Climate change scientists recommend being cautious about the changes in the climate the COVID-19 lock downs have caused.

By Kaelin Triggs 

The spread of COVID-19 forced countries all over the world to implement a ‘stay-at-home’ order. In fact, the pandemic caused whole cities to shut down. College students returned home from schools and employees were kept from going to work. Major businesses and even public transportation were shut down in some areas.  

A Shift in the Climate

With everything coming to a halt, scientists reported a shift in the climate. The decrease in human activity resulted in a decrease in air pollution and a drop in emissions, particularly nitrogen dioxide which is emitted by motorized vehicles and industrial plants.

Kevin Taylor, senior program officer of cities and climate for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said there are more conflicts than benefits from the decrease of emission during a pandemic. 

“What we are seeing is the most drastic and painful way to reduce emissions by going through these extreme yet necessary measures to slow the spread of the virus by social distancing and the impact that has on industrial activity,” Taylor said.

“Yes, emissions are going down but that is not the optimal method for reducing emissions. There are more beneficial ways to reduce emissions and improve the economy.” 

Kevin Taylor

According to Taylor, in the longer term, any reduction of emissions is wiped away once economic activity resumes. He said economic activity would most likely resume at a much more intensive rate to make up for lost production. 

Taylor and the WWF had goals of focusing on strategies large cities could use to cut emissions in a more beneficial way before the spread of COVID-19. These strategies included carrying more renewable electricity, having large businesses move their fleets over to electric vehicles and having educational systems teach their students how to tackle the climate crisis. 

But will the benefits last?

Juan Declet-Barreto, a climate vulnerability social scientist, said the benefits we are seeing from a decrease in emission will be short-lived.

According to him, our goal should be to reduce emissions by switching to non-fossil fuels rather than allowing a pandemic to shut down industrial activity. However, Declet-Barreto said our opportunities to reduce emissions to the point where we can avoid the most catastrophic consequences are limited. 

“Even if emissions went down to zero percent right now, the carbon emissions that are already in the atmosphere are going to be long-lived and going to continue warming the planet,” Declet-Barreto said.

“We are locked into a certain amount of warming, regardless of what we do.” 

Juan Declet-Barreto

Climate Change in Vulnerable Communities

Declet-Barreto also does studies to determine how climate change can and will affect the more vulnerable communities. His studies show that low-income communities, which are typically communities of color, are impacted more by environmental struggles due to a lack of resources.  

Taylor explains climate can sometimes be a threat multiplier in times of infectious diseases. He said it is always smart to ask and consider if the climate is making things worse. 

“Air pollution can make people with respiratory illnesses more vulnerable,” Taylor said. “There is also the potential for insects to spread diseases such as mosquitoes and ticks. As the climate warms, their ranges can grow, and the number of people infected can increase as well.”  

According to Declet-Barreto, poverty limits the material resources people can obtain to cope with environmental struggles.

He used the example of incoming heat waves as the hotter season approaches. Concerning social distancing, a lot of people, especially those who can’t afford air conditioning, are going to go out in the streets to find cooling. 

“One of the first things we need to do as a society is recognize that the most vulnerable populations globally are also the ones who are hurting the most,” Declet-Barreto said.

“There is a fundamental environmental injustice there that needs to be addressed.” 

Juan Delcet-Barreto

Declet-Barreto points out most of the essential workers during the pandemic are those earning minimum wage. These are also members of the vulnerable communities and they are exposing themselves more to the virus because they are forced to go to their jobs.

A lot of these workers also don’t have beneficial health insurance, according to Declet-Barreto, due to the fact they are only making minimum wage. These vulnerable workers also are unable to get tested in most cases, either due to lack of resources or lack of money. 

Declet-Barreto said taking notice of the more vulnerable and caring for how the climate and this virus can affect those without resources should be our priority. Taylor adds students should get involved in the community and the university and know what Webster is or isn’t doing to help the climate crisis.

In addition, Taylor said students should continue to educate themselves on climate and environmental work and advocate on that behalf. Also, get involved with the St. Louis communities and people in the local communities who advocate for climate change. 

According to Taylor, even though the virus has put a negative impact on their ability to address climate, he hopes we can learn some lessons from this which we can apply to climate change. 

“These [COVID-19 and climate change] are both crises that we have to deal with,” Taylor said. “And we are all on this planet together to deal with them.”