Texas Tech University

Can COVID-19 Have Long-Term Effects on the Climate?

George Watson

April 9, 2020


Katharine Hayhoe continues to deliver her messages to the public in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

As individuals deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic that has driven most of the world indoors for the time being, climate science expert Katharine Hayhoe continues her research into understanding how climate change will impact people and the places they live, and spreading that message worldwide.

Given that large swaths of the world are shut down and some streets are abandoned, it may seem like spreading that message would be extremely difficult. Yet, through her own effort to reduce her carbon footprint. Hayhoe, an endowed professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts & Sciences and co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University, is already set up to handle this kind of crisis.

As a climate expert, Hayhoe engages with stakeholders in industries including agriculture, public health, energy and infrastructure to communicate the relevance of incorporating information on our changing climate into societal planning today.

Hayhoe is considered one of the world's leading experts on climate science. Her research focuses on evaluating future impacts of climate change on human society and the natural environment by developing and applying high-resolution climate projections. She also presents the realities of climate change by connecting the issue to values people hold dear instead of being confrontational with scientific facts.

Through TED talks, her Global Weirding series on YouTube and Texas Tech Public Media, and her extensive work on social media, Hayhoe has delivered her research and her message that climate change mattes to all of us for quite a while without having to actually be there in person. She anticipates little impact on her ability to continue delivering that message under the current circumstances.

Are there any potential harmful effects from this virus on the climate?
Yes, there could potentially be. As this MIT Technology Review explains, "if the virus leads to a full-blown global pandemic and economic crash, it could easily drain money and political will away from climate efforts." How? Well, the pandemic has already dropped the price of oil, making fossil fuels much cheaper than we've seen in years; it's disrupted the supply chain for renewable energy technology like electric cars and solar panels and tanked the stock prices of companies like Tesla; and it's diverted public attention from the urgency of climate change, since there's only so many crises we can focus on at the same time.

How do experts such as yourself continue to communicate and deliver your messages about climate science when you're working from home?
A few years ago, I stepped on the carbon scale and was surprised (and horrified) to find that the biggest part of my own carbon footprint was my travel. Not travel for vacations or to visit friends and family, but travel to scientific conferences and to talk about climate change! As a result, I decided to consciously transition the majority of my talks to low-carbon virtual talks. Today, about 80 percent of the lectures, seminars and talks I give are virtual. I record and stream them from my home studio with sound equipment, professional lighting and a backdrop screen. Not only that, but for the first time this semester I am offering an online course, where half of my students are not local to Lubbock. So, although all my in-person talks have been cancelled for the next few months due to the coronavirus pandemic, I can still give all my virtual talks and continue to teach my class as scheduled. And thanks to the fact that I'm already all set for video production, I can add all the new requests for videos I've received since then, to replace in-person events that range from professional conferences to the national March for Science and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

What are the most effective methods for delivering the message to a majority of the world that is stuck at home?
We're rapidly learning that in a world of physical distancing, the internet is our key to keeping in touch with each other. The last few weeks, I've been using FaceTime and Zoom to keep up with family and friends more than ever, including joining my 2-year-old nephew for playtime and visiting my 96-year-old grandma in her residential care home. In terms of climate communication, though, I already regularly use social media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – to talk about climate change and share information with people here in Texas and around the world. I also have a YouTube series, Global Weirding, that tackles common questions about climate change, and we just recorded (in my home studio) and released two brand new episodes just this week that explain how climate change affects the spread of viruses and diseases and how the pandemic is affecting air pollution and climate change. My TED talk has nearly 3 million views, I often answer questions on Quora and Reddit, and I post many of my interviews and essays on my website. So, many of the most effective ways to share information in this digital age haven't been affected at all, and in fact, even more people are using them today as a result.

You have been very conscientious about your carbon footprint even before this pandemic. How much has your carbon footprint been reduced even further over the last 10 days/two weeks?
April is the busiest month of the year for a climate scientist – my Earth Day week invitations typically book over a year in advance, and we've been hard at work for months now, carefully bundling all my requests and fitting them together like puzzle pieces so I could fly to the East Coast just once, then take the train back and forth between more than a dozen events in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City. Now, though, they are all cancelled and many have been replaced with virtual talks, so my personal carbon footprint has been reduced even further than it already was. I'm glad so many of these events have been able to move online though, as it enables these events to not only continue, but to expand their reach far beyond those who could show up in person for a live event.

