Coronavirus pandemic offers lessons to combat climate change


The American Lung Association has named Los Angeles the smoggiest city in the United States for 19 out of the last 20 years.

Seeing downtown from 15 miles away is a privilege reserved for the only the clearest days. But recently, it’s been a daily view.

The novel coronavirus and stay-at-home orders for Californians has devastated the economy. But it also means fewer planes in the sky, and fewer cars on the roads, and fewer trains and trucks transporting goods.

NASA’s satellite images   show that pollution over China dropped significantly since the virus started spreading a few months ago.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide are significantly lower over China than they were at the same time in 2019. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Already similar trends are appearing across the United States.

“If you look at the data coming out of monitoring stations … the last two weeks have been very clean,” says Dr. Philip Fine with the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

So far, it’s too early to say whether the clean air is a direct result of the decline in economic activity. Fine says March tends to be one of LA’s cleanest months: “There's been lots of rain, a lot of stormy weather, and those are the types of weather conditions that also lead to some very clean air quality days.”

But he says he wouldn’t be surprised if the pandemic and the clean air are related. He’s seen it happen before. Because of the 2008 recession, AQMD found a decrease in smog that lasted for four years. Fine suspects it was because of the decrease in economic activity.

“We know that 80% of smog-forming emissions come from what we call mobile sources, which are the cars, the trucks, the buses, the trains, the ships. And all those types of sources are being affected by new activity levels due to coronavirus,” he says.

Fine expects the air quality to return to normal once life returns to normal. It’s a temporary cause with a temporary effect.

Mathis Wackernagel is founder of the Global Footprint Network. He calculates how much of the earth’s resources we use compared to how quickly the planet can regenerate them. He says one way or another, we’ll have to stop using so many resources. “The big question isn’t whether we will get there or not, but how. Do we get there by design or by disaster?”

But getting there by disaster, he says, is not sustainable. In the long run, that could be bad news for the environment. Fossil fuels, for example, are cheaper. And in the rush to get the economy back to normal after emergency orders are lifted, consumption levels could rise above normal, and the transition to sustainable energy sources like solar and wind could get put off.

But the pandemic is already inspiring the kind of collective action needed to combat climate change.

“Some people say never waste a good crisis,” Wackernagel says. “One thing obvious to me in the climate debate is that what’s limiting our action is that too many people in power don’t see they have skin in the game.”

Mathis Wackernagel says humanity is using 75% more of the earth’s resources than what the planet can replenish. Photo credit: Global Footprint Network.

He says younger generations are more likely than their older peers to feel the urgency of climate change because they will see the effects in their lifetimes.

With COVID-19, older generations are affected more severely, but protecting them requires entire communities to change their behaviors. Wackernagel hopes that same cooperation can get applied to environmental action.

“Then the old friends can say it’s our time too to say we’re not that affected by climate change, but we have to look after our young friends so this could be a way to rethink our generational contract.”

He also says the pandemic creates an opportunity to learn new habits, like telecommuting and finding forms of entertainment that require fewer resources. 

It also demonstrates how quickly communities and their governments can act when the situation is urgent enough. And it shifts the conversation from what should be done — to what must be done.

“We want to stop the pandemic. We want the old people to be safe. Same applies to climate. We want to live in a world that operates well and for all without depleting the planet. And so once we shift from should to want, we start to feel skin in the game.”

UCLA Biological Anthropology Professor Dan Fessler says the feeling of being under threat often leads to the kind of collective energy that really solves problems. 

Professor Dan Fessler says the threat of the pandemic will help solve future global problems. Photo courtesy of Dan Fessler. 

He says September 12, 2001 is a great example: “Strangers were embracing on the street, everyone was putting their shoulder to the wheel about how we can unite. The idea that the only context in which people can really unify like that is when they face an enemy group is entirely understandable given our evolutionary history.”

But Fessler says that thinking is out of place in the 21st century. Now global problems, like the pandemic and climate change, require global cooperation. And he’s optimistic that the pandemic will demonstrate the importance of communities and national governments working together.

“Viruses don’t respect national boundaries and severe weather doesn’t respect national boundaries. Environmental pollution doesn’t respect international boundaries. The only way to solve these problems is by recognizing that we all need to work together to solve them.”