There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is causing unprecedented challenges for communities here in the United States. Cities, such as New York and New Orleans, are at the center of attention as COVID hotspots, and they’ve been compelled to shift already scarce resources from other areas to address public health needs. My hometown of Cincinnati (and others like it) recently furloughed hundreds of employees because of a steep budget deficit due to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, rural areas, which often have even fewer resources to begin with, are not being spared.
It seems that everything has come to a grinding halt. But while we can postpone sports seasons and have rearranged much of our daily lives, spring tornadoes and floods that ravage the Midwest and Mississippi River valley are arriving on schedule. The Atlantic hurricane season (expected to be an active one thanks to warm Gulf waters) will arrive in June, and wildfire season is already beginning, regardless of whether the pandemic has been stemmed.
So how will the crisis affect our preparations for and recovery from extreme weather disasters like these? Because a warming planet brings more intense and frequent extreme weather that exacerbates existing vulnerabilities, climate change is considered a “risk amplifier.” We will see real-world examples of this when extreme weather strikes communities already dealing with extraordinary public health and welfare issues brought on by the coronavirus.
We can anticipate some of the ways the coronavirus will create new challenges for those who help communities prepare for and respond to extreme weather disasters. They must now incorporate coronavirus precautions into community guidance about evacuations and preparations. In addition, first responders will need adequate protective equipment and improved safety conditions for in-person training exercises. Public health systems must be ready for additional surges in patients, and agencies will need contingencies for shortages of staff and volunteers.
Solutions could lie in strategies that address both public health and resilience. Some tools already exist. Nascent communications tools are now being widely deployed to ensure access to medical advice, business continuity, and more. Another example is the Disaster Resilience Scorecard for Public Health, which was created as an extension of the Disaster Resilience Scorecard for cities. The public health scorecard gives communities planning guidance on pandemics, managing health supply chains, health data, community trackers and alerts, quarantines, surge capacity, and more. Many of these principles and strategies can also help communities build resilience to climate impacts.
Now that the CARES Act is releasing funding for a variety of critical services, local governments, and small businesses, lawmakers are beginning to discuss future rounds of federal stimulus to jumpstart the economy. Climate resilience experts are calling for the inclusion of resilience investments in infrastructure. C2ES research has outlined ways to prioritize several types of investments, including those that benefit disadvantaged communities, shore up public transit systems, and modernize internet and communications infrastructure.
Some of the capacity we build and lessons we learn from the coronavirus response can be applied to building our resilience and responding to climate change. Communication platforms and strategies are experiencing a massive test and will undoubtedly see new innovations and broad uptake across many communities, and we will be able to call on these new capabilities when new challenges arise. The more we can use these capabilities, the better positioned our communities and businesses will be for a strong recovery.
Most importantly, perhaps, we are collectively learning an important lesson in adaptive behavior. We now know that staying home to “flatten the curve” will not eradicate the coronavirus, but it is a step we can take to help ensure we are able to manage the speed and magnitude of the spread and respond with the resources we have. The same goes for cutting greenhouse gas emissions; we already expect to see climate impacts because of current levels, but we must collectively act with greater urgency today to build preparedness and cut emissions to help ensure those impacts remain manageable in the decades to come. The best part is that transitioning to a resilient and low-carbon economy brings jobs, healthy communities, entrepreneurial opportunities, which can all contribute to a broader economic recovery.