Many have been writing about the similarities and differences between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis, and what we might learn from the time we are currently in. According to the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, while the current pandemic is “the biggest test the world has faced since the Second World War…the social and economic devastation caused by climate disruption will be many times greater.”
However, I think there are places that we can find hope for the climate movement in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. For one, it has been a good reminder of how resilient we, and the earth, can be. For the short time (though admittedly it hasn’t felt short) that things have been shut down and we are all social distancing, water ways have noticeably cleared and air pollution has dropped significantly due to decreases in air traffic, vehicles and operation of coal plants. Los Angeles, notorious for it’s smog, was recorded to have some of the cleanest air of any major city in the world a few weeks ago and current pictures from India, when compared to those from a month ago, speak for themselves. New Delhi has seen a 70% drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution and tiny particles of soot, also known as PM2.5. Of course, the previous air quality and pollution conditions can return just as quickly as they subsided if we revert to our old ways, but it’s a nice reminder about how changes in our collective behavior can have noticeable environmental impact. Who knows, maybe now that people are more aware of the pollution they have been living with, it will spark further movements to clean our air and our environment.
Another areas of hope is that carbon emissions have dropped and it is estimated that carbon emissions could fall by 5.5% this year. According to the 2018 IPPC report, to stem the impact of catastrophic climate change, we need to be cutting global carbon emission in half by 2030 and to zero by 2050 in order to realize this goal. Not that our current response to Covid-19 is the solution for climate change, but there are things we can learn from what is happening. Will emissions “bounce back” after current measures are lifted or will we start to see the change in the trajectory that we so desperately need for a decline in global emissions?
The outcome of both a pandemic and climate change are both heavily influenced by human behavior. Public health officials have displayed charts illustrating the pandemic trajectory of normal behavior versus employing measures like social distancing to flatten the curve. For a long time, climate scientists have also shown similar scenarios to illustrate the impact changes we make right now can have on the global temperature. Will community action and mobilization from Covid-19 have a lasting impact on the environment? It’s hard to predict, but here are Bill Mckibben and Elizabeth Kolbert’s thoughts on that.
Since architects and designers are visual people, here is one of my favorite graphic representations of climate data. #ShowYourStrips was started by Ed Hawkins as a way to graphically show the warming of the earth. Same data as you typically see on a line in a chart, but prettier; and for me, a starkly obvious representation of the changes we are seeing. You can even drill down and look at different locations to see how a specific region has been changing.
Annual average global earth temperatures between 1850 and 2019
Annual average Massachusetts temperatures between 1895 and 2019
This drives home the global impact of business as usual and the impact actions we take towards meeting the IPCC goal of keeping to 1.5C warming can have:
Can we leverage and use this time we are in to change our behavior, our work, and our world to combat climate change?
If you want to keep thinking about this, and Earth Day, here are a few things to read:
- Can We Have Prosperity without Growth? by John Cassidy
- Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed To Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken
- The Man Who Planted Trees: A Story of Lost Groves, The Science of Trees, and a Plan to Save The Planet by Jim Robbins
- The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber
Earth Day History: Celebrating 50 Years of Environmental Action