Climate Change in the Age of COVID-19: The NYT Greenhouse, Part I

Climate Change in the Age of COVID-19: The NYT Greenhouse, Part I

Kicking off the first of a five-part series titled The Greenhouse, the New York Times has invited listeners around the U.S. to hear what climate journalists have to say about global warming climate change in the age of the coronavirus. Here’s a recap of the first event.

Every day, articles from news outlets, daily newsletters and breaking headlines flood my email inbox—but that’s just part of my job as a content editor for two brands. As the content editor for Environmental Protection, it won’t surprise you to hear that I subscribe to a number of climate-related and environmental news outlets. The New York Times Climate Fwd newsletter headlines are very familiar to me, as I often reference those for my own pieces. However, this week’s Climate Fwd email held something different.

“Climate Fwd: Race, pollution and the coronavirus.” That was the headline of Wednesday’s newsletter. Given the unprecedented times, I immediately wanted to know how people were finding ways to relate the coronavirus to climate change. As it turns out, there are many more ways than one.

This year, in honor of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary this April and in response to the global pandemic, the New York Times is hosting The Greenhouse—a digital event series on climate change. Each week, listeners and viewers will hear from speakers and journalists on climate change, global warming, the coronavirus and their relation to each other. Of course, I signed up immediately.

This week’s first digital event addressed the following:

The response to the coronavirus pandemic has had unexpected climate consequences, including less air pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. What lessons can be taken from this moment, and how can we apply it when distancing restrictions are lifted?

Listeners heard from top New York Times climate journalists Hannah Fairfield, Somini Sengupta, Nadja Popovich and John Schwartz to discuss how the climate community is addressing COVID-19 around the world.

While covered topics varied and the journalists expressed both optimism and concern for what all this means for the environment, one thing was clear: the coronavirus, like global warming, is affecting the entire world, and the two are not mutually exclusive crises.

From the comfort of my own home, I tuned into the first Greenhouse event and watched as these four journalists shared concerns, provided commentary and answered questions from their own homes. Listeners like me were eager to hear how this new pandemic age has changed, exacerbated or improved the state of the climate, the environment and human health.

Here is a breakdown of some of the questions asked, and how the journalists responded:

What are some dramatic changes to our personal carbon footprints?

John Schwartz said one thing is certain: people aren’t driving flying—two huge contributors to a person’s carbon footprint. The answer to this question depends on a lot of factors, though. If you live in the suburbs and usually commute to work, your footprint is definitely less. But if you live in the city and usually walk, it might not be changing much.

While the carbon footprints of companies and large corporations are the most significant contributors to the world’s carbon footprint, an individual’s own footprint can account for nearly 13 to 14 percent of the bigger carbon picture. So, while your personal actions do not account for everything, your actions to drive or fly less do have an impact.

When the coronavirus is over, what new awareness might people have about carbon footprints?

“Habits are hard to break,” said Schwartz. He thinks there is potential that people can begin reshaping their habits after this is all over, but that it won’t be easy. Humans are going to go back to leisure travel and commuting, and the world will start up again.

Still, this pandemic has shown us the power of things like video conferencing, for example. Maybe people have realized that there are meetings, conferences and events that can happen virtually so that traveling might not be necessary.

What about the visual representations of environmental changes like reductions in pollution and greenhouse gases?

Nadja Popovich is one of the Times’ data and graphics journalists, helping people understand the impacts through graphs, satellite images and other visuals.

She reminded us of what the Times has been reporting on recently: since the virus has spread throughout the world and places like China, Italy and US cities have shut down, there has been a visible and significant decrease in pollution—so drastic it can be seen from space. Read EP’s article on the unexpected, climate-coronavirus pairing.

Have we ever seen anything like this? How does it impact people?

No, the world has not really seen anything this drastic before, said Nadja. She is confident that researchers will use the data collected from this unprecedented reduction in greenhouse gases and pollution for years to come.

There is one instance, however, that strikes a familiar chord. In 2008, Beijing underwent a short-term, city-wide effort to clean the air for Olympic athletes that came that year. Car traffic was stopped, power plants were shut down and eventually the air was significantly cleaned for the athletes. In just a short amount of time, people’s lung health significantly improved. There’s even been recent studies linking the current coronavirus to pollution levels.

This year was expected to be a crucial year for global climate goals in international negotiations. How does COVID affect how countries will be able to reach their climate goals?

Somini Sengupta reminded listeners that 2020 was expected to be a big year for climate change.

For one, 2020 is the five-year anniversary of the 2015 Paris Agreement. This year’s meeting was scheduled to be the first time since the agreement that countries would come together to discuss the progress they had made since the agreement and set new goals for the next five years. Now, the 2020 Paris Agreement meeting has been postponed, possibly until 2021.

This year is also significant because it marks the start of the next decade which, scientists tell us, is crucial for global improvements in emissions, environmental impacts and change. There is strong evidence, Sengupta reminded us, that the next decade is absolutely essential for global environmental improvement if the world wants any chance of counteracting catastrophic events like huge storms, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes and others. Time is running out—and that is no joke.

Some people have referred to these reduced emissions from the crisis as a silver lining. Is that the right way to think about this?

The journalists did not want to consider this global pandemic as positive—after all, people are dying, losing their jobs and watching their businesses fall apart. However, they all share hope that this time is bringing us important lessons we need to learn from.

With the drop in oil prices and the Trump’s deregulations in auto emission standards, will the US be behind in environmental progress compared to the rest of the world, particularly with fuel efficient cars?

John Schwartz did not share if he thought the US would be behind, but he did note how government decisions and individual choices are not mutually exclusive. He used the example of “Pigouvian incentives”—essentially the idea that there are actions the government can take that will help the average citizen make economic choices. In the case of fuel-efficient cars and the purchase of oil, there is no question what the US government does in the future will impact citizen’s choices.

Is the surge of home delivery and takeout increasing waste? How do we know people are recycling?

It’s hard to say right now in the thick of the pandemic, but there’s no question people are cooking and ordering in more now that no restaurants are open. In particular, there has been a huge increase in cardboard waste with these delivery systems.

With recycling systems in a tough spot—and, in some places, halted—because of the pandemic and other international complications, it’s hard to tell if people are recycling or if our recycling is, well, being recycled.

This week’s very first Greenhouse event from The New York Times was stocked full of information, a lot of uncertainty and a couple instances of hope for the future. Stay tuned for next week’s recap when I tune back in to the second Greenhouse event on the coronavirus, climate change and global warming.