Ask Eartha: Silver linings for the environment |

Ask Eartha: Silver linings for the environment

Jess Hoover
Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha,
The coronavirus outbreak has given me a lot of anxiety, and it’s hard to think about conservation right now. What do you suggest?

Have you seen the Building Hope ads in the paper? The ones that remind us that “It’s okay to not be okay.” That’s an important mantra to keep in mind as we all navigate this new normal because the news is scary and being physically distant from our friends and loved ones is hard. And if you’re out of work or had your hours cut, the future is even more uncertain.

The coronavirus is a global tragedy; that’s for sure. Despite it all, there is still good news — and good lessons — to be found.

Nature on the rebound

The Earth has been given a reprieve as the global economy has slowed. Satellite imagery from the European Space Agency shows that levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere are significantly lower than the same time last year. Nitrogen dioxide is a pollutant produced by car engines, power plants and industrial processes. It’s also a respiratory irritant that can make infections, like COVID-19, worse. Long-term exposure can cause asthma.

The global pandemic also has led to a decrease in carbon emissions due to less demand for oil and a decline in air travel. A recent article in Scientific American reported that emissions in China were about 25% lower than normal for this time of year.

Of course, these environmental silver linings are likely to be short lived once we have better control over the virus and life resumes its normal hustle and bustle. An important question to ask is, “What can we learn from this experience? Can our global and national communities be more resilient and environmentally conscientious moving forward?”

Conservation after coronavirus

In early March, a World Meteorological Organization report confirmed that we are way off track for meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. Speaking about the report, the United Nations’ secretary general noted that while the virus and its impacts will (hopefully) be temporary, the effects of climate change will be long lasting and impact many more people.

For now, climate change isn’t an in-your-face threat like COVID-19, so we don’t mobilize with the same urgency. But we should. Writing in The New York Times, opinion columnist Thomas Friedman notes that “climate change may well be the next great engine for the next pandemic — only this virus could easily be carried by mosquitoes, which, because of warmer temperatures in the global north, are able to migrate up from places they’ve never migrated from before.” Coronavirus gives us a window into what worldwide disruption looks like. But unlike the illness, you can’t develop a vaccine for sea level rise, desertification or heat waves.

One of the biggest lessons we can learn from the coronavirus is that we don’t have to go back to business as usual. Think of the stimulus package just passed by Congress. What if we put people back to work by investing in green infrastructure projects? What if we invested in high-speed rail and renewable energy? What if part of the airline bailouts required them to decrease their emissions?

We can create a society that’s more resilient against pandemic and climate change if we have the foresight to plan ahead. Which is exactly why now is not the time to relax environmental regulations. Doing so doesn’t make us more resilient. Instead, it puts us at risk for greater public health problems and hastens the damage caused by climate change.

“Ask Eartha Steward” is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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