Let’s Take Climate As Seriously as the Pandemic

The image of a cleaner planet we experienced during the early pandemic was not a mirage. While we can’t live in lockdown, we can learn its lessons.

Remember the early days of pandemic lockdown? It may not have been great for our mental health, but it sure gave the planet a kickstart towards rejuvenation. During lockdown, LA sunsets were smog free. NASA and the European Space Agency’s pollution monitoring satellites detected significant decreases in harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. There was an eerie noiselessness in NYC city streets, and more dandelions than usual poked up on sidewalks. Normally timid jackals appeared in Hayarkon Park in the heart of Tel Aviv, Israel. Scientists widely recorded the positive effect of lockdown as a decrease in CO2 emissions.

Some scientists even called the pandemic the “earth’s vaccine.” Science Magazine refers to it as the anthropause. The dramatic slowdown in human activity caused by the pandemic kept researchers busy monitoring how wildlife and other phenomena reacted to a break from frenetic human travel, tourism and traffic. As social, economic, industrial and urban activity slowed, we saw improved air quality, cleaner skies and water, less noise pollution and more wildlife.

HOLD ON TO THAT IMAGE.

The image of a cleaner planet was not a mirage. While we can’t live in lockdown, we can learn its lessons. Now that we’ve seen how much we can effect change, we should be more able to understand how long-term behavioral changes can mitigate some of the longstanding damage to the planet. But, it can only happen if we create a more compelling narrative.

We were at risk of dying from a disease, so we acted. Shouldn’t we feel the same sense of urgency for the planet? This early-pandemic article from Yale’s School of Environment argues compellingly that we must. Don’t suggest action, mandate it. The virus showed that if we wait until we can see the impact, it will be too late. “It’s all about somebody else stepping in and forcing us to internalize the externality, which means don’t rely on parents to take their kids out of school–close the school!” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University and co-author of Climate Shock. “Don’t rely on companies or workers to stay home or tell their people to stay home–force them to do so or pay them to do so. But make sure it happens. And of course that’s the role of government.”

I thought about narratives over the recent Passover/Easter/Ramadan holiday. As families of many faiths gathered around tables to retell stories and perform rituals at the same moment, we were reinforcing a global commitment to rebirth. Earth Day needs the same litany, a post-pandemic narrative: “You saw that actions matter. You saw you could alter the destruction of the planet with your own eyes.” That image needs to be etched into our brains and re-enacted ritually.

Let Earth Day help us begin a new ritual of urgent action.

Technology: The Hydra of Earth Day

There are so many ways technology can help reinforce that narrative. Imagine if your Fitbit or Apple Watch gave you an environmental nudge for socially responsible behavior. You might ride your bike instead of a car to the store. You can do laundry in off-peak hours; you can lower your blasting air conditioner. Climate fitness needs to be gamified as much as physical fitness has become.

For the moment though, tech is more like the multi-headed hyrda of of Earth Day. From one head it’s doing amazing things to reverse climate change. Mobile devices have helped reduce our use of paper; they’ve let us gather without using fossil fuels. In cities and industrial facilities, digital twins, based on sensors that continuously measure the real world, increasingly enable us to use simulation, AI, and machine learning to run what-if scenarios and change behavior accordingly. That will help with everything from managing traffic to heating and cooling to monitoring the best outcomes for the entire planet. This week I attended an investment presentation by CityZenith, which is ramping up an ambitious program to create digital twins of major cities across the globe to help decarbonize and get to net zero. (Yes, climate action can definitely be good business.)

But with its other, uglier heads, technology is held hostage to a complex global supply chain that involves mining dirty minerals, fabricating in dirty factories, and distributing products with dirty transportation. And we aren’t moving fast enough in some of the ways that tech could help, like electric vehicles. The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) released a report saying global battery cell production for EVs will not meet demand until 2030, leading to a shortage of over 18.7 million electric cars between 2022 and 2029.

Digital commercial and financial transactions have a voracious appetite for electricity, as well, and many seem likely to move to blockchain architectures. The Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index estimates that Bitcoin mining uses more power globally per year than some countries, including the Netherlands and Pakistan. (See Techonomy’s Earth Day article for a look at the brighter side of crypto’s contributions to the planet.)

Small Milestones Worth Noting

Instead of ending like a grim reaper, though, I’ll focus on a few Earth Day headlines that made me smile.

  • Arizona State University dedicated the Rob & Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health. The first medical school for the planet.
  • The Air Company captures CO2 out of the air, and through distillation and fermentation turns it into vodka (or perfumes and hand-sanitizers). That’s a negative carbon cocktail for you!
  • For meetings and conferences, Eventcellany launched a digital carbon calculator to help organizers get a handle on the real environmental costs of meeting digitally.
  • Finally, while big tech companies are often accused of greenwashing — signing pledges to prioritize their environmental commitments, but taking no action–this PC Magazine overview celebrates forward progress by the industry.

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