Larry Magid: Environmental lessons from the COVID-19 crisis

Larry Magid: Environmental lessons from the COVID-19 crisis

Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I know I’m a little late but every day should be Earth Day.

Larry Magid 

I usually commemorate Earth Day by writing about the ways technology can help us clean up our environment and stave off climate change and maybe I’ll get back to that next year.  But now I have something else on my mind.

It is hard to say anything good about COVID-19. Like nearly everyone, I’m saddened by its toll on people’s health, it’s death toll and its economic impact. But our response to the pandemic has had a positive impact on the environment. Fewer cars on the road, planes in the sky and ships at sea along with the temporary closing of factories and other sources of pollution has resulted in significant reduction in carbon emissions throughout the world. Even Beijing, which is often very polluted, has clearer skies. Canals in Venice are reportedly clear, though there are few tourists there to witness that.

Of course, we all look forward to going back to school and work and maybe even taking vacations, and that will result in more pollution. But maybe we can learn something about how changes in our lifestyle, albeit for a tragic reason, can have a positive impact on the environment.

Right now everyone, including policymakers, are rightly focused on dealing with the health and economic impact of the pandemic, but a day will come when COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror. When that day comes (and of course it won’t be a single day), I’m hoping that some of the things we experienced and learned during this awful period will stick with us.

For one thing, we’ve learned that telecommuting, telelearning and – to some extent – telemedicine can be an effective way to get things done. Of course there are good reasons to get back to the office or school or visit the doctor in person. And there are many jobs that can’t be done remotely so those workers need to commute to their factories, restaurants, salons and other places of work and – for now at least – most will be consuming at least some fossil fuels in the process. But this is a great time to be thinking about expanding public transportation, accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles and increasing our use of renewable non-polluting fuels.

Oil prices have dropped to near zero and, as bad as that is for the oil industry and oil producing countries, it may be good for those who purchase gasoline and other petroleum products. But the price of oil won’t remain close to zero forever. And  — even if it was “free,” it would still extract a cost when it comes to the environment and health.

I don’t want to see people who work for petroleum industries lose their jobs, but I would love to see many of those jobs transformed into other sectors, such as solar, wind and other renewables. There is reason for optimism. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2016, of the 1.9 million workers in in the electric power generation and fuels technologies, 55 percent, or 1.1 million worked in traditional coal, oil, and gas, while almost 800,000 workers were employed in low carbon emission generation technologies, including renewables, nuclear, and advanced/low emission natural gas. About 374,000 of those people worked in the solar industry and that number must be higher today than it was four years ago.

Right now, only a small percentage of people working in the auto-industry are building, selling or servicing electric vehicles, but that number too is rising and consumers can make it rise a lot faster but choosing an electric car, or at least a hybrid or plug-in hybrid, for the next vehicle. If you’re shopping for a car, you’ll notice that electric cars are no longer significantly more expensive than similar gas vehicles and – when you consider total cost of ownership – they are arguably less expensive. Some of that is due to tax credits and subsidies, but a lot is due to lower fuel costs and fewer maintenance issues. And don’t fall for the trap of low gas prices. They won’t be low forever. There’s a good chance that gas will be above $4.00 a gallon long before your next car is off the road.

Trusting science and doing what we must do

Another thing at least some of us have learned from COVID-19 is to trust science. Experts warned policy makers months before Covid-19 became an epidemic in the United States, yet their advice wasn’t followed. And climate experts are warning us years in advance of an environmental pandemic. Let’s not ignore them only to someday ask “who knew.” We do know the risks.

There is one more thing that COVID-19 has taught us. Americans and others around the world, are capable of making drastic changes when they are convinced that it’s absolutely necessary. What’s more — as we proved during World War II and are seeing today — Americans are capable of working extra hard to solve horrific problems. True, many of us are doing our part by staying home, but many others are working overtime in hospitals and clinics, research labs, grocery stores and in trucks, vans and other vehicles, transporting and delivering needed goods. Factories that make ventilators and protective equipment are ramping up just as munitions factories and shipyards did during World War II. And instead of “Rosy the Riveter,” many women and men are making masks that make us safer.

We are doing all this because we must, but we have also learned that we can. And if we can work this hard to rise to one challenge, we can work just as hard to tackle the challenge of the environment. It’s for the same reason we’re fighting COVID-19 — to prevent sickness and save lives. Like COVID-19, an environment disaster will threaten human life and have a severe impact on the economy. And, if predictions are correct, it will have a far greater toll than what we are suffering through today, not only on humans but all forms of life. It’s already having a severe impact on many species.

And if you think the economic impact of COVID-19 is harsh, imagine what will happen if some of the world’s coastal cities are underwater. The Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts report by McKinsey, found that “by 2030. Intensifying climate hazards could put millions of lives at risk, as well as trillions of dollars of economic activity and physical capital.”

So, as I commemorated Earth Day online (not driving or even taking public transportation to Earth Day events) this year, I am thinking beyond COVID-19 to Earth in the 21st century. As we do everything we can to tackle today’s pandemic,  let’s not forget we will still have work to do to prevent an even bigger future disaster.

Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.

Published at Thu, 23 Apr 2020 14:30:26 +0000