GARNER: Pandemic spurs US to make environmental reparations

Nitrogen+dioxide+levels+in+Italy+for+March+2020+and+2019.+Graphic+via+Newsweek.+

Nitrogen dioxide levels in Italy for March 2020 and 2019. Graphic via Newsweek.

This story is fictional and part of the “Opinions from the Future” series. It is a prediction of what our world may look like in the future in the aftermath of the coronavirus. This story is based on present-day data and available evidence.

“U.S. to re-enter Paris Agreement” headlines the top of a newspaper on the table in front of me. The anchors’ voices on the televisions at either corner of the cafe have been muted, but statements at the bottom of the screens read: “U.S. President meets in New York to re-sign Paris Agreement” and “Paris Agreement to be re-signed after Trump took U.S. out of the deal 5 years ago.” 

It has been about two years since the last coronavirus patient recovered and was released from the hospital in the United States. At the moment of their release, there were a lot of promises made. A lot of declarations to improve different government and healthcare systems. A lot of hope in finally addressing the persisting socioeconomic inequalities in our country that the coronavirus brought to light. 

Though many of these proposed endeavors have not seen much follow-through, there has been one silver lining: the United States is finally taking environmental action. 

Today, the U.S. will re-sign the Paris Agreement, one of its largest steps in reversing the decisions and damage of years past. 

Just as the United States seemed to be slipping into an irreversible fate of environmental degradation, the coronavirus pandemic presented a unique opportunity to make deliberate change. 

During the pandemic, countries like Italy that were greatly impactedby the coronavirus — often experiencing high numbers of confirmed cases and high death rates — took restrictive measures to reduce its spread. Many people were confined under stay at home orders and practiced social distancing. With the temporary reduction in vehicles on the road and decrease in plane passengers, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels decreased dramatically in some areas. 

For example, China had a 35% decrease in NO2 levels at the beginning of 2020 when comparing it to the beginning of 2019. Some cities in Italy like Milan had a 40% reduction in NO2 levels. 

Additionally, oil production decreased due to the coronavirus’ effects. 

During the outbreak, OPEC — the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — made a deal to cut 9.7 million barrels from their production for two months. 

While this initially was done to curb economic loss, the U.S. Congress saw how fragile and dependent the nation was on the production of oil. After elections in November 2020, the new president committed the United States to reducing national greenhouse gas emissions in order to stay below the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5 °C recommendation.

Now, the U.S. is transitioning to more renewable energy. Significant subsidies have been given to farmers and innovators to use alternative power sources, such as water, wind and geothermal energy in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Additionally, advised by environmental experts, Congress is working to develop plans for agricultural and industrial systems that will rebuild habitats and increase biodiversity. This decision was made after seeing how humans’ impact on the environment opened opportunities for infectious diseases to rapidly spread. 

The effects of human-induced climate change, such as increased precipitation and temperatures and increased contact humans have with animals, enabled infectious diseases like Lymes disease and malaria to increase the extent of their spread before the coronavirus was a reality. 

These conditions presented by human-caused climate change also increased humans contact with animals due to deforestation, habitat loss, more livestock farming and changing migration patterns due to changing global temperatures. The world saw increases in diseases like swine flu, SARS, (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and the Ebola virus, which had either originated or been spread by animals.

Similar to diseases like the swine flu and SARS, the presence of climate change had supported the existence and exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus.

By decreasing CO2 emissions, the United States is trying to limit further escalation of global temperatures in an attempt to prevent future pandemics.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are taking Congress’ lead by strengthening regulations on oil and coal companies, large corporations and industrial farms in an attempt to reduce and eventually halt greenhouse gas emissions. 

Before the pandemic, the industry sector contributed 22% of U.S. greenhouse gases and the agriculture sector contributed 10% of U.S. greenhouse gases.

The EPA is also working with state and local governments, especially large metropolitan areas, to transition power sources and transportation services to more sustainable alternatives with the hope of decreasing CO2 emissions. Car dealers are also being encouraged to lower prices on hybrid and electric vehicles.

Environmental organizations and individuals are also responding to the newfound governmental efforts to combat climate change. Non-governmental organizations like the National Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club are mobilizing and increasing their reach.

Before the pandemic, many environmental NGOs did not have government backing or widespread legitimacy. However, with the increasing acceptance of climate change, these organizations have more avenues to exert influence and carry out their missions of protecting the planet. 

They are still putting pressure on corporations to decrease CO2 emissions and governments to increase conservation and restoration efforts.

Individuals are changing their behaviors — opting for renewable energy, making more sustainable consumer choices and talking about environmental issues — more than ever before. 

Before the coronavirus’ spread, the health of our planet had been largely and consistently ignored. Political leaders denied the existence of human-induced climate change, even though there was evidence of its impact on millions across the world — displacing people from their homes, increasing species extinction rates, and depleting food and water resources.

With all of the terrible scars the coronavirus has left behind, we have been able to find some strength, some space for progress and reparation. 

I look up to the television screen again. The president is leaning over a document surrounded by people. They move their pen across the bottom of the page, following the swirl of their signature. The president’s facial expression is confident, certain that this is the right decision, the just decision.

They look up and smile, capping the pen and shaking officials’ hands around them as cameras flash. 

I mirror the president’s smile on the television, a feeling of ease washing over me. We are finally moving forward.

This story was written by Alexandra Garner. She can be reached at alexandra.garner@marquette.edu.