This interview is part of a series conducted by the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks initiative on the potential impacts of COVID-19. The interviews feature insights from the FSR initiative’s Nonresident Senior Fellows, a set of experts drawn from across a wide range of fields. In this interview, Dr. Joe Mascaro, director of education and research at Planet, discusses the effects of the pandemic on the environment, and the implications for energy transitions and earth sciences research.
What has COVID-19 done to reshape both your professional life and how you see the world?
I am an Earth scientist, a field that is already experiencing a broader, ongoing transformation in public perception. We have an exponential growth of miniaturization of processing systems, which has been really timely. We are in the Anthropocene, we are trying to meet this moment where we are dealing with the Earth changing incredibly fast, maybe faster than it has in the last two and a half million years.
When I look at COVID-19, obviously, the human cost is paramount, but it is similar to a number of disruptions that we might be experiencing in the future with climate change. The pandemic is global. It is clearly an undesirable event. And in some ways it is also an unplanned experiment. I would say the pandemic has generated a set of new questions in the Earth science discipline, and we will probably not know the answers to these questions for many years.
The biggest question is if and how COVID will alter carbon dioxide emissions, which are the principal human component of anthropogenic climate change. The speculation is that probably there will be an effect, a reduction, but it is too soon to say.
In some ways, COVID is an unplanned, undesired experiment but also an opportunity. We have a chance to see how atmospheric gases, not just carbon dioxide, are altered by the massive global changes in human behavior. There are fewer people driving, fewer people flying. There [were] a number of studies exploring the impact of changes in air traffic on contrails. Contrails are a unique atmospheric influence that humanity creates through flying, which affect cloud formation and the albedo, the reflectivity of the planet.
There are other studies underway looking at other effects. Some examples are anecdotal: for instance, changes in local water quality and local air pollution. The canals in Venice are cleaner in terms of their pollution. We need to collaboratively look at this data given the global remote sensing monitoring revolution, and learn from this moment. COVID-19 could teach us how we could potentially handle certain climate issues or other kinds of environmental challenges. I started in field ecology. Before I did any remote sensing, I was running around the tropics measuring trees with my hands and with measuring tapes. What I have seen from a lot of my colleagues is people are suddenly unable to go to the field, particularly anyone who travels internationally for fieldwork. The pandemic affects every kind of on-the-ground science: geology, hydrology, tropical ecology, which is my own background. There were a few courses, run by some prominent scientists, that got stuck briefly in certain places—for instance, Peru—and left just before the border closed. A lot of scientists are turning to remote sensing, maybe for the first time, or taking classrooms into a remote sensing type of experience for the first time, because they’re simply unable to do field work.
Regarding changes to Earth systems, we’ve got a temporary, research-oriented set of questions, and then longer-term consequences for the planet. In the short-term, besides the predictable downturn in emissions given the economic contraction, there is also a research opportunity, because the actual data that we have right now about human impact on the Earth is different than it was six months ago.
Exactly. If you look at the last several decades, many of the most prominent experiments on climate change, like the FACE (Free Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment) studies funded by the Department of Energy and other federal agencies and philanthropies, were experiments where scientists would deliberately increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The goal was to see how plants and soils and other ecological components would respond. In those cases, scientists were doing adjustments on a very, very small scale—a small plot of land or several plots, the size of a house at most. And here we have a global situation that has created, essentially, an unplanned experiment, but it’s massive and incredibly diverse in terms of variety of ecological systems affected. I think you’ll see many years of research coming out of this unusual situation.
As a scientist, what are you hoping will emerge from that specific research about this dip in human impact? Specifically when it comes to carbon, but possibly other metrics as well. What would scientists hope to get out of this research, which would then be turned into actionable policy?
Because this is so complex, it’s difficult for me to predict how the results would feed into policy. One example, from the New York Times, is that it is highly possible that the aftermath of the pandemic will result in the first year, in recent memory or maybe ever, in which renewable electricity in the United States will exceed that from coal. This combination of ongoing transition to renewable energy systems and acute changes to human living patterns may result in the first year ever where renewables are the lead energy mix, at least for electricity generation, in the United States.
