Jordan: Before we get started today, just a reminder that we want to hear from you. If you’re stuck at home, how have you been passing the time? You can stick around until the end of this episode and every episode to hear clips from our listeners and details on how you can send yours to us. Look, I don’t know if this is really a silver lining or not in all of this, but I could use something right now. Hey, Claire, remember how we used to talk about climate change on this podcast? How often we used to do it before COVID-19 took over everything.
Claire: Yeah. That was literally The Big Story every week, and it’s hard to believe that’s not the case these days.
Jordan: Well, I’m sure you’ve seen some of the posts going around with pictures of what some places around the world look like now that industry has stopped and tourism has stopped and everyone’s inside. They are drastically different.
Claire: Yeah. I still can’t stop thinking about those photos from NASA from a few weeks ago that showed reduced air pollution over China, and all those photos that we’re seeing now of clear water with more fish. It’s, to be honest, it’s kind of nice to see right now.
Jordan: And look, at this point, we should probably just savour the good feelings where we can find them, but I also wonder how much of that is just us wanting to find something good in all of this and this is what’s available.
Claire: Yeah. It does make you think, I mean, when all of this is over, keyword: When. It will end. And we can finally start thinking about other things, will we have change views? I mean, will people finally realize what kind of measures need to be put in place to protect the environment?
Jordan: Well, yeah. I mean, you said when, and it is not like we’re going to live like this forever. You know, even the six to nine month timeline that seems incredibly awful right now, is not that long in the grand scheme of things. And, you know, in some countries where they seem to have a handle on it, the lockdowns are ending and people are going to go back to work soon. And we’re going to see them ramp up to make up for that missed time. And so now we’re going to do something we’re familiar with. We’re going to talk to a climate scientist about whether or not any of the good things we’ve just seen can last when industry turns back on. Or if they’ll all just vanish and we’ll head down the same road. But first of course, news. Claire, how bad or not bad maybe did it get yesterday?
Claire: There’s a new Leger poll out that says one in five Canadians believe the Coronavirus crisis is being blown out of proportion. And while yes, most people are taking this seriously, Leger’s Executive Vice President says that that 20% could jeopardize the nationwide effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Theresa Tam says we’re seeing more cases of community transmission of the virus as opposed to travel related. Right now it’s about half and half. In Saskatchewan the health authorities predicting a worst case scenario, a 30% infection rate up to 15,000 deaths and not enough hospital resources. And in Ontario, Hydro rates have been cut temporarily. It’s been changed to 24/ 7 off peak pricing, and that’s expected to save the average home about $20 a bill. There are now over 2,600 cases of COVID-19 in Canada. Quebec now has the most with over a thousand and there’ve been 27 deaths across the country.
Jordan: The idea of mother nature as a personality is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. And just as old is the notion that if you piss her off, she will fight back. And in a crisis like this, where everything is confusing and there aren’t many answers, it is kind of comforting maybe to think that that kind of cosmic order applies to this. There’s no evidence for that, of course. But on the other hand, the more we learn about our world and all the systems that inhabit it, the more we learn that they are all connected. So no, this pandemic isn’t the result of a vengeful mother nature out for blood. But the result of it is a massive collective change in human behaviour. And that has ramifications everywhere. And some of those might actually help us learn in the long run, once we find a way through this. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Katherine Hayhoe is a professor at Texas Tech University. She’s also a Canadian climate scientist, and she joins us to try to unpack some of the ramifications of COVID-19 on the environment. Hello, Katherine.
Katherine: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Jordan: No problem. I’ll start the way we start all of these, which is, how are you doing right now?
Katherine: That is the question we need to ask right now. And I am doing my best to practice physical distancing, but not social distancing because today more than ever I feel like we need to be connected socially. So practicing new ways to connect virtually with colleagues and friends with family members, and just thinking of who I know in my life who might possibly be sitting alone at home and making sure that I send them a message, a quick note, ask them if they want to have a chat.
