What are the Lessons from the COVID-19 Experience?
by Debbie Mytels
Since early spring, when the COVID-19 virus overturned our daily lives in California, we’ve been part of a communal experience whose impact is both significant and — as we’re slowly realizing — quite persistent. Since then, we’ve learned new memes like “flatten the curve,” that viruses are not really “alive,” how to use Zoom, tips on baking sourdough bread — and how much of sixth grade math we’ve forgotten! But while we’re spending time looking up facts and how-to’s online, a meta-level of learning is also going on that transcends our individual Google searching.
I think there are six lessons that are now imprinting on our collective psyche — social memes that may have a universal impact on our future behavior. These aren’t just “intellectual” learnings — we are grokking them at a deeper, more emotional level. I see most of these as positive, with one significant exception which I will leave to the end.
The first is a deepening awareness of our interconnection and a growing love for the web of life. We recognize that a virus starting from a wild animal in China, traveling to Italy, passing through an airport in New York and zinging all over the globe proves that we are not immune to what happens in any corner of this planet. But sheltering within our homes, we feel the pain of losing connection. We yearn for a hug from our grandchild, to touch a dying sister’s hand, to bring flowers to a friend. We find solace in nature, even if it’s only nature photos online. We realize that life is precious — and for a few moments, we’re slowing down to appreciate it.
Second, we’re more keenly aware of the need to plan ahead for future emergencies. A friend who thought her husband crazy a decade ago when he purchased a bucketful of emergency health supplies was so pleased when they opened it to find a dozen N-95 face masks. The erosion of national funding for such supplies makes those of us with earthquake kits in our cars feel somewhat virtuous. And clearly, communities like San Mateo County that are proactively planning for the sea level rise due to climate change are taking the necessary steps to protect their residents and future economy. Climate protection advocates have been raising a clarion call for decades about the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gases, and the parallel with failing to prepare for COVID-19 is only too obvious.
Third, the divisions in our society based on income and race are now frighteningly visible. The statistics are coming in from all corners: African-Americans and Latinx people are disproportionally being infected and dying from the virus. This isn’t due to any inherent biological factor, but rather to economic inequality. Stemming from a history of racist policies, people of color have lower income, less family wealth, more stress — and higher rates of mortality from all diseases. Lower income people of color are more likely to live close to freeways and in cities with high air pollution, both of which are risk factors for asthma and becoming ill with COVID-19. And we’re all more vividly aware that health insurance — and even sick leave — are only available to those on one side of the income divide. While affluent people have decent health care plans from their employers or Medicare, people in lower income brackets work at “gig” jobs without insurance benefits — or they are undocumented immigrants who pay into the Medicare system, but never receive its benefits. It’s now hard to ignore these statistics — or to create other excuses for them. If we claim to believe in equal opportunity, it’s clear that we need to address these issues of income inequality — and the underlying racist attitudes behind them.
Fourth, more people are seeing the value of government as an institution. When we see the efficient, wide-ranging and science-based response of California’s Governor Newsom and the capable experts he has enlisted to handle the COVID emergency, it renews our faith in what a government can accomplish. As the major social organization explicitly set up to work for the common good, it’s heartening to see a government that is wisely directing resources, being proactive about addressing emerging concerns and planning ahead. In comparison with the mendacious and fumbling mistakes of the Trump Administration, it’s refreshing to see a working example of how a government is supposed to act. A corollary is the undeniable value of a working public health system, based on data analysis and scientific inquiry, and how it can capably protect its community needs.
The fifth learning is about how quickly we CAN change! Some of us remember the extraordinary winter of 1989 – 90, which saw not only the Berlin Wall fall within a few days, but also Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, which led to the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa. Similarly, from the COVID crisis we’re learning that people can change very fast when they see a clear reason for doing so. During the first week of staying-at-home, our whole society was inundated with the phrase “Flatten the curve.” Our amazing technological ability to spread information can motivate rapid behavior change. For example, an idea like passing a $2 trillion CARES package would have been considered “impossible” by deficit hounds a few years ago. Now it is “what we have to do.” We should now apply this lesson to reduce the impact of climate change. We know we must switch to renewable energy and rebuild our homes, offices and factories to run on clean electricity, rather than dirty fossil fuels. Yes, it will cost money to retrofit all these buildings, but the savings in using free energy from the sun and wind will pay back the upfront equipment cost in short order. We need to educate people that a Green New Deal is essential for our health and safety — and for a prosperous future economy. (And it might help if we also remind people that the only real barrier is fossil fuel investors who are only thinking of their short-term profits, rather than the health of this interconnected world in which we all live.)
