The ugly side of 'environmental wins' in the pandemic

COVID-19 may be putting a dent in pollution, but we can't lose sight of how it's devastating humanity.

An empty crosswalk in downtown Seattle

A pedestrian crosses an empty intersection at 3rd Avenue and Pine Street in downtown Seattle, March 30, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

With so much going wrong, everyone wants to feel hopeful about something, especially the natural world, which so rarely sees big wins.

As a science and environment reporter, I get it.

Like so many of you, one of my big concerns when I first started reporting on the coronavirus and how it is completely destabilizing human society was what this might mean for the environment and all the living creatures we impact. Our attention is rightfully focused on the immediate and huge losses of human life and the gaping holes in social safety nets many of us take for granted.  But a few months into the crisis, I thought readers might have the bandwidth to start looking outside of ourselves at environmental consequences that may also affect us down the line. 

Don't miss Hannah's story: With more people staying home, Washington skies are cleaner

Of the early environmental impacts, one area of change had clear data behind it. With commuting and industrial activity down everywhere, air around the globe was cleaner. Here in Washington, analysts say the types of emissions reductions we're seeing are likely most related to traffic.

But it's not yet clear this is really a win, and the way some people are talking about it is downright inhumane.

For one, these brief emissions changes may make only a little dent in reducing decades of pollution. Without systemic changes to how we live and work, air this clean isn't likely to be maintained. But more importantly, they stem from tragedy. When we grasp at positive narratives without recognizing the limitations and destruction behind them, we risk losing not only our rational perspective, but our humanity. The air is cleaner because people can't work, because people are dying. Celebrating that there are fewer people around to pollute the world, as some people have, is mind-bogglingly off-base.

We can't let ourselves cling to flimsy good news with so much at stake — but learning the “why” behind environmental changes like decreased emissions can help us better appreciate the impacts of the way we’re living in the world.

This story was first published in Crosscut's Weekly newsletter. Want to hear more from reporters like Hannah Weinberger? Sign up for the newsletter, below.

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