Coronavirus and Global Warming

The speed at which the Coronavirus has affected everyday life in the U.S. and across the world has been mind-boggling.  It reminds me of the scene on TV mere hours before a devastating hurricane will hit the coast.  The TV reporter is broadcasting from the sand; the sky is clear, and numerous people are surfing or enjoying the beach.  Hours later, the scene is devastated with wind, water, and debris everywhere and the discussion focuses on the loss of life and the number of people that didn’t evacuate.

And so, it happened last week.   Within a matter of a few days, huge major events, sports programs, entertainment venues, schools, theaters, etc. etc. began closing and people began emptying the shelves at grocery stores stocking up for the unknown.  Many grocery stores have “throttled” incoming customers to avoid too many customers in the store at one time – akin to a crowded parking garage: as one leaves, another can come in.  The unknown, especially as it relates to this highly contagious virus, is scary.  So, we hunker down, hopefully with loved ones, and decide how we’re going to ride out this storm.

In the midst of this crisis, is this any time to talk about global warming or climate change?  Well, maybe, maybe not.  The most important things we should be doing involve taking steps to avoid coming in contact with this virus.  And if we do come in contact with the virus, taking the necessary steps to avoid spreading the virus while taking care of ourselves to get better.  But this event, which the World Health Organization has now designated as a pandemic, will affect the global warming.  Why?  Because the U.S. and the world are likely to be entering into a recession.  Wikipedia defines a recession:

In economics, a recession is a business cycle contraction when there is a general decline in economic activity. Recessions generally occur when there is a widespread drop in spending (an adverse demand shock). This may be triggered by various events, such as a financial crisis, an external trade shock, an adverse supply shock or the bursting of an economic bubble. In the United States, it is defined as “a significant decline in economic activity spread across the market, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales”.

Based on the number of events that have already been cancelled, the U.S. and the world will experience measurable economic slowdown – certainly for many months.  Obviously, the travel industry will be significantly impacted by this virus.  For example, most airlines have already announced significant reductions in their flights.  And the travel industry – one of the largest segments of the economy in the world, responsible for 319 million jobs – roughly one in ten – which accounts for $5.7 trillion of the world’s $80 trillion GDP – will definitely be impacted.  The sports industry, valued between $500 billion and $1.3 trillion is similarly impacted.  And when people don’t travel, or go to sporting events, or go to the theater, this economic activity is lost – companies don’t hold two conferences to make up for the one that got cancelled.  And a lot of those games that are cancelled by sports industry will not be made up. 

The impact to global warming or climate change is directly tied to the impact on the economy.  Planes that don’t fly don’t emit carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.  Similarly, for cars which aren’t driven.  People will likely be shopping less and buying less “stuff”.  We’ve seen how recessions affect CO2 emissions already.  The UC-Irvine study, an economic analysis of U.S. energy use and emissions between 1997 and 2013, found that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions fell 10 percent between 2007 and 2009, a drop that was concurrent with a major fall in the consumption of goods and services because of the recession. That falloff was responsible for about 75 percent of the decline in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, according to the study.

A 10% drop in global emissions of CO2 is huge, especially considering that the world’s CO2 emissions are growing every year with three of the four highest ever emissions levels occurring within the last three years!  So, because of this virus, and the resulting drastic economic downturn associated with it, our planet will realize a slight break.  But unless more of us voluntarily change our habits, this break will be temporary. 

Many of the organizations or companies that have closed or cancelled their events have targeted re-opening in 3-4 weeks, optimistically hoping the worst will have passed by then.  And perhaps that makes sense.  If everyone (or most people) hunker down for 3 weeks, those that haven’t already been exposed will have a reduced likelihood of catching the virus and therefore, won’t contaminate others.  Maybe, as the medical experts suggest, we’ll start to see the number of new cases declining.  That’s what we’ve already seen in China and South Korea.  But our need to hunker down may last longer.  We just don’t know yet.

So, what should we do while we’re hunkered down?  Some individuals will have the opportunity to work from home and take advantage of doing “virtual” business – e.g., meetings without traveling.  Many schools will similarly be offering “virtual classrooms” or other study options.  Parents will have an opportunity to spend more time with their children (who aren’t in school).  Streaming services offer an opportunity to binge watch shows or movies.  We can read more (maybe Thoreau’s Walden.).  We can work on our hobbies, or decide to master something, e.g., the harmonica or make a quilt.  And of course, we can take advantage of the time to enjoy nature.  Some parks might be closed, but others will be available – especially our local parks – and there is nature all around us, just waiting to be explored.  This time also offers us the opportunity to reassess our busy lives and what is really important.  We can still catch up and visit with friends and relatives via phone or Skype instead of traveling to get together.  And do we really need to shop for new “stuff” as much as we do?  Or if the stores and malls are closed, do we simply switch to on-line purchasing instead of seeking other things to do with our time. 

Some of these behavioral changes we choose to make might become more our norm – less travel, less driving, less consumption, more reading, more engagement with nature.  And if so, that would be beneficial to our planet because of the lower CO2 emissions.  Flattening that curve would provide us more time to bring more renewable energy on-line and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.   

These are choices we all make, every day.  This “quiet time” which has been imposed on us as a result of a horrible and dangerous virus can enable us to consider changing our routines and habits. 

I hope you and your loved ones remain safe and healthy.

9 thoughts on “Coronavirus and Global Warming

  1. Hi Mike. I’ve enjoyed your thoughtful commentary and appreciate the research you’ve done on environmental issues. When I first heard the encouragement to get take out instead of going out I thought of your post about single use plastic. These are strange times, stay well and hope for the best!

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    1. Hi Stacy. Thanks for the comments. I’ve similarly struggled regarding take-out food and the containers that are used. I’ve found some places that use compostable containers (besides pizza) – like Snooze AM Eatery, a popular breakfast place. Getting a single-use container provides us the opportunity to give the restaurant some specific feedback about it. And if / when I end up with another container, I usually can save it for future storage. Hopefully, more and more restaurants will change because they want to, or their customers want them to.

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  2. Food for ‘that food guy’ thought: As we transition everything in our lives to the cloud, we relinquish control over choices that impact climate change. For example, some of the largest data centers on the planet are located in northern Virginia powered by coal burning power plants. We need a say in how our online services are delivered to us.

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    1. Great point Jemappelguy; something I hadn’t thought of and I know very little about. Hopefully this issue will diminish as coal plants are shut down, first by natural gas which is making coal so uneconomic, but later with renewable fuels become more the norm that the exception. Additionally, I’ve seen many examples where companies (not necessarily data companies) have responded to pressure from their customers and the financial markets to more toward being “carbon neutral” and depending on the industry, the amount and source of power they use can be a big factor in how they can achieve progress toward any carbon-neutral goals. Thanks for the comments.

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  3. Your line “This time also offers us the opportunity to reassess our busy lives and what is really important.” is so TRUE! Thanks for the thoughtful post.

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