This brings me to the sixth and final lesson from our experience with COVID-19: the power of overcoming fear. While catching the virus and dying is a reasonable fear, we should also ask what precautions are appropriate. Fear can lead some people to a hypervigilance that wastes their life energy. Is it really necessary to wipe canned goods from the store with anti-bacterial wipes that don’t biodegrade? And we need to question who is fanning the flames of fear. For example, the business magazine Fast Companyreports that “the plastics industry is using the coronavirus to fight plastic bag bans.” Others, either out of genuine concern or simply blatant self-interest, are leveraging the fear of economic consequences to lobby for excessive subsidies for fossil fuels and other polluting industries. (For example, note how the Trump Administration quietly removed restrictions on deadly mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants in early April.) With calls for a return to “normal,” some are denying the growing awareness that we all have to breathe the same air.
Without succumbing to fear, our challenge now is to go forward with courage, incorporating all that we are learning. As we look into the future, how will we use these lessons delivered by a lowly virus? Will we remember our deep connection to all beings on the living Earth? Will we address the patterns of inequality that are tearing our society apart? Will we again plan for the emergencies that science tells us are looming on the horizon? Will we invest fresh energy in our democracy and therefore renew a belief that government can act capably and honestly on our behalf? If we can take these lessons from the COVID virus and apply them to other emerging threats — climate change being the most urgent — then we will again have used humans’ exceptional capacity for learning and adaptation to prove our species worthy of
continuing among Earth’s myriad creatures.
— by Debbie Mytels, May 20, 2020
Why Are a Few Builders Against All-Electric?
Carol Cross, with contributions from Tom Kabat
Within the circles in which I travel (nerdy climate-change activist types) the question has come up time and again: why are (some) builders against an all-electric code? What’s the attraction of gas infrastructure?
Tom Kabat, an energy and electrification consultant who I believe works in Menlo Park, gave us some answers that I’d like to share with you.
First off, he says California has had a legacy of gas because of being the number one oil producing state in the country in the 1920s. Later came the Warren-Alquist Act of 1974 following the first energy crisis. That act established the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the Energy efficiency Part 6 of the building code Title24. BTW, back then, technologies were less efficient, and the power grid was dirtier with no Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and no Community Choice Energy: think PCE.
Things are much different now, due to major advances in consumer electric space heating and cooling. With electricity we now get 4x the efficiency of gas heating and water heating at 3 to 4x the efficiency of a gas water heater. That, plus faster delivery of hot water than even tankless water heaters, an emergency water supply in the tank for many hours of hot water in a power outage, and induction cooktops surpassing gas in speed, precision, control, cleanliness, and safety make electricity a cost-saving choice.
And the electric portfolio policies have advanced, with all of California headed to 60% renewables (wind, solar, geothermal, etc.) by 2030 and fully carbon neutral by 2045. As you know, it’s already cleaner in the Bay Area: SVCE already at 100% carbon free power and PCE at 90% and headed to 100% by 2022.
He claims (and I believe him) that the construction industry is likely tradition bound and relationship bound. They make money the old-fashioned way, by repeating the same thing that worked last year, generally with the same suppliers and the same subs who may not have been trained in the new electric alternatives. Developers have not sensed customer preference for clean electric technologies and customers don’t know about them because developers don’t offer them. “It’s a lack of chickens and lack of eggs problem.” Meanwhile, we have new information re: the science on methane as a Greenhouse gas. We now understand methane (CH4) is 30 times as warming if it is leaked than if it is burned (oxidized into CO2). Unfortunately, we have also recently learned from aircraft infrared scanning, google map vehicle scanning, and from satellite imagery that much more gas is leaking than the gas industry has reported. You may have seen an article in the SF Chronicle just last week on this very discovery. The amount of gas leakage found by independent researchers more than doubles the climate chaos potential of natural gas and makes it even worse than burning coal.
Of course, there will continue to be some folks trying to make their livings off of gas and they will selectively argue with old inapplicable historic facts hoping the listener is unaware of the modern situation. But the truth is, our kids’ future depend on us getting GHGs out of the atmosphere asap, and electrifying buildings is an easy way to begin to get a handle on the problem. There’s simply no longer a good argument for continuing to build with gas infrastructure.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.