UC Berkeley environmental experts discuss intersection of COVID-19, climate change, global sustainability

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Led by David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, campus environmental experts discussed the intersection of COVID-19, climate change and challenges to global sustainability in an installment of UC Berkeley’s ongoing online conversation series about the pandemic.

Contributing to the conversation was environmental science, policy and management professor Kate O’Neill, graduate student with the campus Energy and Resources Group Valeri Vasquez and Daniel Kammen, director of UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory.

Kammen said his lab is currently working closely with national and international universities on how to implement elements of a green stimulus package to re-employ people with green jobs and put trillions of dollars back into the public sector as the United States witnesses unemployment levels that are comparable to those of the Great Depression.

“We’re looking at taking advantage of record-low prices for solar, wind, geothermal energy storage and building that back into a package that governments will want to do because it puts people back to work much more quickly,” Kammen said during the event. “These renewable projects are much more shovel-ready than fossil projects, and they exist in every sector.”

The resurgence of single-use plastics such as plastic bags, disposable gloves and company packaging may be justified for hygienic reasons, but this increased usage is challenging progress made by zero waste policies, according to O’Neill.

O’Neill added that sanitary workers dealing with medical waste are fighting the disease on the front lines, now making it the fifth most dangerous occupation in the United States, even when the military is considered.

This can also become an issue of environmental justice when the demographic most likely working in dangerous conditions comes from low-income communities of color, according to Vasquez.

Vasquez, whose research focuses on the intersection of the climate and public health, added that increasing contact rates between humans and wildlife heightens the risk of the emergence of new infectious diseases like the coronavirus spreading from animals to humans.

Effective environmental strategies moving forward will need to include biodiversity management and food production that acknowledges the interconnections between natural ecosystems and human health, according to Vasquez.

“One of the most difficult truths that we have to acknowledge about COVID-19 is that it came about as a result of human activity — full stop. But, a second difficult truth is that it wasn’t generated by any single action of ours; rather, it’s the confluence of many actions on many fronts,” Vasquez said during the event. “As we clear more wild spaces to build homes and to build towns, we’re disrupting a delicate balance of ecosystems.”

One way to address this concern, according to Vasquez, is to bring more scientists into national policymaking.

Other options seem to point toward deglobalization, according to O’Neill. Ackerly said, however, that global collaboration is a possible solution to a widespread problem like COVID-19.

Either way, Vasquez said she believes the world needs to rethink traditional ideas of protection and prevention, which could mean investing more in scientific research.

“We can’t actually use the past as a model for the future,” O’Neill said during the event. “We’ve really got to develop new paradigms, and quickly.”

Contact Olivia Buccieri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @obuccieri_dc‏.