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Climate Change Tradeoffs During The Pandemic


You've probably seen the posts on Twitter and Facebook or maybe standing on your own front steps - the LA skyline minus the smog or the Himalayas clearly visible from hundreds of miles away in India for the first time in decades. People all over the world are marveling at how clear the air seems to be right now as pollution levels drop due to coronavirus lockdowns and stay-at-home orders.

But while that would appear to be good news for the environment, we're also seeing an increase in another kind of pollution - discarded face masks and latex gloves littering sidewalks, grocery stores using more plastic bags again and people using and discarding disinfectant wipes with abandon.

So we wondered, is there a trade-off when it comes to this pandemic's impact on the Earth's environment? We asked Alice Hill to consider this with us. She's the senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Washington, D.C.

Alice Hill, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us.

ALICE HILL: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could we just start with this potential trade-off? Is this seeming increase in trash being compensated for with clearer air?

HILL: Well, I think that we're seeing some remarkable environmental gains in clearer water and clearer skies. We are also seeing more trash. Those issues are about the sustainability of the earth. And plastic gets into our oceans, and that gets into our food chains. It affects the health of everyone as we see more plastics proliferate. And we're running out of room to put our trash. Those issues are related because it's about the health of the planet.

But there's a separate issue of climate change, which is about rising temperatures. And with the concentrations of greenhouse gases that we have now - carbon dioxide, for example, is causing very rapid change in the atmosphere, which is changing our climate - irreparable harm that's permanent. And some of the harm we're doing with the trash and the particulate matter - maybe there's some permanence, but if you change your ways, you can probably correct it.

MARTIN: So I think what I hear you saying is that it doesn't indicate some long-term trend or long-term beneficial effect. Would that be fair to say?

HILL: I think that's fair to say. I think that what we will see is this drop in emissions because we're driving less. We're not using planes as much. Our transportation emissions are definitely down. But the level of emissions isn't as great as it needs to be to keep the temperatures from rising to very dangerous levels.

And so we're seeing environmental gains, which are wonderful. But with rising temperatures, we will see impacts that will threaten how we produce food or access to water, cause really extensive migration. And that issue we may not solve through the pandemic, even with reduction of emissions.

MARTIN: You know, we are in a pause. I mean, much of the world is in a pause right now. Is anything being done in this pause globally to address some of these climate concerns?

HILL: Well, it's difficult to address these climate concerns virtually. But we have seen some movement just in the past week or so. Dozens of nations met virtually at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. And one of the major outcomes from that was a call to use the trillions of dollars that we're spending in stimulus to actually address these environmental issues, very much including climate change.

So there's still efforts afoot, but it has definitely caused a pause. And the biggest convening has been postponed. That would be the Conference of Parties, sponsored by the U.N. That's postponed till 2021. And that could result in less ambition to cut emissions globally.

MARTIN: Well, you know, what about in the United States specifically? I mean, I think it is clear that President Trump has - is a climate change skeptic. He has expressed his desire to get businesses reopened as quickly as possible, and his supporters seem to agree with that. Is there any, though, interest in making climate change a part of the recovery? Is there any discussion about that in the United States or elsewhere in the world, for that matter?

HILL: In the United States, there is discussion. Unfortunately, it's a partisan issue, as climate change has become. So we see Democrats arguing loudly to include in the stimulus packages something about greening the economy, more emphasis on clean energy. So far, those efforts have been rejected. The packages have not included those considerations.

That's a really missed opportunity. And in fact, just this week, Angela Merkel, the prime minister of Germany, said that we need to make sure that we use this moment to increase efforts to address climate change through all the money we're spending to get the economies back up on their feet.

MARTIN: That was Alice Hill, the senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, she worked for the Department of Homeland Security and as a special assistant to former President Barack Obama.

Alice Hill, thank you so much for joining us.

HILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.