How much could the climate improve with people staying home, less vehicle traffic producing carbon emissions and plants shut down producing less gas?
We've already seen a significant decrease in carbon emissions and air pollution as industrial production and transportation have ground to a halt during the pandemic. In China, for example, their carbon emissions were reduced by 25 percent during the month of February and air pollution over some parts of the country nearly disappeared from NASA satellite maps. I've seen photos of cities around the world where smog-choked air is being replaced by blue skies, the likes of which many haven't seen in years. And the even better news is that this likely saved lives. Air pollution kills nearly 9 million people each year, and Marshall Burke, a colleague from Stanford University, estimates that it's possible the reduction in air pollution over China saved more lives than were lost in that country due to the pandemic. The bad news, however, is that the slow-down in economic production and the bans on travel and closures of non-essential businesses are devastating many people's livelihoods and their ability to support their families. As the economy and industrial production ramps back up, as it needs to after the pandemic passes, then carbon emissions and air pollution will, too. So, any benefits to the climate and the environment are likely to be temporary and short-lived.

When the travel bans were put into place in the U.S. and Europe you were in Ireland. Describe your experience overseas when this all began, how it affected your scheduled talks and the process of getting back to the U.S.
When I travel in person, I collect and bundle my invitations very carefully to do as much as possible in one place each time I have to fly to get there. Our time and our carbon are the two most non-renewable resources we have, so I do my best to use each of them wisely. Sadly, the pandemic caught me right in the middle of one of these bundles, a trip we'd been planning for more than a year, consisting of 18 lectures and talks and a total of nearly 40 events across Ireland and Scotland.

I was able to complete nearly all of the Irish events and the first one in Scotland as well, a panel hosted by Historic Environment Scotland at Edinburgh Castle, which we re-configured to be a live-stream without an audience rather than the packed event they'd originally envisioned. After that, however, I thought it was wisest to head home ASAP.

I'd been hearing the horror stories of six-hour waits and seeing the photos of the crowded immigration halls, so I was expecting the worst when we touched down at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. I made sure my water bottle was full and my hand sanitizer was in my bag. But when I got to the immigration hall, it was empty. At the desk, they asked us only if we'd been in China. When I said no, I was waved through immediately and within a few minutes I was at the gate for the flight to Lubbock. It actually concerned me how easy it was to get through, and how few questions they asked.

I passed through London's Heathrow airport on the way home, and I know that a number of people caught the coronavirus in London, including the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the daughter of some family friends. So even though I wasn't asked to self-isolate for two weeks, I've been doing it since I got home, just to make sure!

How big of a chance is this to show the world how much we could affect climate change, even if we just change a little bit, not necessarily promote self-isolation, once this is over?
This pandemic has shown us that, when urgent action is needed, we are willing and able to do it. The lifestyle changes required to fix climate change are far less draconian than those we are currently adopting to slow the spread of this pandemic, and climate change is just as – if not potentially more – devastating to our health, the economy and civilization as we know it, albeit over longer time scales. So, my hope is that our response to this pandemic shows us that yes, we can act, and our actions do make a difference.

What are some things we can do even while self-distancing and isolating in our homes to further reduce damage to the climate?
As I explain in my TED talk, the single most important thing each of us can do about climate change is talk about it – and we can still do that!

Look for resources online, watch or read them, then share. I've got a list of books, documentaries and podcasts here if you're looking for ideas!

Then, go online and look for an organization that shares your interests and your values and cares about climate change. There are organizations for people who hunt or fish or ski, people who are Catholics or Evangelicals or interfaith, farmers and small business owners and parents and kids. Contact them and see how you might be able to plug in and help – virtually!

Finally, think about how you could advocate for and help implement change – in your home, by changing old incandescent lightbulbs to efficient LEDs, exploring ways to eat less meat and more plants, conducting an energy audit, moving the thermostat down a degree or two in winter and up a degree or two in summer, and more; at your school or place of work, by saving energy and cutting food waste; and maybe even writing a letter or sending an email to an elected official (because you can do that now, too) asking them to support bipartisan policies like a price on carbon and climate resilience efforts.

When it all comes down to it, the coronavirus pandemic reminds us of what really matters: our health and safety, and that of our friends and family, our community, our country and our world. This is what the coronavirus threatens, and it's exactly what climate change does, too.

That's why, whether we realize it or not, we all care about climate change. We just haven't connected the dots.