Jordan: That’s a good way to do it. I think we’re all looking to reach out right now and that’s why it’s great to talk to you.
Jordan: Why don’t we begin with photos that probably a lot of the world saw of the canals in Venice running clear. Did you see those?
Katherine: I did. I also saw the one of the dolphin, which apparently was not taken in Venice. We have to take things with a little grain of salt. But one of my colleagues has also been collecting photos, he’s been asking people to take around the world in big cities, showing the view from their window, their balcony, their home, of what the air quality looks like today as opposed to what it looked like a week or two weeks or three weeks ago. And we know from NASA satellite data also that there is a significant and really incredible reduction in air pollution in major cities around the world from China and the Philippines to, you know, right here in Europe and North America. So we are seeing changes in response to the physical distancing that we’re all practicing.
Jordan: I’m going to ask you for some specifics of those in a minute. But first, when you see those little snapshots, you know, of a clear view from a balcony that’s usually got smog or a Venice canals running clear, how does that make you feel as somebody who’s been working for that and gets a start under the most horrible circumstances?
Katherine: Well, it makes me feel both incredibly hopeful and happy to see that blue sky and that clear water. But at the same time, it makes me feel so sad because I know that as soon as our industry ramps right back up again, we’re going to be seeing the same pollution levels as we had before. In fact, we might even be seeing it a little bit worse for a while as industry struggles to catch up. And of course, that industry is supplying people’s jobs and people’s livelihoods. So it’s this terrible kind of catch-22 that we have not yet figured out how, though we’re certainly working in that direction, we haven’t figured out how to wean ourselves off the fossil fuels that are responsible for the majority of the air, water, and soil pollution that leads to millions of deaths every year.
Jordan: Well, maybe tell me about the kind of toll that we see from that, versus the kind of toll that we’re seeing from COVID-19, cause you mentioned the reduction in emissions and air pollution has been really substantial.
Katherine: It has. So on an average year we see about one in every six deaths around the world related in some way to the pollution of our air, our water, or our soil. Nearly 9 million people die every year from air pollution alone. And the majority of that, not all, but the majority of that is due to burning fossil fuels. You probably remember headlines from, you know, it seems like years ago now, but just a few months ago about how the city of Delhi in India turned into a gas chamber due to air pollution. People who live in LA, and Salt Lake City, and places like that where they regularly have inversions that trap, all of the pollution over the city, they know what that looks like. Some of that air pollution is actually due to indoor cooking in places where they don’t have any resources other than, you know, brush or dung to cook from. But the majority of our pollution is due to fossil fuels. So we might say, well, you know, Katherine, millions of people a year, you know how, how can we not be talking about this? I think a big part of the reason why we’re so unaware of the incredible toll this takes on our lives, is because it’s been with us for so long. The very first air quality legislation was enacted by King Edward of England in the 13 hundreds. He forbade people to burn C coal and to, you know, to create charcoal within city limits, while his queen was in residence at the tower of London. But then when she was gone, of course, you know, all bets were off. It’s been with us for so long. It’s like we’ve sort of gotten used to it.
Jordan: How has the response to COVID-19 contributed to the drop in global emissions? And do you have any numbers or statistics that would illustrate that for us?
Katherine: Well, so a lot of our air pollution and our carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, like coal and gas and oil, a lot of it comes from industry and a lot of it comes from transportation. And those are the two biggest sectors that we have seen affected by this pandemic. So we have seen significant drops in air pollutants, especially initially over China, but now we’re seeing them over Italy and even starting to see them over North America. And one of my colleagues, Marshall Burke, who is a scientist at Stanford University who studies this, he’s estimated that the reduction in air pollution from China alone could be responsible for saving many more lives than were lost in the pandemic if it continues. But here’s the rub. The fact that this, this massive drop in industrial production is likely to ramp right back up again as the pandemic passes, and in fact, it could, you know, it could ramp up, you know, 50% or even at, you know, 200% more than it was just to make up for lost production and lost time. So we could end up seeing no net change in air pollution and carbon emissions, even though for a matter of weeks and even possibly months, we’ve just started to see what might be possible and what the world would look like if we were still able to continue, don’t get me wrong, continue industrial production and continue, you know, economic productivity, and continue even traveling, but doing so powered by clean energy that doesn’t produce pollution and doesn’t produce carbon emissions.
