Video: In New York’s Empty Streets, Lessons for Climate Change in the Response to Covid-19

The pandemic is fast-moving while the impacts of climate change take decades to manifest, but both threaten humanity if some common steps aren’t taken in response.

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The world is reeling from yet another week of the coronavirus pandemic, with death counts rising, economies spiraling downward and half the global population under orders to stay at home.

But there are also lessons from the response to Covid-19 that can be applied to the climate crisis, and opportunities for cities to take the policies implemented to deal with the pandemic and apply them to their efforts to slow climate change.

Some of the similarities between the two crises are obvious, such as the benefits of acting early, the consequences of delay and the importance of heeding scientists’ warnings. Others, like the long-term economic impacts of the crises and the ways that infrastructure improvements can make communities more resilient to their impacts, are more nuanced or won’t be clear for some time.

“Climate change has the potential eventually to be an even greater threat to humanity than the coronavirus,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. “With the virus, you have a very fast moving, devastating impact, and the mortality from it is quite clear, and people are almost overnight changing their behavior to try to cope with it. With climate change, it’s a problem that has been building up for decades and will take even decades more to reach its fullest extent.” 

One similarity, Gerrard notes, is the way in which both climate change and Covid-19 disproportionately affect low income and marginalized communities. New York City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who serves the Lower East Side community of Manhattan, agreed. “When you think about our historically marginalized, disenfranchised communities,” she said, “I think that you will see how those inequities [have] really been brought to light” by weather events related to climate change and by the Covid-19 pandemic.


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In a matter of days, governments, industries and individuals across the country reacted dramatically to the Covid-19 threat, shuttering schools and businesses; turning entire workforces into telecommuters; pivoting industries to the production of ventilators and protective equipment, and protecting themselves with hand sanitizers, face masks and isolation. And some of these practices could also have lasting impacts in the fight against global warming.

Many U.S. cities and states have enacted climate change initiatives, particularly since President Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement in 2017. Perhaps the most ambitious of these plans is in New York City, currently the epicenter of the U.S. Covid-19 outbreak. Amy Turner, a fellow at the Cities Climate Law Initiative at Columbia University, helps cities achieve their climate goals. She sees “an opportunity to marry some of the elements of climate policy and Covid policy, as we think about our response to both crises.” Turner cites increasing bicycle infrastructure, tackling building efficiency and increasing public transportation as some of these opportunities. 

Councilwoman Rivera sees possibilities for transportation changes to increase bus ridership, and the opening up of green spaces. “When it comes to climate change, and to how things are changing and affecting us, we know as a coastline community that we’re going to continue to be affected,” she said. “But I really want to see investment in some of these communities to change things once and for all.” 

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