SEI Reports

May, 2020

A publication of the Sustainable Environment Institute
What Caused Covid-19?

We are now three months into Covid-19 lockdown. The US death total stands at over 80,000, and unemployment is higher than at any time since the Great Depression. Very understandably, the American media’s primary focus has been on these twin catastrophes. Still, it’s surprising that there hasn’t been more discussion about the causation of this pandemic. What made Covid-19 possible? How is it similar to other recent epidemics/pandemics? What does its emergence say about the possibility of more in the future? Early articles in January about China’s “wet markets" hardly broached these larger issues, and the average reader could well have thought the problem was just Chinese eating habits. As to recent accusations of negligence or the intentional creation of a virus in a Chinese lab, scientists insist there is  no evidence to support  either charge. As one team of biologists and other experts put it, “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

There have, however, been a few articles in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post that look more deeply into the origins of Covid-19, and MSNBC has had some reports. Meanwhile, the European press has had a lot to say, especially The Guardian. And when you read what the environmental scientists are saying a fairly clear picture emerges.

Has Peak Fossil Fuel Demand Passed?

The International Energy Agency projects there will be an enormous decline this year in fossil fuel usage (up to 9% for oil and 8% for coal), owing to the Covid-19 recession. In fact, Carbon Tracker, an influential energy think tank, argues that fossil fuel demand  will never again reach  the levels seen in 2019. As the global economy recovers next year (or later), solar and wind are expected to fill some of the demand once met by fossil fuels, and as the cost of renewables continues to drop, demand for them will increase still further. They are already the “cheapest source of bulk electricity generation in 85% of the world." There would be no financial incentive for energy-consuming countries to return to fossil fuels. 

Demand growth for fossil fuels has been slowing in recent years, growing at under 1% in 2019, due not only to the declining price of renewables but to  more governmental regulation  of the industry (aside from the USA). This has been in part a response to activist pressure. The result has been a “humbled” Exxon, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, “a mediocre company.”

Covid-19 Could Dramatically
Change Food Practices

It might be a trite meme that the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of two characters, “danger” and “opportunity,” but it’s still true sometimes. It certainly seems to be the case with Covid-19 and its disruption to the production, distribution, and consumption of food.

We have already seen the impact the virus is having on meat packing plants , which employ almost 150,000 workers. The federal government has declared the meat industry essential, thus forcing these vulnerable, low-paid workers to either quit their jobs or return to work in plants which are now “hot spots” of infection. Will they be provided with sufficient protective gear? Will the plants be deep-cleaned? Will there be adequate space between workers? Even with precautions, infection rates could remain high, endangering the workers and the larger community.

SEI Website Improves Blog, Adds Teaching Resources Page

The SEI website, now at , has been considerably revised. It’s still largely a repository of environmental information (articles, videos, links to organizations), but it now offers a much more dynamic and easy-to-use blog. With so much time sequestered in our homes, all of us miss our conversations in cafes and on campus. David and I have rich, ongoing discussions with colleagues from Valley and East and elsewhere. Now we can take these conversations to our blog and share opinions that (we believe) many people will find interesting. We are starting small, but will initiate comments on new topics over time. We welcome your responses, and also those of your students. Everyone should feel free to participate. 

We’ve also added a Teaching Resources page to the site. With our courses now all online, many of us need more material to post and use during a lecture, as well as resources for students in the Canvas “modules”. You’ll find links to many organizations that provide didactic materials for free. We featured one superb resource from Carleton College in a previous newsletter, but there are many more. Please help us keep the page updated by sending us links to new sites, especially ones that include animations and short clips. 
News Briefs:

  • The LACCD Board of Trustees’ Facilities Master Planning Oversight Committee discussed a Clean Energy and Sustainability Resolution at its April 22 meeting. It is expected to vote on the resolution later this month, with a final version likely to be submitted to the full Board in June. It’s an ambitious, multi-faceted resolution, including a goal to convert a large percentage of district energy use to renewables by 2030. Last May the CCC Board of Governors encouraged all local districts to develop climate change and sustainability resolutions, but LACCD’s would be more aggressive than the BOG's guideline proposals. We will report further on this in our next issue.

  • Under sustained pressure from activists and acutely aware of changing energy economics, two more major banks have announced they will no longer finance Arctic Refuge oil and gas exploration, development, and production. Citibank and Morgan Stanley join Chase, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs in pulling out of Arctic drilling, leaving only Bank of America. Activists claim the projects would cause harm to Indigenous communities, besides exacerbating global heating. They intend to renew their efforts to force Bank of America to withdraw.

  • Trump administration efforts to weaken the 1972 Clean Water Act have been rejected by the Supreme Court. The April ruling focused on whether the act applied to discharges that travel through groundwater before reaching protected waters. By a surprising 6-3 margin, the court ruled that they do. “This decision is a huge victory for clean water,” said David L. Henkin, the attorney who argued the case on behalf of environmental groups. “The court has rejected the Trump administration’s effort to blow a big hole in the Clean Water Act’s protections for rivers, lakes and oceans.” The vote may also be an encouraging sign for the future, as the court has a number of other environmental cases in its docket.

About Us

We hope you benefit from our "Covid-19" issue. Given the shutdown of our campuses, we have little district news for you this time, but BOT action on energy and sustainability, expected in June, will be a major step forward. (See News Brief above.) We'll have a lot more to say about it in our next issue.

In recent months, we've had meetings with Steve Veres, BOT Vice President, as well as Chancellor Rodriguez and the DAS Executive Committee, and all have been very supportive of our efforts.

Do have a look at our revised website. There's lots of material there. Meanwhile, please stay safe!

--George Leddy and David Beaulieu, editors