Jordan: So how can we take the lessons that we’re learning right now about what are our lack of industry or lack of transportation does to the environment around us and carry some of that over when this horrific time passes and people do? Cause yeah, to your point, we’re not shutting down industry, but is there anything that we’re doing right now that is applicable even as we ramp back up?
Katherine: Well, first of all, just to be absolutely clear, probably some of the most devastating impacts of this pandemic are going to be on people economically. On people who are not being paid, who are losing their jobs, and small businesses and restaurants that are having to shut down. The economic impact is potentially absolutely devastating. And so we can’t say, you know, there’s no in no way, shape or form, is it ever appropriate to say, Oh, isn’t this great news? Because it is not. But as you said, what we can learn is the fact that there are different ways to do things. And so for example, we’re seeing a lot of things moving online, a lot of people recognizing that we don’t necessarily have to be somewhere physically in person. And that’s something that I’ve been doing myself for the past five years. I’ve actually transitioned about 80% of the talks I give to online talks already, and we’ve run experiments showing that if people attend an online talk versus if they see me talk in real life, the impact on their opinions and perspectives about climate change, which is what I’m typically talking about, is identical, no matter whether I’m in person or virtual. So I think that we’re starting to realize that there are some different ways to do things. But also I think we’re starting to realize to what really matters, and what really matters is our friends and our family and our loved ones and their health, and the health of our community and our city and our province and the places where we live. And the very same things that the coronavirus pandemic threatens, that is ultimately exactly what climate change threatens as well.
Jordan: Has the way we live our lives. You mentioned transportation, I mean, to and from work for sure, but also, traversing the globe. Has that contributed to the spread of this virus? Has, has climate change contributed to the spread of this virus?
Katherine: That’s a question I often get because we do know that climate change is contributing to the spread of certain types of infectious diseases. The types of infectious diseases that are being affected by climate change are the types that are carried by what we call vectors. So those are mosquitos or ticks or insects or animals whose geographic range is expanding poleward as climate changes. So this includes diseases with scary sounding names like Zika and Chikungunya and Dengue Fever and things like that. These are expanding their ranges as the planet warms. And then we also know that there are viruses and bacteria that have been locked in the permafrost for decades and even centuries that are being exposed as the permafrost in the Arctic thaws. So, for example, just a few years ago, there was an Anthrax outbreak in Siberia that was sparked by the defrosting corpse of a reindeer that died from Anthrax 75 years ago. So when people hear these facts, and it’s absolutely true, and climate change is even expanding the range of fungal diseases in soils, they think will could Coronavirus. Be one of these. And the answer is no. Coronavirus is being spread by humans, not by any vectors or rats or thawing permafrost. It is us. And so that is why the physical distancing, and that is why the travel bans are so important because we humans are the ones who are spreading it and we’re spreading it everywhere that humans go. So no, climate change is not affecting the spread of the Coronavirus. But that’s not to say there aren’t some connections. So for example, we know that according to very early work by scientists at the university of Maryland, you know, most scientists are just scrambling to put the pieces together now, it looks like Coronavirus is most effective in places where it isn’t so warm and humid. So mid-latitudes. So in other words, areas where it isn’t as warm and it isn’t as humid, that’s where Corona virus is spreading the most. So in the future, for example, as the world gets warmer and more humid, viruses like coronavirus might not be as effective. On the other hand, though, we know that the way that Corona virus reached human populations was being by transmission from animals, the process called zoonosis. So scientists believe that it likely started in bats because the Coronavirus genome in bats is 96% identical to the one that we have now in humans. And then it passed through an intermediary species like the pangolin and interestingly, a WWF report, World Wildlife Federation report from Italy, just came out last week, very timely, that talks specifically about how not climate change, but the way that humans are encroaching on wildlife. They’re reducing wildlife habitats. They’re engaging in illegal wildlife trafficking, and these processes all contribute to facilitating the jump of novel viruses. So viruses that don’t exist in human populations, facilitating the jump of novel viruses from animal populations to humans. So although on the surface, the answer is climate change has very little to do with Coronavirus, when you start to dig into it, you see that not just climate change, but the different ways that humans are affecting our environment, are affecting both the onset as well as potentially the spread of these diseases and viruses.
