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COVID-19 offers opportunity to implement longstanding environmental change

As the coronavirus pandemic led to a global shut down last March, many took to social media to marvel at the environmental silver lining. Though there was a temporary decrease in pollution, environmental experts warn that the benefits may be fleeting unless a plan of permanency is implemented to secure the well-being of the environment.

The decline in economic activity, the movement of goods and commuting has led to improved air quality globally, according to Christine Whitcraft, program director of environmental science and policy at Long Beach State.

Whitcraft explained that though this has had a positive effect on the environment, the increase in medical waste, high use of disinfectant and masks becoming the largest portion of trash in the environment acts as a counterbalance.

Water and air pollution improvements, Whitcraft believes, outweigh the short-term trash impact, but the overall outcome depends on how things transpire long term.

“We have a real opportunity to take the lessons learned from this economic slowdown and transportation change and pivot on it so that we can achieve our economic growth and our sense of security and our public health back,” Whitcraft said. “But we can do that with a more carbon-efficiency perspective.”

As life resumes some normalcy and people begin to commute and travel, Whitcraft worries that environmental improvements could come to a halt. The pandemic, she said, has led to individuals being less comfortable carpooling and taking public transportation, which could lead to more pollution as people rely solely on individual forms of transportation.

Ben Hagedorn, associate professor in CSULB’s Department of Geological Sciences, hopes that employers understand the benefits to workers and the environment that have resulted from coronavirus procedures and continue to implement them post-pandemic.

“The pandemic has really changed things quite a bit,” Hagedorn said. “A lot of people are acknowledging the values of a home office. A lot of people acknowledge the value of not having to commute — that has benefits. The worse exposure to pollutants is when you are stuck on the 405.”

If businesses continue to be accommodating of employees working from home, not only will this create a more equitable and productive office, but it will also help preserve the environment.

Individuals looking to take a break from their home offices and quarantine regimes have led to an increasing amount of interest in the outdoors. Whether it be a local park or a frequently trekked hike, the environment has become many people’s safe haven.

“As people found indoor spaces less safe, many people turned to the environment to be a place where they could gather more safely with friends and family, where they could get exercise and find a sense of peace,” Whitcraft said. “And I think that elevated our perspective on how important the environment is to our daily lives.”

Whitcraft hopes that this leads to an increased appreciation for the environment, which scientists have warned have  less than a decade for repair before irreversible damage is done.

Though the pandemic shifted public conversations around health, Hagedorn and Whitcraft spoke of how the the intertwining of people’s health and the environment is often forgotten.

Hagedorn referenced data proving that one’s life expectancy is shortened by living on road intersections compared to central block areas of neighborhoods. He also emphasized that toxic environmental effects are not always visible but can still do long-term damage to communities.

But the main problem to addressing these issues, Hagedorn said, is that “sustainability always comes at a cost,” one that people are often unable or unwilling to pay.

“There’s discrepancy between what people know should be done and what people are willing to accept,” Hagedorn said. “We need to bridge the gaps a little bit. The pandemic has shown us that we’re very vulnerable people. It just took one virus from China to put everything to a halt.”

Whitcraft feels if people had a better scientific understanding of the way viruses circulate and spread, there would possibly be fewer skeptics.One program Whitcraft mentioned was the PREDICT Project, which, aims to mitigate the emergence of future viruses.

“Whatever future disease we’re going to face next are already circulating in wildlife,” Whitcraft said. “And if we don’t understand them and understand how our actions affect them, then we’re going to encounter them in negative ways. But if we start to understand what viruses are out there, we have the potential to change our activities, such as where we build or what animals are sold in markets or how we handle wildlife.”

Hagedorn feels that the United States should take after European countries like Denmark that have implemented industrial symbiosis, which allows one business’ waste to be used as another’s resource. With this model, he explained, a power plant’s waste would be used as materials for a pharmaceutical company, and that company’s waste would be used as material by another.

In support of a global effort to combat climate change, Hagedorn referenced the success of the Montreal Protocol, a multinational agreement made during the ’80s to phase out the use of certain gases after they were proven to cause skin cancer. Hagedorn feels the issue now is that people don’t believe that burning gasoline contributes to the greenhouse effect, despite data proving otherwise.

“It takes a global effort,” Hagedorn said. “Who knows how long we have until there are these little islands of prosperity and health [and] clean environments? Because the pollutants and greenhouse gases — they don’t stop at borders.”

Looking ahead, Whitcraft urges people to educate themselves on the climate crisis and make small changes to their daily lives if able, such as in transportation, consumption and purchases. She also encourages the community to call on policymakers to prioritize environmental protection.

Though Whitcraft understands how overwhelming these issues can seem, she is optimistic that people globally will adapt and fix these problems.

“The vaccine development pointed to the idea that if a whole bunch of people put their heads together towards one problem, we really can, in a short timeframe, innovate on amazing solutions,” Whitcraft said. “So if people decided that the problem they want to tackle is climate change, or other environmental issues, it offers hope that they could do that.”

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