Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Flickr / Lt. Zachary West for Texas Military Department

Earlier this year, scientists predicted that the United States would lose 100,000 to 200,000 people to COVID-19. Many of us – and our leaders – ignored warnings that this number could be much higher if we didn’t take preventive measures, and the U.S. surpassed 200,000 coronavirus-related deaths at the end of September.

But COVID-19 isn’t the only pandemic we face.

Scientists warned us more than three decades ago that climate change, if we didn’t take preventive measures, would result in deeper and longer droughts, more wildfires, increasingly violent hurricanes, more flooding, and killer heat waves. We now know, from contemporary news reports, that those predictions are coming true. Climate change is a manmade pandemic, and none of our governments are doing enough to fight it.

Like COVID-19, climate change is going to kill a lot of us. And by that I mean the most vulnerable: the poor, the elderly, the health-compromised, and people of color. A warming climate brings with it a host of assassins. First, there’s the heat itself. On our current path, by 2100, San Antonio will experience 100-degree temperatures from 55-100 days each year. Over the past three (warming) decades, heat has caused more deaths in the U.S. than any weather-related hazard. 

A warming climate also brings new bugs that migrate up from the tropics. In San Antonio, this means increases in insect-borne diseases, such as Zika virus, which can result in severe birth defects, and dengue fever, which kills 40,000 people each year worldwide. In recent years, both diseases have migrated north to make appearances in Texas. 

And, with a hotter climate, wildfires will increase, as we have seen recently in California. Seventy miles east of San Antonio, the Bastrop fire in 2011 killed four people. Recent wildfires in Australia killed an estimated 1 billion animals.

Like COVID-19, climate change is an invisible killer. You can see a Hurricane Katrina and that it killed over 1,800 people, but you can’t see the cause. You can see a Camp Fire and know that it killed over 80 people, but you can’t see the cause. You can know that a 2010 heat wave in Russia (Russia!) killed an estimated 56,000 people, but you can’t see the cause. But scientists tell us that hurricanes and fires and heat waves such as these will become ever more severe and frequent because of climate change. The cause may be invisible, but we know what it is.

Like COVID-19, climate change gets worse if you ignore it. Allowing carbon dioxide to build up in our atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is like allowing a virus to spread unchecked among the world’s population. By the time it creates enough of a problem to scare you, it’s too late. You can’t reverse it. Like the frog that stays too long in a pot of warming water, you’re already cooked.

Like COVID-19, climate change takes a group effort to defeat it. In order to kill this “virus,” all the nations of the world must chip in and stop burning coal, natural gas, and oil products. The United States should be leading this effort and setting the example, but we’re not. We’re relaxing environmental standards, we’ve withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accords, and our oil companies have been drilling as if there is no tomorrow – which will become a self-fulfilling prophesy if they don’t stop.

To its credit, our city council in 2017 committed San Antonio to meeting the Paris Climate Agreement, which means that we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. And, after two years of citizen, business, and environmental input, the City was set to pass a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) to meet those goals.  However, the business community and our own CPS succeeded in watering down the plan before its passage.

Climate change is a pandemic that will be more lethal than COVID-19. But unlike COVID-19, we have the cure for this virus and we don’t need to develop a vaccine. Scientists tell us if we want to keep this pandemic in check we have until the end of this decade to cut our fossil fuel emissions by 50 percent, and that’s just a good start. The question, as it is with the COVID-19 pandemic, is do we have the discipline, the determination, the willingness to sacrifice for the common good?

Wendell Fuqua is a retired video producer for the Institute of Texan Cultures. He lives in the Monte Vista neighborhood and serves on the Executive Committee of the San Antonio Sierra Club (Alamo Group).