members.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.