Religion and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Environmental Health

April 14, 2020

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A woman holds a sign in a climate change protest

Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the tone and tenor of everyday life by touching many aspects of global society, including environmental health. Social distancing measures, including cuts to air travel and restrictions to social gatherings, have already impacted the environment on a global scale. Air pollution is down in China and Italy, two countries that have all but shut down public life in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. COVID-19 response might also decrease carbon dioxide emissions, at least in the short term, as more and more people stay at home. The pandemic, which could last for up to 18 months, provides a unique opportunity to consider our human impact on the environment by compelling widespread behavior change that could mitigate climate change.

But the relationship between coronavirus and climate change is not entirely positive. Some experts have noted how global changes in the environment could factor in the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Habitat and biodiversity loss are said to be responsible for creating the conditions for novel coronavirus and other animal-borne pandemics by causing closer contact between humans and animals. And air pollution is known to make people more vulnerable to respiratory infection, a key symptom of the virus. Many experts warn that the rate of new infectious diseases such as COVID-19 is bound to increase, especially as climate change remains a global challenge. 

Religion can play important roles in addressing climate change and environmental health. The normative teachings of various traditions—including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—can address the ethical crisis of climate change, as countries least responsible for global warming disproportionately suffer diseases linked to environmental change. Pope Francis has also contributed to understandings of environmental ethics, most notably through his concept of “integral ecology,” which acknowledges the deep connections between ecological, economic, social, and political justice. Faith-inspired actors have applied a similar understanding of environmental justice in on-the-ground advocacy efforts, such as action on the 2019 Amazon rainforest fires

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What are the lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic on the intersection of climate change and global health? How can religious ethics inform approaches to global health and the environment, especially in light of the current pandemic? How might coronavirus-related behavior change figure into long-term action on global climate change? What are the next steps in environmental health following the conclusion of the pandemic?

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