Climate Crisis in the Age of COVID-19

By Midge Pierce

Before the world ground to a corona virus-induced halt, climate seemed the Earth’s most pressing problem. Yet, long after this virus crisis passes, the Earth will still need healing.

Despite the shutdown of events, grassroots organizations at the forefront of climate action are scrambling to mobilize remotely through online meetings, chats, Zoom calls and virtual marches.

Activists in groups like Portland’s 350PDX are encouraging artists to design visually stunning Protest Posters that can hang in windows. They are planning mass emails aimed at banks that lend to fossil fuel producer/distributors, demanding greenhouse gas reductions at levels far more aggressive than anything governments proposed prior to the pandemic.

From Salem, in the wake of the failed cap-and-trade legislation, Gov. Kate Brown issued an executive order that could alter building codes and gasoline carbon levels by requiring that state agencies implement reductions of carbon emissions of at least 25 percent by 2035 and 80 percent reductions below 1990 levels by 2050.

Despite lacking the teeth of the failed legislation and facing likely legal challenges, the Governor’s requirement has been called the most ambitious in the nation.

The US Congress has been considering bills such as an innovative energy dividend to incentivize pollution controls. Before the COVID-19 hit hard, it was winding its way through the House with bipartisan support.

In Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s staff was soliciting input on the draft of his Climate Emergency Declaration to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Portland, the first city to enact a climate act 25 years ago, reduced emissions that have now plateaued 15 percent below 1990 levels.

The Declaration calls for at least a 50 percent carbon emission reduction below 1990 levels by 2030.

The Mayor’s resolutions, due for release on April 22 (Earth Day), have been described as utilizing a social justice focus that prioritizes leadership from “frontline” communities disproportionately hit by the climate emergency.

At a 350PDX conference in earlier this year, Portland Climate Action Manager Alisa Kane described the plan as a people-centered approach that engages indigenous and peoples of color most burdened by warming and pollution.

Despite inviting new voices, perspectives and “lived experiences” to the table, specific actions have not been announced and may take several years to implement.

“We don’t have years to fix the climate,” said a teenage member of Sunrise Movement PDX, a youth-based group that strives to empower generations to become active and take leadership in Portland’s climate justice movement.

Another Sunrise member charged that the Declaration draft is surrendering to catastrophe.

The Mayor’s Climate Declaration acknowledges that construction and transportation play an outsize role in global warming, contributing upwards of 50 percent of greenhouse gases.

Asked if the City’s Residential Infill and rezoning for more housing construction flies in the face of the Mayor’s Declaration, Senior Mayoral Advisor Amanda Watkins called the issue a “collective problem” that requires agencies to get out of their silos and for the building industry to find sustainable workarounds and replacements for materials like asphalt and cement.

Environmentalists insist aggressive reductions must occur within the next five to 10 years. The global grassroots movement Extinction Rebellion seeks 10 percent annual decarbonization and legally binding policies for net zero emissions by 2025. The group has also demanded the City stop Zenith Energy’s expansion of tar soil oil exports.

Activists say reversing warming will take commitment, cooperation and creativity.

Thinking Outside the Box

Portlander Brian Ettling, a Citizens Climate Lobby member and the nation’s first official Climate Comedian, has appeared on Comedy Central and podcasts with his renditions of Chad, a bird befuddled by human’s fowling their nest.

Ettling, however, sees nothing funny about what is happening to the Earth. A self-described climate nerd and former park ranger at Crater Lake, he has witnessed how algae blooms and fires can muddy the clarity of one of the world’s most pristine lakes and destroy ecosystems.

At a recent SE Uplift meeting, he said pollution is responsible for 114,000 US deaths a year. He warned that future viruses – not COVID-19, but tropical ones like Zika – will become more prevalent with warming and deforestation that puts humans in contact with more disease carrying animals.

Disengaged Americans and those considering climate change a hoax are costing lives, he said, urging the public to call their representatives repeatedly and unrelentingly. “Congress does not hear enough from constituents on global warming.”

Ettling is a fervid supporter of a Congressional bill called the Energy Innovations & Carbon Dividend Act. He said the bill would levy a $15 per ton tax on coal, oil and fossil fuels to incentivize greenhouse gas reductions.

To offset any cost increases passed along by utilities, the monies raised would be returned to taxpayers in the form of a monthly check. He claimed the act could spur job creation and stimulate the down-turning economy.

While COVID-19 responses like telecommuting, social distancing and even an epic online choir sing-along on St. Patrick’s Day may have slowed the release of climate-altering carbons for the short-term, Ettling reflects words from the nonprofit Inside Climate News: “Coronavirus is not the way we want to decrease emissions.”

Harnessing the Wind

Calling it “roll up your sleeves time,” City planner Alisa Kane said all facets of government are being pressed for climate solutions. Transportation agencies like Trimet are key components in reducing greenhouse gases.

Trimet has been blasted for its recent purchase of 159 diesel buses, due to an apparent dearth of electric vehicles, it says.

Conversely, it is currently instrumental in city Innovation Quadrant initiatives.

A novel experiment the group has undertaken on the Tilikum Crossing explores how small, vertical axis wind turbines could generate clean energy and store it for later use. In the test, electricity is captured in batteries that power LED lights shining on the turbines.

The purpose of the project is to determine whether the technology could be incorporated into future transit initiatives, according to spokesperson Tia York. The turbines are part of the MAX Orange Line project, which was constructed with a focus on sustainability.

Results of the project were expected to be ready for release in March have been delayed.

Photo credit Midge Pierce

Climate Crisis in the Age of COVID-19

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