Jordan: It seemed like you were going to give me a little bit of a silver lining there, with heat killing Coronavirus. And then you took it right away.
Katherine: Ha! Well, yes, we do hope that, as with our normal flu season in the mid-latitudes, as it gets warmer, it will eventually kill off the virus and the summer. So we certainly do have hope for that. But just in terms of normal flu, scientists have been looking at that for a while, they find that we are getting more warmer winters, obviously. And so in warmer winters we have more mild flu seasons, and that’s definitely good news. But they find that, because we have a mild season, we don’t build up our herd immunity. And also sometimes people are less likely to go get the vaccine the next season because they’re like, Oh, you know, previous season was fine. And so then we tend to see really bad seasons after a mild season with a warmer winter. So it’s all kind of mixed up with climate changing and human response to that. And really climate change, I think the best way to think about it is, it has the potential to be what the US military actually calls it, a threat multiplier. So it takes issues we already have today, we’re already concerned about, and if we’re not careful, it can make a lot of them worse. And so that just kind of brings home the idea that we need to take threats like this, like, like the pandemic, very seriously, because there’s all kinds of other things going on that could potentially interact with and make these worse in the future.
Jordan: I want to ask you about your work for a second. Now that we have all this data about what it looks like when we totally stop emissions in some places, or close to totally stop them, what kinds of stuff can you and other climate scientists use that data for as things hopefully return to normal soon?
Katherine: One thing that I know scientists are doing today, not me, but other colleagues, is they’re looking specifically at the impact of reduced flying on the radiative balance of the planet. Now, that sounds very complicated, but we know that because airplanes are so high up, that the pollution that they spew through contrails, those are those white things in the sky that you see after an airplane has passed, that can have a huge impact on the amount of energy coming in and going out from the planet. So actually 9/11 was a very unexpected experiment for three days where there was no flights around the world. And I know that today they’re able to get a better handle as well on how aircraft are affecting our planet.
Jordan: That’s fascinating.
Katherine: Yeah, it really is interesting. I mean, trust scientists to look for, you know, the single drop at the bottom of an empty glass. What can we possibly learn from a situation? I know that people are at work right now studying that.
Jordan: Well, let me ask you about a drops at the bottom of an empty glass. Cause, I mentioned, you know, a bright side earlier, and obviously there are very few bright sides to this. But I wonder if you’ve thought about, and I wanted to ask you, kind of the notion that I’ve seen certainly on social media and even heard and maybe even felt, that all of this is connected and that, you know, humans have pushed quote unquote mother nature too far, and things like this that shut down our economy and show us that we can’t just go around spewing emissions forever are, you know, part of a balancing act. Like it obviously seems kind of out there, but, you know, people think about the environment that way.
