The Coronavirus is Making it Easier to Talk About Climate Change. Here’s Why.
While news headlines regarding pandemic have all but flooded the media for months, many are noticing the increasingly obvious connections between the virus and the climate crisis. Climate policymaker Rhiana Gunn-Wright helps point out the connections between two of the biggest crises of our day.
- By Amanda Smiley
- Aug 03, 2020
What does global warming and the climate crisis—an issue that is not new—have to do with the novel coronavirus outbreak? As it turns out, quite a bit.
A New York Times article explores the connection between two of the biggest crises of our time, with testimonies and examples from climate policy director Rhiana Gunn-Wright.
Like many People of Color (POC) in her neighborhood and similar neighborhoods, Rhiana Gunn-Wright had asthma growing up on the South Side of Chicago. In her neighborhood, pediatric hospitalization rates for asthma were significantly higher than the rate nationwide in the early 2000s. When Rhiana was young, she assumed it was a common “childhood disease” nearly everyone had.
Only when Rhiana got older and began reading research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency did she realize her respiratory problems were linked to the high rates of air pollution in her home neighborhood.
Now the Policy Director at New Consensus, working on government laws and deals related to the environment, Rhiana fights for climate justice as a personal mission, very much related to her own community and family from Chicago.
Rhiana has been working with policymakers for years on various environmental laws, but the recent onset of the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted new conversations about many global topics like employment laws, the economy, protests about racism and even climate change.
COVID and Air Pollution
Months ago, when governments across the world began shutting down their factories and cities for weeks on end, climate change scientists and astronomy photographers alike were quick to note the significant reduction in pollution and improvement in air quality in a number of big cities. Satellite images showed visible changes in air pollution, smog and particulate matter in places like Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Beijing.
This was good news for people who lived in those areas—who experienced respiratory issues related to pollution—and climate scientists who have been trying to convince lawmakers of the dramatic impact humans have on air quality, for example.
Global production and pollution have nearly ramped up to the levels they were at before the pandemic started, and while this dip in pollution was significant and nice, it was neither sustainable nor under effective, positive circumstances.
Nonetheless, the coronavirus has prompted a number of scientists to study the connections between air pollution and coronavirus cases and severity. For many individuals living in polluted areas, they have respiratory problems, and their likelihood of dying from the coronavirus, if they contract it, is very high.
Studies about air pollution and respiratory health are nothing new—scientists have been sounding alarms regarding increasing levels of particulate matter are for a number of years. However, the pandemic’s strain on respiratory health has all but highlighted its links to climate change.
COVID and Energy
In addition to conversations regarding air pollution, the coronavirus pandemic has caused the United States to reevaluate its energy sources and systems. While the pandemic did not cause the gradual slowing of the oil industry, it certainly did not help it—as many coal plants and oil refineries have had to close or slow production. This shift away from fossil fuels has meant a shift toward renewable energy sources like solar, wind and natural gas.
In fact, for the first time ever, renewable energy is poised to surpass coal reliance in the U.S. this year—for a combination of reasons including a reduction in cost for renewable energy sources.
COVID and Climate Change as a Whole
A New York Times newsletter, In Her Words, spoke with Rhiana about how the coronavirus has made climate issues even more stark. Here are some of the interview’s highlights:
You’ve been sounding the alarm on climate change for some time. Now the headlines are all about the coronavirus. Has it gotten trickier to focus public attention on climate amid the spread of Covid-19?
“In some ways, it’s easier to talk about climate change than when we first came out with the Green New Deal resolution,” said Rhiana. “That’s because the connections between the pandemic and climate crisis are clear, starting with the fact that people of color—Black and Latino folks—are dying at far higher rates from Covid. And there’s already at least one study showing how Covid deaths are correlated with exposure to toxic air pollution.”
Are you hopeful that some of the positive climate shifts in recent months, like our decreased reliance on air and car travel, will continue after the pandemic?
“No, because they’re due to reductions in economic activity and not to policy change. Emissions go down during recessions as a result of decreased economic activity, but they always rebound. You’re going to see them kick into overdrive.”
How are you working to put climate change and justice at the center of the country’s response to Covid-19?
“I’m working on a paper now about green stimulus. It’s spelling out what an economic recovery looks like that is based in climate justice,” she said. “Climate policy is often thought of as a very long-term thing, so we’re making the case for how it can be used for immediate stimulus and fit into our plans to rebuild the economy.”
The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on the globe and every country’s economy, communities and sense of “normalcy.” However, scientists, policymakers, activists and citizens alike have, at the very least, begun to notice the inequities that the pandemic has highlighted, especially regarding the climate change crisis.
If we understand that climate change is not just a danger to the environment but also a danger to human life, then we can approach it with the same sense of urgency as the current global health crisis.