Lessons from another pandemic

Parallels between defeating cholera and climate change

Browsing the bookshelves of the home I’m quarantining in for COVID-19 has become part of my social isolation experience. Recently I pulled a young-readers guide to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” off the shelf and discovered an “Extra! Extra!” section after the novel that gives readers a glimpse of events that took place during Shelley’s life. The notice below jumped out at me because it underscored a universal truth that arose from the time of another pandemic: When society defines a problem and sets great minds to solving them, we can improve our collective destiny.

This notice jumped out to me, not only because it references an infectious disease epidemic, but also because it referenced the solutions put in place to solve the problem.

In the mid 1800s, cholera killed millions as the pandemic raged around the globe for 30 years. In Chicago, it went as far as to kill one in every eight residents. Hopefully COVID19 doesn’t rage for that long and social distancing won’t have to become a permanent fabric of our society. But there is another global problem that has been brewing for at least that long that we need to apply our problem-solving minds to: climate change. The truth is, global warming will remain an existential-to-humanity crisis long after we’ve defeated COVID-19.

Then and now, solving problems takes a team:

The work to curb cholera in the mid-nineteenth century included scientists, advocates and policy-makers. For example, researchers such as Dr. John Snow traced cholera back to a contaminated well in the Soho neighborhood of London. Backed up by data, Snow convinced officials to take the handle off the pump to the contaminated well. Legend has it that cholera cases in the area plummeted after the intervention. 

Meanwhile, public figures such as Edwin Chadwick applied economic arguments to convince decision-makers that investments in water infrastructure – requiring toilets, building sewers to keep wastewater separate from drinking water – was a wiser use of tax dollars than using those funds to treat wave upon wave of sick patients.

In London and throughout the world, the solutions for preventing cholera were put in place and people were better off for it.

Applying the lessons to climate change

The health impacts of any viral or bacterial pandemic are scary, but the dangers of climate change are unleashing its own set of nightmares. Left unmitigated, sea level rise will displace millions, desertification will threaten food supplies and beyond. Just like the cholera crisis demanded action, so does the climate crisis. 

Once again, teams of scientists and advocates are going to decision-makers to make their case.

Much as Dr. Snow argued that the handle must be taken off the pump, climate scientists, such as Michael Mann are making the case that we must stop burning fossil fuels to power our cars, homes and businesses. Most recently in this eloquent op-ed in The Hill

Just as Edwin Chadwick secured flushing toilets and funding for sewers to protect the drinking water supply, advocates such as Dan Jacobson are making the case that we need to invest in clean energy infrastructure to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. But instead of toilets, the climate crisis calls for us to put solar panels on the roof of every new house built, weatherize our homes and stop our buildings and transportation from needing to run on the direct burning of fossil fuels

And just like the London Board of Health took action, public officials today all across the country – folks like U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimando — are taking action and committing to a future powered by 100% renewable energy.

And those actions are making a difference. Already one-third of Americans live in a place that has committed to 100 percent renewable energy and the number is growing. 

As we learn over and over again when we face a collective challenge, whether a pandemic or a global environmental problem, when we define the problem, engage great minds to find solutions and commit to dogged advocacy to realize those solutions, we can change the world. 

Photo credit: Header: Matt Brown via Flickr, CC BY 2.0; Body: Staff


Johanna Neumann

Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Johanna directs strategy and staff for Environment America's energy campaigns at the local, state and national level. In her prior positions, she led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and helped build the support necessary to pass the EmPOWER Maryland Act, which set a goal of reducing the state’s per capita electricity use by 15 percent. She also currently serves on the board of Community Action Works. Johanna lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family, where she enjoys growing dahlias, biking and the occasional game of goaltimate. 

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