By Midge Pierce

Given environmentalists’ 10-years-to-apocalypse countdown, Earth Day would have been extraordinary under any circumstance.  On the celebration’s 50th anniversary last month, Portland’s string of azure sky days gave glimpses of what life with less pollution could be like and glimmers of hope that climate change can be slowed, if not completely reversed.

With factories shuttered, roads emptied and people around the world sheltered in place, Earth Day activities went virtual with rallies, marches, concerts, fundraisers and an online bank takeover to thwart fossil fuel industry funding.

Climate change seminars were conducted on Facebook by organizations like OMSI about everything from green buildings to climate-friendly trees.

SE Uplift offered online conversations with endorsements of groups like Ground Score Association that gives homeless a fair wage in exchange for environmental clean-up work.

Volunteer groups like SOLVE urged simple actions like pulling up invasive species in yards. The group Community Energy Project launched a new Community Solar initiative.

For activists, the pandemic added fuel to the push for Oregon’s Green New Deal, a socially-just plan to transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources by that 2030 apocalyptic deadline.

Across the land, Earth Day became a seize the moment opportunity with captive audiences stuck at home witnessing the convergence of climate change with COVID-19.

Young international activist Greta Thunberg declared that the strong worldwide response to the virus proves how quickly change could mount to slow global warming. Eco-champions mustered new data showing that heavy pollution makes COVID-19 more deadly, especially for low-income populations.

As the virus takes lives, the reduction in pollutants can save others. During the early spring weeks of the pandemic, pollution in urban areas decreased 25 percent and experts predicted a seven percent reduction in greenhouse gases.

During the height of China’s outbreak, pollution-related deaths were down 30 percent. Similar reports have emerged from East Coast cities.

San Francisco reported tales of wildlife running down empty city streets. With clearer skies, birds’ chirping seemed louder, and beneath the ocean, whale song sounded stronger as cruise ships disappeared from the seas.

Climatologists, keenly aware how nature’s unpredictability plays a role in recent air filtering, warned that decreases might be temporary at best and not enough to slow global warming.

Much depends on how the economy recovers, whether it roars back or settles into a new, less environmentally-damaging normal.

Portland State Climate Studies Director and Assistant Professor Paul Loikith says the slowdown in CO2 emissions won’t have much measurable impact if it is limited to the duration of the pandemic, and even if it lasts a year or two.

He noted that only sustained reductions affect climate change because CO2 is long-lived in the atmosphere and continues to rise during the slowdown.

“It takes years for the climate to adjust to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases, Loikith said, “so any reduction in emissions today will not have an effect on global warming in the short-term.”

He also said Portland has specific air pollution contributors that so far haven’t changed much, including diesel emissions from trucks and construction traffic. He voiced concerns about increased residential use of resources like electricity and even wood-burning stoves.

Statistics back up those gloomy assessments. Despite the virus-caused slowdown, the National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI) reported that March 2020 was the second-hottest in 141 years of climate records and so far, 2020 is on track to be one of the warmest years ever.

Given these sobering accounts, Portland activists continue to sound climate change alarms. The year-old Extinction Rebellion and activist groups like 350PDX demand investment in a regenerative, environmentally- friendly economy and divestment in banks that fund the fossil fuel industry.

A so-called digital Divest Day saturated Chase Bank’s website with negative messages about its role in subsidizing greenhouse gases.

To emphasize the interaction between COVID-19 and marginalized populations, 350PDX promised sustainability donations would go to the Oregon Work Relief Fund for immigrants left out of federal stimulus packages.

Activists are taking aim at Trump administration plans to weaken tailpipe emission restrictions. This follows last year’s weakening of restrictions from coal-fired power plants – a measure even the Environmental Protection Agency warned could cause some 1,400 additional premature deaths annually. Experts estimate that two-thirds of cancers and 45,000 respiratory illnesses originate from environmental toxins.

As Earth Day has evolved into a month of actions, alternative energy providers like wind and solar industries were losing considerable workforce and upcoming UN Climate talks were postponed.

Still, Extinction Rebellion expressed hope. “We are seeing how drastically governments can and will respond to existential crisis scenarios and as system after system becomes destabilized, rebuilding and realignment will have to happen.”

Minimizing Individual Environmental Impact

We all know the drill. Reduce, re-use, recycle. Despite COVID-19 making it more challenging to pack groceries in our own cloth bags, individuals have many other ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Most of us already use LED lights, reduce water usage and eat more locally-sourced foods. Organizations even exist for consumers to buy carbon credits to offset plane trips and some airlines have direct purchase options. In the US, terrapass supports sustainable farming and forestry.

Here are few tips culled from multiple sources ranging from the Sierra Club to National Geographic to Burt’s Bees, which urges people to stick with environmental promises for 66 days so they become habit.

Eat more plants and less meat. Activists claim meat constitutes 78 percent of food-related greenhouse gases.

• Waste less food. 30 percent of what we buy ends up in landfills.

• Conserve water. Estimates indicate each individual uses a whopping 81 gallons a day.

• Avoid heavily packaged products and carry reusable mugs, bottles and bags. By 2030 it is estimated that more plastics will be in the ocean than fish.

• Go wild. Plant native plants instead of grass that needs more water.

• Drive efficiently or not at all. If you have to fly, buy carbon offsets to counter jet fuel use.

• Understand that time is running out. Waiting 10, 15 or 20 years is too long to reverse greenhouse gas accumulations. Pressure governments to keep 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground, restore environmental protections and defund fossil fuels.

• If you can, make donations to favorite environmental groups.

Photo by Midge Pierce