Why fixing climate change may not take the sacrifice that COVID-19 requires

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The view of Los Angeles from Topanga Canyon overlook. Skies in LA have been cleaner as residents are staying home due to COVID-19. How can we maintain environmental gains when the economy is reopened? March 2020. Photo by Amy Ta.

LA’s notoriously hideous traffic has basically disappeared. Fleets of commercial planes are grounded. And the skies over Southern California are clearer than they’ve been for a long, long time. It’s taken an international pandemic — and major economic disruption — to get to this point. 

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day today, some people see the environmental gains as a silver lining in the coronavirus outbreak. 

Could this be an example of what can be accomplished when countries come together with a common purpose?

“It’s more complicated than that,” says Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science and environmental politics at UC Santa Barbara.

“Santa Barbara and Los Angeles could have clean air 365 days a year if we used electric vehicles and electric buses. But our federal government is not currently providing support for electric vehicle adoption if you buy from the major manufacturers,” she says. “So this is a question of government policy.”

She says addressing climate change isn’t like addressing COVID-19 because it doesn’t require huge amounts of sacrifice. 

“If anything, climate change action is going to create a lot of jobs and make a lot of economic activity for people. In a time when unemployment is so high, we can have this kind of air quality without having to make people stay at home all the time. And the way to do that is by cleaning up our electricity system through electric vehicles.” 

KCRW: We’ve been able to have this unity against COVID-19 partly because we understand that this situation is temporary. Asking people to make those kinds of sacrifices each day would be tough. 

Stokes: “That's been the framing for climate action and environmental action for so long — that it's about personal sacrifice and individual behavior change. And I deeply, deeply reject that framing. 

I think that addressing climate change is about government policy. It's about having leadership not just out of Sacramento, where we have had leadership for more than a decade now, but also having leadership out of our federal government. 

Our government could be directing many sectors of our economy to adopt new technologies. Rewiring our electricity system is a win-win. It cleans up our air, and it puts a lot of people to work in building solar panels, wind turbines. And the same can be said for cleaning up our transportation sector or buildings. All of these things are going to involve an enormous amount of economic activity. 

So it really isn't about people feeling guilty because they have carbon emissions. Our entire society is locked into creating pollution right now. And we need our government to take leadership to get us out of that situation. 

Are environmentalists in California at all concerned about a possible backlash after COVID-19? With the economy suffering so much, will there be pressure to roll back environmental regulations?

“The Trump administration has been rolling back environmental regulations in earnest throughout this crisis. They've been using it as an opportunity to not enforce air pollution standards or water pollution standards. It really is a tragedy what's unfolding right now federally. 

And that's because we have a federal government that doesn't believe in science, whether that's the coronavirus pandemic or climate change. 

If anything, if we're facing 10% or 20% unemployment. We need a plan for how we're going to reboot our economy. And I believe very strongly that addressing the climate crisis, which is on our doorstep, is exactly the kind of thing that we could do to get people back to work. They could be in manufacturing. They could be in installations. We could have good paying jobs. We could have union jobs.

And we have to ask ourselves at the end of this crisis, when we're rebuilding our economy, do we want to rebuild it in a clean and healthy way that saves people's lives? For example, we know that people who are near air pollution are more likely to die from the coronavirus pandemic because it affects their lungs. So burning coal, burning natural gas, burning fossil fuels is very bad — not just for climate change, but also for human health.”

When California looks at ways to help businesses and industries get back on their feet again, should some of that aid be tied to environmental guidelines/milestones?

“California is a leader not just in the United States, but globally in terms of how much it has built up a clean energy industry over the past several decades. 

And I know that Governor Newsom has appointed, in part, Tom Steyer to work on the recovery effort. And Tom Steyer is a wonderful climate advocate, big champion of clean energy. 

And so I do feel that within California, there's going to be a focus on: How do we build the clean economy of the future? How do we make sure that people living in Los Angeles can breathe clean air every day? 

I think that this is a big opportunity to invest in new industries that make it healthier for people across the state. And I do believe that under our current leadership in this state, we will see that happen.”

Credits

Host:
Chery Glaser

Producers:
Darrell Satzman, Amy Ta