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Activists, experts: Climate change, like coronavirus, is existential threat

Sparse traffic travels on I-90 at the interchange with U.S. 195 in Spokane last month, as motorists stay off the roads amid the new coronavirus pandemic. Environmentalists say the response to the pandemic offers insight into their effort to combat climate change. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sparse traffic travels on I-90 at the interchange with U.S. 195 in Spokane last month, as motorists stay off the roads amid the new coronavirus pandemic. Environmentalists say the response to the pandemic offers insight into their effort to combat climate change. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s time to flatten another curve.

Local environmental activists and experts are pointing to – and finding hope in – the robust and immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which they say could serve as a model for the fight against climate change.

As is true of coronavirus infections, global warming will only worsen if action is delayed and the curve of growth isn’t flattened, said Brian Henning, professor of Philosophy & Environmental Studies at Gonzaga University.

“The longer we wait, the higher the peak will be,” Henning said.

The taller the peak – in this case, damage to the environment – the more likely climate change is “to overwhelm our infrastructure,” such as the public health system or drinking water supply.

And the longer the wait to address the problem, the longer it will take to recover from it.

The immediate environmental consequence of strict social distancing measures is already beginning to become clear, both on the global and local level. But looking further ahead, it’s a mystery what sort of lasting changes the COVID-19 pandemic will have on society and the toll we are taking on the environment.

Following Gov. Jay Inslee’s March “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order , which closed nonessential businesses and limited personal travel, Spokane saw a sharp reduction in vehicle traffic.

That reduction has an impact, according to the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency.

About half of our local emissions are due to transportation, said Julie Oliver, the agency’s executive director. Many people don’t think about the sources of air pollution “until there’s a big spike from something like wildfires,” Oliver said.

While there hasn’t been a noticeable difference in the level of fine particles known as pm2.5 in the air, that could be due to several factors. Though fewer people are driving, more could be heating their homes with wood or engaging in outdoor burns, which emit fine particles into the air.

Oliver said it will be interesting to see what newly learned behaviors stick with us after social distancing mandates recede. Some people might be making a conscious decision, for example, to take fewer trips to the grocery store to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“Maybe some of the things we’ve been reluctant to change, maybe some of those behaviors will stick,” Oliver said.

Globally, change brought on by the coronavirus pandemic was swift.

Researchers have documented a steep decline in air pollution in cities throughout the world. The European Environment Agency reported last month that nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant associated with motor vehicle emissions, had dropped by more than 40% in Madrid and Barcelona compared to the same period in 2019.

But experts note emissions have dropped during past economic recessions, only to increase again when the economy rebounds.

And some of the incentives to transition to cleaner fuels are eroding along with the economy, noted Kara Odegard, sustainability research analyst for the Spokane City Council. On Monday, oil prices hit a historic low, dropping to nearly negative $40 per barrel.

“If we want to move the needle in the right direction, we will need environmental policy decisions at all levels of government and strong environmental leadership from our elected officials,” Odegard said in an email.

That seems more possible now than, say, six months ago.

Local environmental activists and researchers are heartened by the rapid, unified response to the coronavirus and believe it proves the same science-based, government-led effort can be applied to combating climate change.

“It’s nice to see that we can do something big and important and transformative in a reasonably short period of time,” Henning said. “It’s possible to take dramatic action in the face of a crisis.”

Even though it’s “complicated and messy,” the swift action to stem the spread of the coronavirus shows that society can implement “transformative change when faced with an existential challenge,” Henning added.

“It’ll be a new marker where people will point and say, ‘We did that and could do something like that again if we wanted to,’ ” he said.

Despite the lessons learned, Henning acknowledges climate change is an existential threat on another timeline. Sure, the impacts are already evident in the encroaching late-summer wildfire smoke that reliably makes its way over Spokane or in local waterways becoming uninhabitable to redband trout.

But climate change is a slow-moving crisis compared to a viral pandemic.

“It’s human nature,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.“Long-term big consequences are harder to communicate.”

Governments at the local, state and federal level – following the advice of public health experts – have led the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. And recent polls indicate the majority of Americans are putting their trust in these leaders, heeding their advice.

Despite visible protests against social distancing orders in states around the country, a recent poll found 58% of Americans are concerned restrictions will be lifted too early, endangering public health.

That’s heartening to Henning, who sees a role for effective government in protecting the public and effectively coordinating a climate change strategy.

Looking over the Monroe Street Bridge at rush hour on Tuesday, Beggs counted only four cars. That’s proof, he said, human behavior can change, and change quickly.

“I’m not saying that’s a good thing that there are only four cars, but we changed human behavior,” Beggs said.

Local governments, transportation agencies and companies are collaborating on a regional plan to use electric vehicles, Odegard noted. Doing so would not only keep the air cleaner, but keep local dollars local.

“When we switch from purchasing fossil fuels that are produced outside our region to electricity produced locally, we are creating economic resiliency,” Odegard said.

Members of the Sunrise Movement – a youth-led climate advocacy organization with a chapter in Spokane – also see this as the perfect moment to act on climate change.

“I would really encourage people to think about how this moment or this situation could happen again if we just continue to ignore the climate crisis,” said Rosie Zhou, a Sunrise Spokane member and junior at Ferris High School.

Nora Henning, a freshman at North Central High School and another Sunrise leader, agreed.

“This is what our generation’s life will be like if we don’t fight this now,” Henning said.

On Wednesday, in lieu of its planned in-person protest, the Sunrise Movement is hosting a livestream on climate and education from 1 to 3 p.m. It’s part of a national three-day event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

In addition to the future of young people, at stake is the health and welfare of the disadvantaged and vulnerable, several people noted in interviews with The Spokesman-Review.

As has been demonstrated in the deaths from COVID-19, researchers in a nationwide study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found a correlation between air pollution and deaths from COVID-19. The study found that a person who lives in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter – such as that emitted by cars – is significantly more likely to die from COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has made visible what most climate scientists have been telling us for years: We have huge disparities in health and equity across our country which compounds the negative impacts of environmental damage, especially at the nexus of respiratory disease and air quality,” Odegard said.

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