With tensions mounting between environmental activists and the fossil fuel industry due to Novel Corona virus-related factors, who will come out ahead of the game when the pandemic smolders out?
Initially, I was very surprised to hear that air quality had improved in such a relatively short period of time ─ that period of time being our global quarantine during the Novel Corona Virus Pandemic. I felt the need to describe that stretch of time, which personally seemed like years, using the term relatively short ─ but, yes… it was short ─ just two and a half months. Two and a half months of quarantine sitting right next to one and a half centuries of fossil fuel emissions.
NASA says that “…the nitrogen dioxide levels in March 2020 are about 30% lower on average across the region of the I-95 corridor from Washington, DC to Boston than when compared to the March mean of 2015-19.” This is a pretty good example of what’s going on in the air around every major metropolitan area in the world this spring. Unfortunately, carbon dioxide levels are still very high. I guess we can’t have it all.
When I had accepted that businesses were shutting down and everyone would be staying home for the foreseeable future, it never occurred to me that the climate would show the slightest blip of a re-bound, unless we were talking about a year or more of quarantine (not something we want to think about too much). Not being a climatologist, I would have guessed that five years would be enough to show us any significant change ─ had enough time gone by for me to ask the question to myself.
So, when I heard this surprising, good news, I knew I had to think like a climatologist. When you take a good look at the dynamic force that is our atmosphere, things start to make sense. Hot air near the equator rises to the upper levels of the atmosphere and is dispersed north and south to roughly 30 degrees latitude where it cools and lowers back down. It is pushed again north if it is north of the equator and south if the air is south of the equator until it gets to its prospective 60-degree latitude where the air rises again. It will drop again at 90 degrees. This is the well-established system of global atmospheric circulation and an excellent example of how the earth has the ability to renew itself. Of course, the global hydrological cycle takes a bit longer to clean itself out, and the geological cycle is slower than hell (pun intended), but you get my point.
When we do reach a state of “normalcy” in the aftermath of Covid 19, I’m sure NO2 levels and other greenhouse emissions will resume their full concentrations of where they were before this disaster, but we will not be able to un-see those low numbers from March and April as much as the fossil fuel industry will want us to.
As millions of businesses closed their doors and everyone retreated to their prospective domiciles, many pipeline projects in the U.S. struggled to keep their proverbial doors open. So began the definition debate of what is considered “necessary to life”, “essential”, or “life-sustaining”.
A portion of the Mariner East 2 pipeline in Pennsylvania found a loophole in the form of a waiver from the governor to override the shutdown restrictions to the project claiming that the unfinished site next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike west of Harrisburg raised public safety and environmental issues, not to mention the “necessity” of energy. The same goes for Virginia’s and West Virginia’s Mountain Valley Pipeline where work was allowed to continue despite shutdown orders. Similar to the Mariner East’s claim that existing boreholes could collapse, causing future problems, MVP supposedly needs workers for erosion control on all the unfinished sites.
Who needs waivers when you have the president of the United States backing you up? This has seemed to keep the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines chugging right along during the quarantine. Utilities involved even want to double the amount of oil that flows through the Iowa portion of the DAPL project despite the order of a North Dakota federal judge to issue a “full environmental review” of the construction.
With all of these pipeline projects importing workers to the various sites, locals have rightly voiced their concerns of the newcomers spreading the Corona Virus in their communities, on top of environmental activist groups protesting construction on every front line. Of course, this opposition has greatly been reduced over the past few months since they are doing the right thing and staying home. The North Brooklyn pipeline in NYC didn’t stop production until after two days of a worker being infected. They reportedly only stopped after photos of construction workers working side-by-side had hit the media. With indigenous communities already feeling the negative impact of out-of-town-workers employed by Keystone XL and Dakota Access for the past several years, this has been a huge slap in the face. Not only are they dealing with ancestral land infringement, water pollution, and harassment and assault (sexual and otherwise), now they have to contend with Covid 19 where emergency healthcare is not the most accessible service on the reservation.
Additionally, the pandemic has severely slackened the over-watch of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding standard safety procedures and environmental policy. But really… especially in terms of the EPA, it’s not like they were doing much of that over the last three years anyway, so not a huge impact there.
I’m sure many of you out there are scratching your heads like I am with this big push to finish American pipeline projects. Yes, there is virtually no green opposition and very little government oversight at the moment… but oil stocks are dead in the water… just like all the wildlife after Exxon Valdese, Deep-water Horizon, and all the other negligent f#%*-ups. I apologize. I’m getting a little worked up as I usually do when I think about all these f$$$ing a$$holes. But really… storage facilities are reaching capacity. They can barely give the stuff away. Except for the concept of stock-piling, I don’t get it… especially in the wake of a global pandemic.
Speaking of oversight or the lack thereof, Covid 19’s natural impact on the environment has not all been good. The overseeing and preservation of parks and fragile ecosystems all over the world have also been suspended. This has led to a resurgence of poaching endangered species and illegal deforestation.
Waste has also been a big, smelly problem, even more than it was. Many recycling and waste facilitation plants have closed operations resulting in severe build-up and overhaul. Organic waste is also a huge issue with restrictions to import fishery and agricultural shipments. I am reminded of the American government voluntarily creating the same volumes of rotting fish, veggies, fruits, and meat during their trade war with China back in the summer of 2018, which was a pretty hot one. Can anyone say “methane spike”? At least this time, we don’t have much of a choice, and I don’t blame the front-line grocery stores when they don’t want to deal with re-used shopping bags. Of course, there’s going to be nothing but single-use, food delivery containers everywhere.
So, as Earth Day approached toward the end of April, green organizations and activists began gearing up for a very loud and outspoken, albeit virtual celebration. Between hopeful environmental gains and saddening losses, and the blatant irresponsibility of fossil fuel greed, absolutely everyone had to listen this year. I was brainstorming ways to connect the dots between climate change and the Coronavirus as my personal contribution, maybe uploading a live streaming of a poignant “Fortitude” episode. After all, it is already a deep environmental concern about what other hideous diseases are waiting for us in the quickly melting permafrost… but on the morning of Earth Day, as Bill McKibbon of 350.org put it: “A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement” was dropped.
“Planet of the Humans”, a documentary produced by the hugely outspoken, left-winged film-maker, Michael Moore, was slapped up on highly-accessible Youtube. In the past, I have admired Michael’s forthcoming documentaries, speaking out against gun violence, worker and prisoner rights, and the relationship between world powers and “big oil”. Now he was speaking out against renewable energy of all things, questioning its validity and claiming that the green movement has all been corporate propaganda for profiting off of wind, solar, biomass, and other renewables. With the Covid 19 pandemic, it has felt like the world has turned up-side-down. To me, it no longer just feels that way.
My immediate suspicion was that Michael Moore has finally sold out to the fossil fuel industry, but then I sat down to watch this piece of crap and realized that Michael and his film-maker colleagues are truly climate change alarmists who believe that as a society we should learn to accept our fate as an unsustainable population and stop lining corporate pockets in the name of green renewables. Solar and wind are unreliable. We’ll need traditional sources (fossil fuels) to fill the energy gap they’ll create. It takes just as much conventional energy to sustain green energy anyway. Blah blah blah. Now… I’m convinced. Perhaps the fossil fuel infrastructure has given up on denying and de-bunking global warming. Now it might be just a last-ditch effort to de-bunk green energy. “Hey, let’s pay Michael Moore a disgusting amount of money to do it” This is probably why it was a no-brainer for him to put it up on YouTube free of charge.
A few statements in the film hold some truth. Sustainable energy is nowhere near perfect… yet. No one has claimed that it would be easy or cheap to make the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. We just simply have to drop our greed and bite the bullet. Besides, renewable energy technology is being updated and improved daily and the research and findings of “Planet of the Humans” are ten years out of date. We do recognize the need for fossil fuel consumption in order to have a smooth transitional period, but there are ways to mitigate those emissions (besides shutting everything down and not going to work). Among some of the many, new technologies out there, carbon capture is one of the more exciting. “Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and managing methane emissions throughout the fossil energy value chain can help meet ambitious CO2 emission reduction targets, while fossil fuels remain part of the energy system,” says Scott Foster and David Elzinga of the United Nations Sustainable Energy Division.
It is no secret that Michael Moore is not a Donald Trump fan, but concerning the many voters who were on the fence about renewable energy (and judging by the slough of hate mail Bill McKibben received); this documentary has squashed the “Green New Deal” that many of our Democratic nominees have endorsed, giving Trump a distinct advantage in the upcoming primaries. Moore had to, at least, see that coming.
Let’s get back to what’s really important: what we can do and what we have learned from all this. Studies have found that people who were in areas vulnerable to air pollution (which, of course, tend to be on the low end of the socioeconomic ladder) were far more susceptible to SARS, which is basically another coronavirus. The same has been said for Covid 19. It has also been found that these airborne viruses have a proclivity for adhering to large concentrations of particulates from fossil fuel emissions. While the SARS epidemic made some serious ripples across the global stock market, it has been nothing like this pandemic. I’m of a mind that we could have had a far greater number of casualties due to Covid 19 if the worldwide shutdown had not reduced air pollution. Let us keep in mind that if SARS could repeat itself in the form of Covid 19, what are the possibilities of this happening again?
So, the fight continues… Every time I use the word “fight” when talking about climate justice, it’s always in terms of green activists fighting the fossil fuel infrastructure. On top of the war for our lives against a biosphere that is trying to cleanse itself of its own virus, we have to fight against greed as well.
I’ll leave you with a reminder from a science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson… something that helps me ask and answer my biggest question in this crisis. “There will be enormous pressure to forget this spring and go back to the old ways of experiencing life. And yet forgetting something this big never works. We’ll remember this even if we pretend not to. History is happening now, and it will have happened. So what will we do with that?”
Remember, let me know what you think, personally. Is this the kick in the pants we needed… or not?
Your friendly neighborhood blogger,
Project Syndicate / Climate Action Can Help to Fight Pandemics / Aaron Bernstein / May 5, 2020
he United Nations / The Role of Fossil Fuels in a Sustainable Energy System /Scott Foster and David Elzinga
Euro News / Coronavirus and climate: how much impact is the current lockdown really having on our environment? / Jeremy Wilks & John-Paul Ging / 28/04/2020
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development / Environmental impacts of coronavirus crisis, challenges ahead / Robert Hamwey / 20 April 2020
E&E News / Is pipeline construction ‘essential’ in a pandemic? / Mike Soraghan / Thursday, March 26, 2020 https://www.eenews.net/stories/1062702737
Desmog / Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, Some Pipeline Projects Push Forward While Others Falter Nationwide / Sharon Kelly / April 3, 2020 – 18:20
Earth Island Journal / US Pipeline Projects Move Forward Amid Covid-19 Crisis / Fiona McLeod / April 30, 2020
NASA Global Climate Change / NASA Satellite Data Show 30% Air Pollution Drop over the Northeastern US / April 13, 2020 https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2970/nasa-satellite-data-show-30-air-pollution-drop-over-the-northeastern-us/
Rolling Stone / ‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal / Bill McKibben / May 1, 2020 4:03PM ET
The New Yorker / The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations / Kim Stanley Robinson / May 1, 2020
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3498622/ (Fortitude Series)
 This is great news, and yes, I am very sorry that it came at such a horrible cost, but this is the most significant climate data that we have seen in a long time, something we otherwise would not know without the pandemic.
 Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen this show, the premise centers around a Zombie-Esque infection spread by ancient flies that are awoken inside a mastodon pulled out of the melting ice due to climate change. I might have over-emphasized that last part, but think about it. The more glacial and artic ice that melts, the more, big, dead, hairy elephants we’re going to find.