Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Is COVID-19 a Precursor to Climate Change?

The new coronavirus molecule. Image: Wikipedia

Jessie Haas

As Earth Day approaches it’s clearer than ever: We’re all in this together.

That’s always been true on the only living planet we know for sure exists, but COVID-19 has taught us to see it and say it. Who is important now? Everyone, but the heroes are healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, people who help us communicate while physically isolated from each other, the plants that pull-down CO2 and give out oxygen, and the rich, regenerative shield of biodiversity that has built health on earth forever.

As the economy slams on the brakes, many are pointing to benefits for our only planet. Emissions are down 25% in China. The canal water in Venice is clearer because of the decrease in boat activity. Fine particulates are down 40% in San Francisco under shelter-in-place, 28% in New York, 32% around Seattle. That’s saving lives. Air pollution causes asthma and lung inflammation. Studies of SARS, closely related to COVID-19, show increased risk of infection and a doubling of death rate among those who breathed polluted air.

So, as life slows down and the skies clear, it’s tempting to focus on silver linings. But Samantha Gross of the Brookings Institute says in Inside Climate News, “I actually worry about environmentalists getting too happy and worked up about the fact that emissions are going down.” The effect is similar to losing weight when you’re sick; usually there’s a rebound, and you gain the weight back. That’s not the same as signing up for Noom or Weight Watchers and really changing your habits.

On both COVID-19 and climate change, there’s been an alarming lack of action on a crisis that’s killing people. Europe experienced many extra deaths last summer due to heat: 892 in Britain and 1,435 in France in a two-month period. By 2100, climate change will kill as many people as die of cancer and infectious diseases, according to a study by the University of Chicago. And yet we do practically nothing. (Case in point; the excellent climate change articles put out by the New York Times are pockmarked with SUV ads, including one reading, “These small 2020 SUVs will take your breath away.” Ya think?)

But could this crisis show us a way forward?

“It’s really up to us,” says Brad Plumer, writing in the New York Times. If we surge the old, dirty industries in the old, dirty way to bring about economic recovery, the improvements in air quality will be only temporary. But what if we don’t do the same old things we’ve always done? There’s some reason for hope.

Low gas prices brought about by the apparent collapse of the fossil fuel industry would typically lead to increased emissions. But momentum toward electric cars is already baked into regulations in China, California, and the EU, and battery prices are way down. The rebound may not go the way they usually do.

Another big change may come in telepresence, identified by Project Drawdown as Global Warming Solution #63: estimated emission reductions by 2050 could be two gigatons, with a savings to businesses and organizations of $1.3 trillion and to individuals, 82 billion fewer travel hours.

Society is taking a crash course in these technologies right now, and the idea of spending two hellish hours a day (or more) on the freeway may be dying a natural death. That could be huge in the U.S. where transportation accounts for 29% of our emissions. Cities that shut down for big events like the Olympics typically enjoy three weeks of blue skies and cooler temperatures. That is now being experienced worldwide. Are we going to want to give that up, now that we’ve had a glimpse of how things could be? Now we know that all those business meetings don’t require everyone to be in the same room or city. So, climb back in the SUV and waste hours of your life on the road, or dress formally from the waist up and activate your computer, refreshed from that extra hour of sleep you got? Do you really want to go back?

The planet is taking a deep breath, just in time for Earth Day. We, who are part of the earth, are in some distress right now and big gatherings are unlikely to be part of the celebration. But we are experiencing unprecedented solidarity as a society, curtailing activity to help the most vulnerable among us. Among the oldest of our loved-ones is this earth itself, and we can act to help her too. Michael OsterHolm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention at the University of Minnesota, hopes the COVID-19 crisis can teach important lessons about “what we do, how we do it, and where we do it.” That applies equally to COVID-19 and climate. As Osterholm says, “Never waste even a tragic crisis.”


Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Vermont.

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