What if climate change threatened your toilet paper supply? What if climate change could be prevented by washing your hands? What if it lived on surfaces? What if it threatened your food supply and your child’s ability to go to school? What if it disproportionately threatened the elderly, the lower income, those without access to healthcare, those with preexisting conditions, and other vulnerable populations?

What if climate change was happening right now, and what if there was something you could do about it?

There are plenty of ways that we can spend our time in quarantine reflecting on the parallels between COVID-19 and the current climate crisis. Can our response to climate change be as abrupt and collective as our response to COVID-19?

We, two University of Montana students, have worked with the Climate Change Studies program in developing Montana Health and Climate Week to explore the increasingly pertinent connections between health and climate. We connected with leaders, professionals, and activists in and around our community to help organize over two dozen events about climate change and health.

As passionate environmental health and climate change students, impressed by the collective action from our Missoula community in the wake of the pandemic, we were inspired to reframe the way we perceive the climate crisis. Oftentimes, it feels difficult to comprehend the scale of action that climate science demands as necessary.

However, in recent weeks, our community has demonstrated that when we are in need, the social boundaries that we normally draw disappear and we are no longer “other” people. When we can begin to understand our vitally interconnected nature, we can function as a unit. These are our collective crises, and they need action from all of us.

Just like COVID-19 is a health crisis, so is climate change. The connections between health and climate are numerous. Because we are reliant on our natural world, the biophysical impacts from climate change, such as increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters, loss of biodiversity, and warming water, negatively impact human health.

The ways in which human health is impacted could include respiratory issues from decreasing air quality due to longer wildfire seasons, mental health consequences from forced migration and disaster displacement, and health threats from food insecurity due to changing precipitation and weather patterns. These health impacts are also not evenly distributed and the people who will suffer the most are those who live in lower-income countries or belong to vulnerable and minority populations. In other words, climate change exacerbates existing inequalities.

Sara Humphers-Ginther
Sara Humphers-Ginther

The severe and devastating nature of these intersections of climate and health have propelled collective initiative in our community that highlights the climate crisis that humanity faces. With the intention of igniting an awareness about how climate change impacts health, we developed our initiative with the framework of four objectives: (1) equity-oriented; (2) interactive and participatory opportunities; (3) solution-oriented; and (4) local relevance to our community.

However, Montana Health and Climate Week has been postponed to September due to the aggressive responses to COVID-19. These circumstances have allowed us to reflect upon the ways in which people and communities are willing to engage in abrupt lifestyle changes in order to: (1) protect our personal health; (2) protect the health of our loved ones and our communities; and (3) protect the health of vulnerable populations.

Despite frustratingly slow and ineffective contemporary responses from the federal government to both COVID-19 and climate change, we want to acknowledge and highlight the people who have been leading the fight against these crises. We also want to emphasize the things that individuals and communities can still do, and are doing, to take action in their own ways.

Perhaps you are biking instead of driving, zooming instead of flying, more conscious about food waste, finding significantly deep solace in natural spaces, or finding hope and solidarity in the collective action of your community. COVID-19 is teaching us many lessons that can help perpetuate collective and environmentally friendly behaviors that continue beyond the pandemic.

We can use our crisis responses to COVID-19 as a potential framework for our response to climate change. Imagine if we were to maintain a community where, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender, age or political standpoint, we take care of each other, one where we can demand and enact an effective, efficient, and equitable response to any crisis.

We hope to see you in September during Montana Health and Climate Week, where you can learn and engage with the intersections of climate change and health, connect with your community, and be part of the solution.

We hope that in the meantime, you can continue to engage with the attributes that COVID-19 and climate cannot change: Compassion, empowerment, collective action, and love for each other and for our planet.

Sara Humphers-Ginther is a University of Montana Graduate Student in Sociology and Global Health

Kendall Butler is a University of Montana Undergraduate Student in Public and Community Health

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming events and what we’re reading and doing amidst these challenging times

This column usually ends with a list of community events to engage with and go to. COVID-19 postponed or cancelled most events, although some have moved on-line. Rest assured, groups are trying their best to redefine what it means to bring people together.

Here we offer ideas about ways to stay involved and healthy, followed by articles and perspectives that we believe are particularly valuable. If you like these readings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

First – Earth Day is April 22 and it’s being reimagined across the country. Here in Missoula, groups and individuals are planning to collect (virtually) to encourage art, writings, poems and social solidarity, all to honor the earth and connect us. Stay tuned—next week we’ll bring specific details about how we can all be involved, including youth and young adults.

Second – it’s a great time to grow food and support local agriculture. Our friends at Garden City Harvest are excited to expand community gardens, CSAs, and are hosting a series of spring gardening workshops online. Missoula County Extension  has a local garden scheduling guide and lots of other resources. And local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are taking subscription signups. Here are a few CSA’s that serve the Missoula area: Western Montana Growers Cooperative, Missoula Grain and Vegetable Co, Harlequin Produce, and Red Hen Farm

Third – it’s a great time to grow trees and native plants. The Run for the Trees has gone virtual. For info about what trees to plant and how to care for them head to Trees for Missoula. You can even grow apple trees thanks to our friends at Western Cider.

Fourth – plastics are in the news – check out this WIRED piece and PBS’s Plastic Wars.

Fifth – Bingo. New Bingo Cards for the Climate Activists have been posted here.

Finally (and thanks for getting this far) – what we’re reading: