Virus shutdown clears the skies, but it's not a sign of a turnaround for climate change
Humans love to find a silver lining. Stories abound that COVID-19 induced reductions in driving, flying, and oil consumption have cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Reports of blue skies in Chinese cities, where people have lived under a pall of air pollution for as long as people can remember, have led people to suggest that the earth is receiving a necessary reprieve. Perhaps one benefit of this otherwise tragic pandemic is a slowing down of climate change?
Unfortunately, neither the science nor an appreciation of human nature back this perspective.
According to Dr. Carl Mears, Santa Rosa-based climate scientist and board member of The Climate Center, “Carbon dioxide emissions are currently projected to drop less than 2.5% due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is possible emissions will drop more. But even larger drops will have a negligible long-term effect on the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere, which builds up over decades and centuries.”
Mears offers a useful analogy. “Think of the carbon dioxide as water being added to your bathtub,” he says. “If it takes 15 minutes to fill the tub, turning down the tap for a few seconds (the equivalent of an economic slowdown for a few quarters) and then turning it back on again doesn't change the amount of water in the tub very much. To keep the tub from overflowing, it is necessary to eventually turn off the tap.”
He further points out that “to combat the climate crisis, we need long-term changes in our economic and energy systems. A large part of the spending needed to restart the economy after the pandemic eases must be directed to programs that produce good-paying jobs in businesses focused on reducing long-term greenhouse gas emissions. While the pandemic is obviously a horrible thing, it also presents an opportunity to combat climate change that we should not squander.”
It is clear that when we emerge from the current pandemic, the hard work of addressing the climate crisis, with even greater consequences for society, will remain. The good news is that here in the North Bay, solutions to the climate crisis are already being demonstrated.
Doing business from different locations
Brett Martinez, president and CEO of Redwood Credit Union, and a member of The Climate Center's Business for Clean Energy network, points out that “the coronavirus has us looking at the planet as a whole. We're seeing that what happens in China or Italy can affect us, and climate change isn't that different. But here in California, the fires and power outages made clear there was a growing need to be able to do business from different locations.
We're now successfully running the organization with staff in multiple locations, lowering our collective carbon footprint. We're seeing that we have the ability to galvanize change in our society when needed. If we can effectively communicate the impact of global change to the health of our planet, we now know we can do something about it.”
Redwood Credit Union sees excellent long-term prospects for investing in green technology and businesses. As Martinez points out, “business development is one of our key areas of focus, and that includes green tech. We're proud of the solar loans and electric vehicle discounts we offer to help our communities be more energy-efficient, reduce their carbon footprint, and save money. The bottom line is investing in green technology and helping our communities invest in it too is integral to what we do. And we'll continue to keep our focus there when things return to the new norm.”
Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery, and another member of The Climate Center's business network, makes another point.
“We've been in a farming and food system crisis for many decades,” says Straus. “Over the last 26 years Straus Family Creamery has been focusing on a local food production and farming model that is good for the farmers and the planet. During this time, we've seen an increase in support from our community. This demonstrates even more how a local food system is vital for our future.”
As a species, we will survive the pandemic. But while the virus runs its invisible and deadly course, a greater crisis looms over the horizon. When COVID-19 passes, will we be so eager to get back to “normal” that the changes we need to make in our energy system, our modes of mobility, and our land-use practices will be deferred or ignored? We cannot let this happen.
Let's not squander this opportunity
The Climate Center, in collaboration with our local business partners, and a coalition of non-profits and others around California, is advancing Climate-Safe California, a powerful initiative to address the climate crisis. Climate experts have called this a unique, bold, and urgently needed campaign that will catalyze similar efforts around the nation and the world
As Dr. Mears observed, “The Climate Center's suite of decarbonization policies are all required to avoid dangerous climate chaos. We need aggressive, equitable policies in place now so society can transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy as quickly and safely as possible.”
COVID-19 is teaching us to heed the science and prepare in advance to save lives. Let's not squander this opportunity to secure a healthy, vibrant future for all.