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Coronavirus and Climate Change: A Tale of Two Crises

By Kevin Beerman / April 22, 2020

From coast to coast, the birds are singing.

The consequences of the coronavirus have been multitudinous and surprising, unexpected at every turn. And while much of the news has been difficult to swallow, glimmers of hope spring up in seemingly random places. 

One such silver lining has been the impact of the crisis on urban environments like Chicago’s. Though it is certainly too early to fully grasp the myriad ways the globe’s collective ecological situation will be changed by the pandemic, there are promising data points (such as improved air quality in major cities around the planet) that are undeniably positive and that further remind people of the footprint they have under normal circumstances. All of this has experts considering: how can the current health crisis teach us about solutions to the climate crisis unfolding in the background?

As leaders around the globe think about reopening economies intentionally, many environmental advocates are pushing ecological impact to be considered at the forefront. With the world adjusting to a new normal anyway, environmentalists reason, now is the best time for economies to make what would otherwise be painful transitions that now could be productive solutions to the current global health crisis. 

We sat down (virtually) with Jason Navota, Director of Planning for Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning—a leading authority on ecological matters in the region—to explore the immediate environmental effects of the coronavirus and what the current situation can teach us about long-term solutions to climate change. 

Chicago Ideas (CI): What are some of the positive and negative ecological impacts we’re seeing in Chicago and Illinois from the coronavirus crisis? 

Jason Navota (JN): Within the timeframe of ecological systems, and without a survey of the homebound who live close to nature, it can be difficult to speculate about immediate impacts. Some natural areas, such as those along the Chicago lakefront, are experiencing less human activity, which may have a positive effect on wildlife. An undisturbed lakefront would be a net positive for migrating birds moving to summer habitats this spring. Inland forest preserves, on the other hand, may be experiencing more activity by people with more time on their hands. It’s possible that more exposure to these natural areas will encourage greater citizen conservation and stewardship. 

Less direct but no less important, economic activity tends to result in greater pollution of our air and water, which can be harmful to native plants and animals. For example, IDOT data indicates that during the first two weeks of the stay at home order, travel on expressways and arterials dropped by 46 percent for passenger vehicles and 7 percent for heavy trucks. In addition to the air pollutants emitted by fossil fuel powered vehicles, oil, gas, antifreeze, rust, and other toxic substances that drop onto paved surfaces get washed into our streams and rivers by rain, with toxic effects on stream and river health.  

One potential negative impact is that natural area management and stewardship may have stopped due to shelter-in-place orders. However, although not an essential service by any stretch of the imagination, a few individuals working on controlling invasive species in a forest preserve seems like one activity that wouldn’t endanger the people involved.  

CI: What are some of the challenges that coronavirus poses to environmental services/policy in Chicago at the moment?

JN: The pandemic arrived just as movement towards significant climate action seemed to be accelerating. Many of our peers in the Chicago region believe that we were on the verge of a critical and major step forward in the battle against climate change. Likewise, at the local scale, an interest in climate action has seen renewed interest. As we focus our immediate attention on our changed lives, we should not lose sight of the long-term global climate crisis that waits for us. In fact, we should take advantage of the situation to understand how our lives might be different in the future, and how, from a global climate perspective, that might be a good thing. 

Yet while attention has shifted to the global pandemic, federal agencies have been undoing environmental regulations and rules intended to protect clean air and water, to ensure proper environmental impact review of construction projects, and to protect the health and well-being of our most vulnerable residents. The EPA announced in March that it would suspend enforcement of environmental regulations due to COVID-19, thereby putting more people at risk of health impacts at precisely the same time when people are under assault from the pandemic. 

CI: In what way is coronavirus influencing the thinking on climate change? 

JN: There is no debate about the connection between burning fossil fuels to power our economy, the resulting air pollution, and the impacts to public health. The compounded health impacts on disadvantaged communities most impacted by air pollution have been laid bare as communities suffering from respiratory health problems are far more likely to be impacted by the disease. 

The coronavirus may present an opportunity to more aggressively invest in the clean energy economy as a major component of the stimulus our economy so badly needs. We are going to have to recover lost jobs as well as create new jobs to make up for recent losses, some of which will not return. What if, rather than investing in yesterday’s economic model and pollution emissions, we instead took a giant step towards the low carbon future we know is at the end of the long climate change tunnel. We can rebuild a ‘new economy’, allocate resources into the direction we know we must go, and resist the temptation to go backwards to business as usual. 

It won’t be easy to build a new path through the remains of COVID-19, but the way out of the pandemic-induced recession could be the same path that leads us out of the climate crisis. If COVID-19 has proven one thing, it is that massive collective action and mobilization—or in this case demobilization—is possible when the consequences are dire. It can be done. And it must.    

CI: How will the coronavirus situation affect responses to climate change in the long run?  

JN: There seem to be two schools of thought on this. The optimists propose that, collectively or individually, nations will take advantage of this economic downturn to make a big move to reduce carbon emissions from the stationary energy and transportation sectors. Economic transformation has been promoted for years, and some of the largest players in the corporate, financial, and insurance industries have taken bold steps towards a clean economy. The other position suggests that we are simply too stuck and economically entangled with our old ways to make such moves, without bold leadership into the future rather than returning to the past. 

Unfortunately, it is hard to make the leap of faith that nations will find the strength and the will to advance two massive transformations – one to restart the economy, and the other to address the climate crisis – in short succession. That isn’t to say that it’s impossible, or that some nations aren’t up to the challenges before us. It will take real leadership to move us all towards a clean future.