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Lessons from the Pandemic for Addressing Climate Change

Lori Pottinger May 1, 2020
photo - Empty Los Angeles Freeways During Coronavirus Pandemic

Clear skies and less air pollution. Dramatic drops in harmful greenhouse gases. What can these environmental “silver lining” aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic teach us about addressing climate change? We talked to Louise Bedsworth—executive director of the California Strategic Growth Council, a state agency that brings together multiple agencies to support sustainable communities and strong economies—about the issue.

photo - Louise Bedsworth

PPIC: What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about our efforts to tackle climate change?

LOUISE BEDSWORTH: The pandemic has caused us to make a lot of changes quickly, some of which we know are also necessary to tackle climate change—such as the dramatic reductions in travel by car and air. Businesses have implemented telework policies at a scale we’ve never seen before, and meetings that would have taken place in person are now remote. We’ve seen that these sorts of changes can rapidly reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Looking ahead, we can think about how to incorporate some of these changes into how we work.

In addition to changes that reduce emissions, we have also seen a number of actions that are important for building resilience. We’re seeing more people out in their communities, walking, biking, and getting outside. And we see people checking in on vulnerable residents, neighbors coming outside to talk to each other, and growing movements to shop at local businesses.

These social connections are really important for building a resilient California—one able to withstand the shocks to come. In the face of a changing climate, we have to reduce emissions, but also ensure that that our people, economies, and ecosystems are resilient in responding to  shocks and stresses. And that means building robust equitable communities that can weather these changes together.

We need to think about how we incorporate these lessons going forward—not just in our efforts to reduce emissions but also in how we’re thinking about building resilience in our communities.

PPIC: Do you see any long-term effects arising from the pandemic’s drop in emissions?

LB: We’ve seen what’s possible. We can make changes that have immediate impacts on air quality and emissions. That’s a really valuable lesson. The next step is figuring out how to make some level of these positive changes stick as we come out of the pandemic. For example, what policies do we need to encourage telework, or to encourage people to continue to drive less and walk more? Enabling just one day a week of telework could reduce commuter travel and associated emissions by 20%.

We also have to focus on how we rebuild our public transit systems, which have suffered steep declines in revenue and ridership. I think we have to be honest about the challenges facing transit systems, not just because of the financial hit they’ve taken but also to address people’s fear of being on crowded transit. How can we maintain these important systems even as we encourage more telework, biking, and walking?

PPIC: What are the economic implications of COVID-19 on the state’s climate change efforts?

LB: The pandemic has highlighted California’s equity challenges. Communities with high levels of poverty, joblessness, pollution, and poor health are bearing the brunt of this illness. We have to address the underlying causes of these inequities. The pandemic underscores the need for stronger efforts to reduce pollution and mitigate the effects of climate change—and for solutions that reduce these inequities.

We have to pay attention to how we rebuild our economy. Let’s put people to work to build more resilient infrastructure and a cleaner economy. Our long-term recovery must include investments that are in line with our goals on climate change and the environment, housing production, and quality job creation.

PPIC: What opportunities should we take from the coronavirus crisis to help address the climate crisis?

LB: We need to continue to focus on building a sustainable, equitable California. This includes building resilience in the state’s physical infrastructure as well as in our social and economic systems. If we don’t remain committed to our environmental goals as we recover from this, it will be harder and more costly to fix these problems down the road. In addition to working to maintain some new workplace practices, we need to prioritize actions that promote equity and sustainability. We must redouble our efforts to build safe and affordable housing located near jobs, schools, and transit and create high quality jobs and job training opportunities.

California can set an example for the world. The state is a leader in addressing climate change, but these changes have to happen globally. California must continue to lead by successfully demonstrating how we can emerge from the pandemic fully committed to sustainability and equity.

 

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