Q+A: What Is The Pandemic Teaching Us About Confronting Climate Change?

Franco Montalto
Franco Montalto, PhD

One small bright spot amid the clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic is the worldwide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — the result of stay-at-home orders curtailing car travel. Though many experts expect these gains in the effort to prevent climate change to be short-lived as social distancing guidelines are lifted and businesses reopen, they also suggest that much can be learned from even a fleeting glimpse at greenhouse gas reduction.

One of them is Franco Montalto, PhD, a professor in Drexel’s College of Engineering and head of the North American hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN), who has been a leader in investigating how the behavior of people in urban environments contributes to climate change. Montalto’s research group is currently studying how people in cities are using parks during the pandemic and was recently appointed to New York City’s Panel on Climate Change. Montalto joined Drexel College of Arts & Sciences researchers Mimi Sheller, PhD; Richardson Dilworth, PhD, and Scott Knowles, PhD, in writing a piece for American Scientist in May that discussed how this moment could show the way toward lasting changes in confronting the threat of climate change.

He recently provided some additional insight on the subject, including addressing how we can recover from a viral pandemic without plunging ourselves deeper into an environmental one.

How might seeing the drastic emissions reduction during the pandemic help us understand the level of commitment necessary to achieve our sustainability benchmarks?

These emissions reductions were accomplished through economically and socially painful social distancing guidelines, but without a fundamental structural modification of our energy sourcing. The emissions reductions associated with people working from home may be offset by less people taking mass transit for fear of infection. COVID-19 is not a proxy for the change we need. It merely shows us that emissions reductions are possible if we are willing to make the changes needed to bring them about. The real question is how we do this in a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable way.

What lessons might we learn from sharing in the suffering, and participating in the shared responsibility of recovery from a global pandemic, that could be applied to confronting climate change?

Just like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change will have the greatest impacts on the most vulnerable. The rich can spend money to adapt prophylactically, but everyone else will be much closer to the front lines — and some will have no choice but to be on them.

Global crises affect us all, but not equally. As Mary Annaïse Heglar writes, “Climate change is not the Great Equalizer. It is the Great Multiplier.” The same is true of the coronavirus. I am keenly interested in how to motivate people to make changes that reduce not just their own exposure, but those of everyone.

covid-cyclingAs the country begins to reopen and people begin to travel again, how concerned are you that we could see greenhouse gas emissions increase — even beyond pre-pandemic levels?

We will see emissions increase if people take cars instead of mass transit, so we must work even harder now to continue to reduce our reliance on personal vehicles and encourage the use of trains and buses as much as possible.

It is utterly essential that confidence in mass transit be restored, especially in and in between cities. Within cities, we are seeing an increase in bike ridership, so much so that bike shops have not been able to keep up with demand and keep bikes in stock. This is a promising shift and could contribute to reduced crowding on mass transit, which would make riding transit safer in terms of COVID-19 exposure.

We can also expect that this year air travel will be greatly reduced, as families looking to travel will likely take road trips rather than fly. All of these shifts may be temporary, or they could lead to permanent shifts in our travel choices if we are able to show the public that biking to work and reducing air travel are important climate actions that are also quality of life improvements.

covid-climate-roadHow might some of the measures recommended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 going forward also contribute to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions?

Reductions in mass transit use and reluctance to use car sharing apps could easily increase use of personal automobiles, leading to an increase in emissions. However, it remains to be seen how widespread working-from-home will be, now that so many sectors of the economy have been forced to try it out. Some employers may become more flexible in their telecommuting policies, which could mean fewer people commuting and lower demand for office space, leading to a shift in energy demand away from commercial downtowns, allowing opportunity for a more distributed and resilient energy grid.

As Philadelphia begins to reopen, with no COVID-19 vaccination in sight, we will likely see this slowly play out over time, allowing us more time to be intentional about how we get back to work with our next crisis, climate change, in mind.

In your American Scientist piece, you highlight the fact that communities most vulnerable during the pandemic are frequently the ones most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As we begin a process of national self-examination and address the systems that continually marginalize minority communities, how can efforts to improve climate resiliency address the racism inherent in these systems and prevent it from impeding true progress?

The expanding dialogue about racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd gives me inspiration that even at this time of extreme political polarization, people can come together to demand change that is for the greater good of society.

We need public pressure for climate action to reach the intensity and extent of the calls for antiracism reform of policing, prisons and budgeting. And this push should come from all sectors of our society. As we debate how to make policing more equitable, are we also asking ourselves how climate risks differ based on race, class and geography? We should be.

Indeed, Black communities are more vulnerable to both Coronavirus and climate change, yet Black people are no more responsible for causing climate change — and perhaps even less responsible — than anyone else. Adaptation strategies are useless if they are only accessible to the rich and privileged who created this climate crisis through their energy-intensive lifestyles. Because climate risks are most extreme for everyone else, by not reducing emissions, we are assaulting those communities, not with a knee or a baton, but with heat waves and storm surges.


Montalto directs Drexel’s Sustainable Water Resource Engineering Lab in the College of Engineering. For more information about the lab’s current research on how people in Philadelphia and New York are using parks during mandatory social distancing visit: https://swre.cae.drexel.edu/covid-study/

For media inquiries, contact Britt Faulstick at bef29@drexel.edu or 215.895.2617