Despite speculation, Northwestern climate scientists say COVID-19 is not slowing climate change

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Illustration by Cynthia Zhang

Climate scientists at Northwestern discuss the misconceptions and effects of COVID-19 on the environment.

Katie Jahns, Reporter

With half the world’s population under lockdown restrictions due to COVID-19, some have observed improvements in air quality, cleaner waterways and the return of wildlife to populated areas. While some call this the “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northwestern climate scientists say otherwise.

Misplaced hope

Earth and planetary sciences Prof. Daniel Horton is the leader of NU’s Climate Change Research Group (CCRG), which uses numerical models to recreate Earth’s climate system.

The group’s research was featured in an article titled “The COVID-19 lockdowns: a window into the Earth System,” which included findings from accompanying research teams on the impact of COVID-19 on climate change.

“Misunderstandings have arisen with regards to declines in carbon dioxide emissions caused by COVID-19-related disruption,” the article states. “With some interpreting short-term reductions to suggest that austerity of energy consumption could be sufficient to curb the pace of global warming.”

Following COVID-19 lockdowns, Los Angeles reported its longest streak of good air quality in decades. While some interpreted this as a hopeful sign, Ph.D. candidate and group member Stacy Montgomery explained what it really means.

She said the real cause of the change in air quality is an increase in rainfall, which serves as a natural air filter. Montgomery emphasized, despite the lockdowns, activity may not be slowing as much as people believe.

“There’s still a lot of essential production happening,” she said. “People’s personal vehicles are only one small part of the climate problem. It all goes back to the fact that, if we want to address climate change, we need to all put in our parts, not just people at home but also looking at production and shipping and everything else.”

According to the article, although daily CO2 emissions in the U.S. declined by as much as 20 percent between March and April, these declines are temporary. As people return to the roads, CO2 emissions are again assuming the typical upward trend. 2020 will inevitably see an overall rise in CO2 concentrations, the article states.

“It’s essentially the idea that you have a sink that’s overflowing,” Horton said. “The water coming out of the faucet is the emissions, and the overflowing sink is the concentration. If you slightly turn down the faucet, no matter what, we’re still going to have an overflowing sink.”

A deepening socioeconomic divide

In addition to clarifying misplaced hope, CCRG’s recent article explains how COVID-19 has amplified the American socioeconomic divide, an amplification whose effects, it states, “will be long-lasting, widespread and varying across space and time.”

Postdoctoral fellow Vidya Venkataramanan explained how this divide shows up in Evanston. In a recent partnership, Venkataramanan has been working with Citizens’ Greener Evanston to understand the city’s water priorities via a survey sent to residents.

The disruption in access to essential resources such as water due to the global recession is deepening global poverty and, “is also likely to reduce available resources for climate mitigation and adaptation, increasing climate risks and exacerbating climate-related inequities,” the article says.

Venkataramanan, who has worked in public health for 13 years, said the field is all about preparedness and prevention, and it can be a challenge to get people to devote resources to something out of precaution.

“Public health works really well when you don’t see it,” she said. “So now you saw the failure of it, and it’s everywhere in front of us.”

But Venkataramanan said the distinction between public health and climate change is that the efforts to combat the latter are no longer preemptive.

“It’s not a question of the future, we’re seeing it right now,” she said, citing wildfires in the western United States, flooding in South Asia and islands globally that are facing rising sea levels.

Climate change and COVID-19: a parallel response

Montgomery explained how the inability to recognize the urgency of the situation is mirrored in the societal responses to both COVID-19 and climate change. Analogues of scientists warning of the dangers of climate change and the public rejecting that message are clear, she said.

“This pandemic has really shown how polarized people are,” Montgomery said. “People have already drawn the connection to this pandemic of the fact that you have to do some things that inconvenience you in order to protect society at large.”

The article predicts one of the more subtle impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on climate change could be the reworking of the value of a statistical life (VSL) in decision making.

VSL is a measurement used to determine the tradeoffs between avoiding risk to human life and economic loss. It is often used as an important tool in the discussion of environmental regulation in the U.S., and can determine whether “environmental regulations as mundane as a labelling requirement for toxic chemicals will pass a cost-benefit test.”

Horton said the risks associated with COVID-19 could place a greater emphasis on the value of future life.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves and a lot about society,” Horton said. “What are you willing to pay to avoid the risk of death? With COVID, we might have to reassess the value of statistical life. It’s a very tangible risk that people are dealing with.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @katiemjahns

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