After the Coronavirus, the Climate Crisis Will Remain. What Have We Learned?

An aerial view from a drone shows an empty Interstate 280 on March 26, 2020 leading into San Francisco. The entire state of California has been ordered to stay at home except to perform essential tasks.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but in an irony big enough to envelop the entire planet, many who want to celebrate will have to do it indoors. That, of course, is due to the coronavirus, which has killed around 175,000 people and forced populations around the globe to live life almost exclusively sheltered at home.

The death and chaos surrounding COVID-19 has been a brutal reminder of nature's ability to disrupt humanity's best laid plans. Yet, the crisis is not without at least one positive development. By one estimate, the pandemic could this year result in a 5.5% drop in worldwide carbon emissions, which cause global warming. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects the country’s emissions from gas and energy could decrease by a startling 7%.

While this reduction in planet-warming emissions will likely fall short of what scientists say is needed to avert the worst effects of climate change, we wondered:

Are there any lessons to be learned from coping with the current crisis that might be applied to the ongoing catastrophe of climate change?

Here are the answers to that question from seven climate and environmental experts and advocates, edited for length and clarity.

Naomi Oreskes, author 'Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming'

Why we need the federal government

I think COVID-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change because it involves many of the same elements but on a much faster timescale. One of the challenges of climate change is that it has been difficult to communicate to people exactly how severe it is, because its impacts appear to be far away, or because the causal chain that links driving a car to the death of people is slightly complex. With COVID-19, we see it's acute because people become sick and die over the course of just a few weeks.

We saw great resistance on the part of the federal government, particularly conservatives, to take strong action. And the reason that many of them were reluctant was a sense that this really wasn't the role of the federal government. This is exactly the ideology operating in climate change denial. But as we've seen in the case of COVID-19, this is not something that the private sector can address very effectively.

Why do we even have government? Well, to solve problems that we as individuals can't solve on our own. It's true, government is not the solution to all our problems. But it clearly is the solution to many of our biggest problems, like those in public health or environmental health. The best way to have that happen is for there to be leadership on the federal level.

Katherine Hayhoe, director, Climate Center, Texas Tech

Proof we can effect 'incredible change'

The encouraging thing we're seeing is that when we recognize there is a challenge that threatens every single one of us, no matter where we live or what language we speak or where we fall on the political spectrum, the vast majority of us are willing to take action, because when it all comes down to it, what matters to all of us is the same. It's our health and our safety and that of our family and our loved ones and community. I truly believe we all have the values we need to care about climate change already. We just haven't connected the dots. My concern is: How long will it take us?

The pandemic has caused enormous drops in air pollution, which some estimate could save as many lives as were lost to the coronavirus pandemic in areas that are very highly polluted. We also know that our carbon emissions have dropped as the economy has been shuttered around the world. But we know that those reductions were achieved through unsustainable methods. We can't have everybody staying in their homes. We can't have people thrown out of work. But what it showed us is that we do have the power to act and we can effect incredible change when we do.

Kate Gordon, director, California Governor's Office of Planning and Research

Electrify Everything? How About Tele-Everything...

One of the things the Air Resources Board has highlighted in the past is  just how important reducing vehicle miles is in thinking about how we can lower transportation emissions. I think a lot of people have gone immediately to, 'Oh, if we just had only electric cars, everything would be fine.'  But what we've found in looking at the models is that you actually really do have to reduce the amount that people have to travel around the state, because it has all these other associated emissions impacts, as well as being highly polluting. What we're seeing right now is just this huge decline in vehicle miles traveled. There've been a bunch of different estimates out there if you just go on gasoline demand, it's about 50 percent.

For a long time, we at the Office of Planning and Research and others have been saying we need to think about broadband and telework as opportunities to reduce vehicle miles traveled. And that connection has not been as clear, I think, in the mind of a lot of climate policy people. [The stay-at-home order] has really underscored that the more options people have to work remotely and not do their increasingly long commutes, the better for air quality and the better for our overall emissions profile. We can learn something about putting these remote work systems in place to really reduce that need to drive.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director, climate policy, Roosevelt Institute

Racial disparities around the environment and COVID-19

Climate is the background condition for the ways that we live, so it also affects so many things in our world, including disease transmission. We’re seeing right now that there are racial disparities in how COVID-19 affects people. Black people in particular are more likely to be hospitalized and die from it. And one of the reasons for that is structural racism and residential segregation.

If you are low-income and black and Latino, you are far more likely to live near toxic fumes and be exposed to higher levels of toxic pollution, which in turn creates a ton of background conditions: cancers, heart disease risk, respiratory issues, which in turn makes people more vulnerable to the coronavirus. So in very real ways we are poisoning people.

Dan Kammen, director, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, UC Berkeley

Like a 'peeing section' in a swimming pool

The fact that emissions are down so quickly is important. Obviously, this is not the way we wanted to reduce emissions, but it shows how quickly the environment can recover. We're seeing wild animals all over; there's a report on the news every few minutes about seeing endangered cats in big cities, etc. So there's definitely the upside story that if we were to invest in the least-cost energy today, which is renewables and not fossil fuels, we really could bend the curve on climate right away.

COVID-19 has also shown us how clearly we're all in this together. Unfortunately, the rich and the affluent have ways to insulate themselves. But overall, it's very clear that if you don't treat this as a global issue, you're not going to get anywhere. So it's been described as a case of having a ‘peeing section’ in a swimming pool. That doesn't work. A strategy that doesn't tie us all together is not going to work. So global emissions have to go down, not just in California.

Environmental justice and reaching out to those least able to respond is not a luxury. We're not going to solve COVID-19 if we don't make social distancing, unemployment and testing available to everyone. And we won't get anywhere in climate change unless we recognize that it's really a social justice issue more than a technology issue.

Park Williams, bioclimatologist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

People can handle a crisis

People are proving that they can handle data, hard decisions and uncertainty. We have seen citizens proving they can handle model projections with an inherent uncertainty, and they still determine and make lifestyle choices based on those results. I wasn't sure that was possible.

[Like climate change], the coronavirus is another situation where the writing was on the wall for a very long time, and experts have been warning about this as an inevitable result for a very long time. Policymakers have a really easy time kicking the can down the road that a crisis actually breaks.

Andres Soto, organizer, Communities for a Better Environment, Richmond

Destabilized lives

The air, we know, is clearer. There are less people driving, so less combustion is in the air. But we also see the refinery is still operating apparently at full capacity, despite what’s going on with the crude market on the global scale. And there has been absolutely no indication that Chevron is going to be cutting back on its pollution while everybody else has to shelter in place. Editor's note: According to federal data, production at West Coast refineries collectively is down by about a quarter since the shelter-at-home order began.

Historically, we’ve been about educating and mobilizing people to build their community power to address polluters in their community. Because of the lack of an efficient social safety net, we now find ourselves having to address people’s personal needs as their lives have become destabilized by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re seeing that the vulnerabilities of society through the pandemic are enhanced by nationalistic self-interest. We really do need to think like "Star Trek," global government where we’re all working together, continent to continent in reshaping the future of the ecology of the planet and the economy — grassroots up.

Note: This post has been updated to include refinery production information. 

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