Katherine: Yeah, I’ve definitely seen that. And well, I would not, anthropomorphize mother nature or assign a personality or will to this planet, what I would say is simply this: our actions have consequences. And for a long time, in fact, for the entire history of human civilization on this planet, we have been acting as if our planet were limitless. So in other words, when we run out of resources, we just go get more. When we run out of land, we just find a new continent. When something gets too dirty or too polluted or spent, we just go somewhere else. For the entire history of humans on this planet, we have treated our planet as if it had no boundaries, we could just go get more. And that did actually work just fine. When human population numbered hundreds of thousands or millions or even tens of millions, there were new resources, there were new areas to expand to. I won’t say discover because there were often people there already, but there were new areas to expand to. But today we nearly have 8 billion people on this planet and we have realized that we have come up against our planetary boundaries. This is a really interesting concept pioneered by a man called Johan Rockstrom a Swedish expert, and he has showed how in multiple ways, we are pushing the boundaries of our planet in terms of our biodiversity, in terms of our resource use, in terms of climate change, in terms of our nutrient cycles. We have been acting as if there are no limits, but there are. And so the response to that is the idea of what they call a circular economy, or really more simply sustainability. Sustainability is living within our boundaries of recognizing that the world is not an endless trash heap, that the atmosphere can’t carry everything that we spew into it, that there is a limit to the amount of fish in the sea, that we have to act responsibly. Because if everybody lived like you and I, we would need multiple planets to support ourselves. And this really is the problem. And again, as that WWF Italia report said, when we push too closely up against the boundaries of the wild areas of our planet, which we are continually doing, that increases the risk of novel viruses jumping from animal to human populations. When we traffic in animals that we shouldn’t be, and even when we engage in unhealthy agricultural practices of domestic animals, that increases the risk of novel viruses jumping from animal to human population. So at its core, I really do agree. I think it is an issue of planetary boundaries. That we have to recognize that living sustainably is crucial and critical to the future wellbeing of our entire civilization, as well as every living thing on this planet.
Jordan: How hopeful are you that we’ll take that message to heart after this is all over?
Katherine: Well without hope, we are just going to be a self fulfilling prophecy of despair, so we have to hope, but our hope can’t be, you know, as we talked about before, when we talked about climate change, it can’t be a type of Pollyanna hope where we just close our eyes and say, Oh, everything will be well if we say it’s well. It has to be a rational hope that recognizes, you know, what. We’ve dug a pretty deep hole for ourselves. And we can still see the blue sky above, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to get there. And what I think we’re really missing most, and this is something that we focused on in our issue of Chatelaine last May, where we talked all about climate change and sustainability, there was a wonderful essay, I think that focused on this by Chris Turner. And it was about how we’re missing a vision of a better future. We’re missing that vision of what a truly sustainable planet could look like in terms of the incredibly blue skies and the clean air and the crystal clear water that we’d be breathing in the healthy food that we be eating and the clean energy that we’d be using. We’re missing that vision, but maybe, maybe we’re starting to see a tiny bit of that vision today, and if we can grasp that vision, I think that’s what we need to take us to a better future. We need an understanding of what that future might look like, and how good it truly would be.
Jordan: I’m going to take that away and, and this right now, while I feel really good. Thank you so much professor for talking to us.
Katherine: That’s an excellent idea. Thank you for talking about this and having this important conversation now. And stay safe. Stay well. And think of somebody that you can reach out to you today, that each of us can talk to you today, to remind ourselves that even though we’re physically distanced from each other, we need to be connected socially today more than ever.
Jordan: I will do that. Thanks again.
Katherine: Thank you,
Jordan: Katherine Hayhoe a climate scientist, and at least today, a little bit of a bright spot. That was The Big Story. You know by now, we want to hear your story big or small in audio form. You can record it with the voice recorder on your phone. That is plenty good quality. You can also just shoot a video and send that to us cause we’ll just use the sound. You can find us to send those in by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. Send us your files there, our DMs are open, or of course, just chat anytime. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We leave you today with some music from a listener. This is Kaitlin in Victoria, BC. Stay safe everyone.
Clip: So I’ve been working on some ukulele during this time of social distancing. I’m working on a book called duets, which seemed quite appropriate. They still need a bit of work, but we got a lot of time.
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