COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis

In the months prior to this pandemic and the shelter in place orders, there were some exciting policy changes being pushed on the state level in Springfield and at the city level in Chicago. For my work with Friends of the Chicago River, I traveled to Illinois’ state capital this last February to testify in front of the state’s Energy and Environment Committee about the harmful effects of single use plastics.

Press conference in the Illinois State Capital building. You can find me on the far left, front.

In the City of Chicago I provided public comment in support of a resolution declaring a climate emergency. There were bills being proposed at both levels to ban single use plastics as well. All of that has come to a screeching halt and will be set back for quite a bit (the last thing the restaurant industry will need when things return to normal, is legislation that burdens them by requiring the elimination of single-use plastics). Even relatively well-established policies like plastic bag bans have taken a hit because of this pandemic. While there are health concerns around reusable bags, Chicago’s ban on single use plastic bags demonstrates how quickly hard won environmental policy can be stripped away.

City of Chicago Energy and Environment Committee reviewing the Climate Crisis Ordinance

There is nothing more important right now than COVID-19, and because we will get through this, it is critical that we do not lose sight of longer term public health, environmental justice, and climate goals. Below is a reflection on how COVID-19 may offer some lessons on addressing another global crisis: climate change.

Placing plastic bags in the reusable bags I normally use because it’s easier to carry them up the stairs.

Different motivations for policy change

COVID-19 is affecting everyone at the same time. Whether or not you or someone you know is sick, sheltering in place or serving on the frontlines has had a tremendous impact on your daily life. With climate change, there can be a sense of remoteness. Hurricanes ravaging the East Coast do not directly affect the daily lives of those of us in the Midwest.

COVID-19 has come on swiftly, exceeding our ability to create a vaccine or treatment for it. Climate change, on the other hand, feels deceptively slow-moving. So slow-moving that we, creative and resourceful humans, will have time to invent ways to adapt and live comfortably on a warming planet.

Despite the drastic disruption to our lives, we know that this response to COVID-19 is a temporary measure. Life will return to normal. Climate change requires long-term changes in our behavior and major shifts in society.

Lessons learned

Perhaps the strength and solidarity many of our fellow Chicagoans and Illinoisans have displayed during this pandemic can serve as inspiration for coming together to address climate change when the time comes to return our collective attention to it.

The environmental impacts of COVID-19

It should come as no surprise that satellite images over China have found air quality improved in areas under lock down: the immediate halt of manufacturing and automobile traffic drastically lessens the use of fossil fuels. However, there is historical evidence to show that these gains are temporary and typical fuel consumption will return to normal, possibly with a vengeance.

Sources and further reading:


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