Has Safer at Home Taught Wisconsin an Important Environmental Lesson?

This Earth Day, we’re reflecting on how the health crisis has impacted our local environment.

Stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 crisis have dramatically reduced the number of vehicles on the road, grounded flights and slowed industrial manufacturing, easing the strain on the environment and leading to improved air quality in many areas.

“There is a link between people staying at home and not traveling much and industry not going at full tilt and improved air quality related to this pandemic,” says Jon Drewsen, communications director at Clean Wisconsin, an environmental organization founded on the inaugural Earth Day in 1970. “It’s certainly something we are keeping tabs on as it relates to us here in Wisconsin.”

However, improved air quality and a reduction in carbon emissions are being realized during a health crisis that, as of Monday afternoon, had sickened more than 4,500 people and led to 232 deaths in Wisconsin.

“This pandemic is a horrifying thing and we shouldn’t have to rely on it and a global economic collapse to meet carbon emission reduction goals and experience air quality improvements,” Drewsen says.

But there are environmental lessons to be learned that can carry over as stay-at-home orders are lifted, Drewsen insists.

“What it shows is that when we make significant changes in how we interact with our environment and how we go about our day-to-day lives, we have the ability to make measurable improvements to things like air quality, water quality and carbon reductions,” Drewsen says.

The COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the importance of water quality and accessibility, he says.

“In Milwaukee, a lot of people rely on bottled water. They have lead pipes and can’t use the water coming out of the tap,” Drewsen stresses. “It adds a whole other level of urgency to these issues that we need to solve in short order. People need clean water.”

It remains to be seen whether improvements to the environment are a blip created by the stay-at-home orders or whether they could lead to long-term structural changes.

Regardless, policies are needed at the local, state and federal levels in order to foster systemic change and make environmental improvements sustainable, Drewsen adds.

“That is what is needed to meet environmental goals while also ensuring that people have jobs, that our economy is booming and that public health is being taken care of,” he says. “These things aren’t mutually exclusive.”
When U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin helped launch the first Earth Day 50 years ago, the country faced troubling environmental issues, Drewsen notes.

“Water was horribly polluted. There were really horrible air quality issues. Litter issues. It boiled over into this movement where people said enough is enough,” he says. “We needed to tackle those issues on a very systemic level. That led to Earth Day as a national movement and fostered policy initiatives by the federal government to tackle legacy pollution issues. In some ways, this pandemic puts us in a similar situation of just recognizing how important our environment is for people to live healthy, happy and high-quality lives.”

The pandemic has served as an environmental “wakeup” call for many people, says Erick Shambarger, sustainability director for the City of Milwaukee.

“It’s made us all think about traveling less and traveling only for what’s essential,” Shambarger notes. “I don’t really miss being locked in traffic every morning and all the associated air pollution that comes with that. You’ve got to find an opportunity in every challenge that’s before us. In this case, it’s finding ways to get our essential things done with a smaller carbon footprint. We don’t have to be driving six times a day.”

Earth Day serves as a reminder of the interconnectedness of people throughout the world while providing an opportunity for change, he says.

“We have to think about these global issues for our survival and our long-term prosperity,” Shambarger says. “When we come out of this quarantine period, we have to think about how to jump start our efforts on climate change and rebuilding the economy in a way that is more environmentally sustainable and also more equitable.”



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.