Record temperatures and COVID-19 are symptoms of planetary fever, aid agency warns

Record-breaking temperatures and COVID-19 are both warnings that humanity must reset its relationship with nature and address the climate crisis, or face potentially deadlier pandemics and disasters, warned Save the Children, climate scientists, and youth activists on Tuesday.

A new analysis by Save the Children shows that the pandemic has largely buried public concern and discussions about the climate emergency worldwide, even though global heating remains the number one threat to the region’s societies and their children.

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2020 is on course to be one of the top two warmest years in 141 years of temperature records. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States reports that the first half of 2020 was the second warmest January-June period on record. This was partly driven by record heat in Siberia in northern Asia, where average temperatures in June were more than 5°C above normal.

“The world has a fever. We need to apply the cure fast,” said Save the Children’s Asia Regional Director, Hassan Noor. “Otherwise, today’s children will inherit a planet on fire: a world in which pandemics are a constant threat and their lives are blighted by a climate crisis they did not create.”

Extreme weather disasters have started in the Philippines following the onset of typhoon season. Last May, typhoon VongFong (local name Ambo) hit the coastal towns of Eastern Samar province which affected close to 400,000 people, destroyed 3,000 homes, and resulted to US$ 30.8 Million worth of damage to agriculture.

Sea level rise alone means that by 2050, many of Asia-Pacific’s coastal megacities and small island nations could suffer once-in-a-century extreme weather events every year, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Asia-Pacific is already the world’s most disaster-prone region. Unless we act fast, the climate crisis will make catastrophe a way of life for hundreds of millions of people in the region,” said Professor Benjamin Horton, Director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore and a member of the IPCC.

Save the Children’s analysis of social media finds the number of public conversations about climate, which steadily rose during 2019, declined sharply in 2020 when COVID-19 spread across Asia-Pacific and beyond, dominating media coverage and causing many climate-related conferences and demonstrations – such as the school strikes that thousands of children in the region and elsewhere staged in 2019 – to be cancelled.

By July 2020, public online discussions about climate in Asia-Pacific had halved compared to the same time last year (based on an analysis of 17 countries). Globally, public online discussions about climate between April and June this year plummeted by a staggering 70 percent compared to the same period last year.

But governments should not assume climate crisis was no longer a public concern, said Save the Children. Marking World Nature Conservation Day, the world’s biggest independent child-focused agency vowed to support calls by young people to reverse decades of damage to the environment.

“Young climate activists have warned us that humanity was abusing nature beyond its limits. Now we’re paying the price for ignoring their warnings. But we want to say – ‘We hear you’. That’s why Save the Children is supporting a new campaign by young people in the Philippines and across Asia-Pacific to make sure their concerns are heard loud and clear,” added Hassan Noor.

Studies show that pandemics caused by viruses of animal origin are becoming more frequent, largely because of human activities, such as deforestation and pollution, that disrupt wildlife habitats and force animals and insects into contact with people. Climate change is increasing such disruptions.

“But COVID-19 recovery plans provide a huge opportunity to reduce the risks of both pandemics and climate disasters,” added Hassan Noor. “While supporting jobs and growth, COVID-19 recovery plans should accelerate the shift to less polluting low-carbon economies. Industries receiving public funds should make strong, enforceable pledges to green their operations. More investment is also needed to protect vulnerable communities from future crises.”

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