I am a geophysicist. I have spent my career studying the powerful processes that produce earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. As a teacher, I’ve also learned that these events can serve as powerful catalysts for classroom discussions on the big issues in science and society—the proverbial “teachable moment.” Our most recent global disaster, the coronavirus pandemic, offers an opportunity for biology teachers to help students comprehend the societal issues that surround this public health disaster. In turn, these lessons can help address the global issue of climate change lurking ominously in our students’ future.

Here are some important lessons learned from the study of natural disasters that may help students explore connections to natural disasters—both with the current pandemic and with the emerging crisis of climate change.

Although earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes certainly qualify as natural hazards, there is less and less “natural” about natural disasters. Disasters, by definition, are those natural hazards that carry a devastating human impact. So as human population—together with the complex infrastructure on which our societies depend—continues to grow, so will humans’ exposure and vulnerability to these natural processes. And now, human activity itself is contributing to both the frequency and intensity of many of these hazards. In the age of the Anthropocene, a true natural disaster may no longer exist. Humans now have a role in deciding—with the COVID pandemic as with climate change—whether these hazards will become disasters.

We recognize that most natural disasters are part of natural cycles in which the catastrophic event serves as its dramatic climax. With most disasters, we focus much of our attention on the response phase—those intensive efforts designed to save lives and minimize the immediate impact. The reconstruction phase comes when we start the slow process of rebuilding after the disaster. However, what always gets short shrift is the mitigation phase between the previous catastrophic event and its next iteration. This is when disaster preparedness should take place—in the form of floodplain zoning restrictions, earthquake building codes, or hurricane evacuation drills. While we were warned about a coming pandemic of infectious disease long before COVID made its first appearance, we failed to take the actions that might have minimized or even stopped it. It is the implementation of these long-term strategies, or our failure to do so, that ultimately determines the trajectory of the next disaster. By linking these characteristics of all disasters to pandemics and climate change, teachers can help students appreciate the value of long-term investments in mitigation.

Disasters all too frequently enhance preexisting divisions in societies. It is our poorest and most vulnerable citizens who are usually hit hardest by disasters. As the residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward suffered the worst consequences of Hurricane Katrina, we saw the inequities in our system thrust to the forefront. With the coronavirus pandemic, our poorest citizens and minority-dominated communities are suffering the greatest losses. And with the global threat of climate change, those communities least responsible for creating the problem—the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities—are already experiencing its most severe impacts.

A century ago, the sciences of seismology, meteorology, and hydrology were in their infancy. Largely through knowledge provided by these sciences, we’ve learned how to prepare for, predict, and sometimes even prevent natural disasters. Engineers can effectively design earthquake-resistant buildings, meteorologists can predict the path and strength of an incoming hurricane, and hydrologists can warn downstream communities of an incoming flood. We’ve seen how investment in science created COVID-19 vaccines in record time. All these efforts require sustained popular support and investment from our society. Regrettably, that has not always been the case. Sidelining scientific input and cutting back critical investments in basic and applied scientific research diminish our preparedness for public health challenges—just as for the global environmental challenges on the horizon.

Like COVID-19, climate change is already a global phenomenon. Affecting every country on Earth, climate change is not contained by national borders. Countries that may have played no part in its history will have their futures crippled by its effects. And like the course of this pandemic, the future of our global civilization depends on the decisions we make today. The climate crisis will demand the most extreme collective efforts—by individuals, communities, and all the world’s governments. In that sense, the COVID pandemic might be seen both as a slow-motion disaster and as a preparedness exercise for the global challenges of climate change.

Applying Winston Churchill’s words to the present moment, consider the ways that the pandemic opened our eyes to the need for individual and collective action to “flatten the curve” of a global public health challenge. As educators, we can use this unusual pause in our communal lives to reflect on lessons from COVID’s teachable moment that might be applied to the next suite of global challenges. Teachers will play a critical role in developing both scientific understanding and social commitment that will be needed to help our students flatten the curve of climate change—and ensure that this global hazard doesn’t become a disaster.