Op-ed: COVID-19 won't solve climate change

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 1:40am

Over 4 million people around the world have now been diagnosed with the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19. Since major countries and cities have enacted stay-at-home orders to decrease the spread of COVID-19, multiple images showing empty tourist destinations have gone viral. The most famous post was a tweet showing the water in the Venice canals had cleared enough to see fish. Another viral photo going around shows Los Angeles’s clear skies, side-by-side with a smoggy photo taken weeks before the pandemic started, among many others. 

I was in disbelief when I first saw these tweets, especially the side-by-side photo of Los Angeles pre- and post-shutdown. I thought they might be Photoshopped, but eventually, I started noticing changes in my community. Within a week of classes being canceled and students moving back home en masse, the air in Ann Arbor did feel cleaner. Maybe it was real, or maybe it was just a placebo, my mind trying to trick me after seeing those photos on Twitter.

As an environmentalist, tracking the environmental effects of COVID-19 has been interesting. In a world filled with panic and uncertainty, people seem to feel comforted that at least Mother Nature is benefitting from this. Numerous photos have been posted on Twitter and Reddit from users living in polluted cities that now have clear skies out their windows. Emissions in China have been reduced by a quarter and air pollution is improving globally. By all means, this is great news for the environment. However, I am also painfully aware that these effects will be fleeting. There has been lots of talk of certain aspects of society not going back to normal after this pandemic is over — we may no longer hug or shake hands to greet each other, and some employees may shift to working from home permanently. Lots of things are expected to change. But when this is all over, the environment will almost certainly go back to normal. Planes will start flying again, cruises will continue to dump trash into the oceans and factories will still pollute. Asthma and lung cancer rates will continue to rise due to environmental exposures like they were pre-COVID-19. The smog will return to Los Angeles, and the fish will disappear from the Venice canals. We will witness the regression of our newly clean environment back to its normal state: dirty. 

When this happens — and it will happen — I hope it instills anger in people as much as it angers me. A global pandemic is not the cure for climate change. This pandemic has shown that we desperately need systemic change and that our society needs to revolutionize its relationship with the environment. For the first time, we’re seeing that it is possible to live in a cleaner world — why should we let things go back to the way they were when this way is clearly better? When we’re allowed to throw parties with our friends again, I suspect most of us will try to forget this period of our lives in an attempt to move on and embrace a pandemic-free future. But I hope that people will always remember what they felt the first time they saw that picture of fish in the Venice canals or the clear picture of the Los Angeles horizon, and I hope it motivates people to fight for a permanently cleaner world.

A greener planet is not incompatible with economic growth. Now is the perfect time to start funding and implementing aggressive climate policies like the Green New Deal, which calls for increased renewable energy and green jobs, while we have a head start on decreased emissions around the world. In fact, some have argued that investing in the Green New Deal and decarbonizing the economy may actually help us with the incoming recession. We finally have the chance to slingshot ourselves into a future where staying below a global net temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius — which will help to prevent the most extreme climate effects like mass animal extinctions and major droughts — might actually be possible to achieve. In fact, we have less than 10 years to do so. 

Yet, rather than prioritizing the environment, the government is prioritizing polluters by providing bailouts to the airline and cruise line industries. The Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era policies, withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and is currently pushing back emissions regulations for corporations, meaning corporations are no longer held accountable for how much they pollute during the pandemic. In fact, air quality in America is currently the worst it’s been in years, largely due to these emission rollbacks. We have been working for decades to lower our carbon emissions to prevent reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius, and now that we may be on a trajectory to reach that goal, the government is prioritizing the fossil fuel industries for the sake of the economy, despite renewables being the cheapest they’ve ever been

Individual action is not enough. This pandemic has only emphasized that individuals are not the problem — corporations and governments are. Only 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world's global emissions in 2017 and most of them are fossil fuel companies. We cannot go back to a world where we allow fossil fuel companies to buy politicians or where we give bailouts and rollback emissions regulations for the sake of the economy, while telling people that biking to work and using metal straws is what’s really going to save the world. A greener planet benefits everybody, regardless of age, nationality or political affiliation. The elections in November will be crucial for electing politicians who can lead the systemic change we need and implement pro-environment policies to keep the environment from regressing back to its pre-COVID-19 state. 

This can be our new normal, but only if we take a call to action. While the stay-at-home order is still in place, I will be calling my local representatives and donating to campaigns that have pro-environment policies and support the Green New Deal. When we’re allowed to form crowds again, I will be protesting, talking to my local politicians, joining local environmental activist groups and whatever else I can to prevent things from going back to the way they were before. I sincerely hope others will do the same. The world cannot wait any longer. 

Madeline Peery is a senior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at peerym@umich.edu.