It is highly possible that the aftermath of the pandemic will result in the first year, in recent memory or maybe ever, in which renewable electricity in the United States will exceed that from coal.
I took something interesting away from that. Renewables were always treated as something in addition to required baseload electricity. Because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, I think we thought of renewable electricity as intermittent, [something] that [is] on or off depending. Now, we’re seeing something different, which is that the renewable technology has improved so much that it can be used for long amounts of time and, indeed, that baseload energy sources like natural gas are required less frequently. So now that U.S. consumption of electricity has dropped with economic contraction, it may be that we will see an increased reliance on renewables as part of the energy mix. COVID has resulted in a potential window into those energy dynamics.
On the longer-term impact side, what questions do you think are going to arise as a result of what the COVID pandemic might mean for the climate challenge in general in terms of emissions? What public-policy questions or opportunities might arise as a result of that?
Earth science is an incredibly multidisciplinary group. When you’re in the Earth science community you’re often dealing with other scientists and you share a lot of the same jargon. As a scientist, mostly watching how the policymaking apparatus is dealing with this crisis globally, I think one of the more fascinating features of it is that we’re all being exposed to new forms of jargon or technical, wonky content and we are trying to interpret it.
So, we have a communication challenge: are doctors using the same words that bureaucrats are using? What we are learning is that multidisciplinary work helps to eventually solve some of those challenges, because the more we work in a cross-disciplinary way, the more we are able to actually respond to crises because we can share complex information with each other even though it might not be from our own discipline.
A good example in Earth science is coders versus software developers. Many of my colleagues who are scientists write some amount of computer code, but most of them also wouldn’t consider themselves to be professional software developers. When you hire a software engineer in a place like Silicon Valley, you’re generally hiring people that are professionally trained to write code. And these two groups of people are able to communicate, certainly, but they don’t necessarily communicate fluently the way that a group might communicate in their own kind of topical, disciplinary silo.
We certainly are seeing how this challenge forces us to try to learn some basics of other people’s disciplines so that we can be conversant in [them].
Pausing for a second on this idea of scientific cooperation. What about the flip side, which is when politics gets in the way of scientific cooperation? Will international scientific cooperation become more difficult in terms of access to data, sharing of information, etc.? How do you see this situation evolving?
I think one of the critical questions for the next several months and years in terms of analyzing data is: are we able to interpret that data in a scientifically rigorous way and make informed observations about it?
Regarding COVID data collection, I don’t know enough about it yet to have any opinion on how well we’re able to do that, but I definitely have seen a lot of anecdotal concern about the quality of data in different places, in terms of testing rates, recording of symptoms, how mortality is mapped (the degree to which COVID was either the prominent proximate factor in mortality or just a component of a number of factors). I think there are really important questions in terms of understanding the data environment before interpreting what that data is telling us.
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Getting back to something we were talking about earlier, COVID makes the process of conducting research more problematic, for example its impact on basic research institutions like universities and national research labs. Could you might expand on how you see those impacts on collaboration amongst the scientific community?
It is unprecedented. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a global stoppage, or alteration of university and academic work, and move into an almost entirely remote format. I think there are gains and losses. In terms of losses, field access is probably the most prominent one that I can think of. Also, losing the classroom environment might have consequences in terms of the way people are actually learning, which we might discover as we study this situation. I have also seen a lot of people taking initiatives, to start creative activities that they might not have otherwise done. I’ve participated in a few Zoom seminars that were brand new.
Anything we forgot to mention?
I actually wanted to share one interesting item. I’m going to be focusing a lot of my attention on climate change mitigation technologies and how they evolve. One really interesting thing I saw over the past several weeks is engineers creating medical equipment. There were two initiatives, one at NASA, one at Virgin Orbit, which is one of the newer aerospace companies, and there may be others, where engineers essentially got together to design new types of medical equipment, in this case ventilators. They were basically building new ventilators where the goal is to make them as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible because the need was to produce more of them. And something really caught my attention: one of the groups, according to a journalist, walked across the street to an AutoZone to buy a windshield wiper motor as part of their project. It was a really interesting take of a kind of tech transfer that shows you how technology can flow from one discipline to a totally different discipline. I’m really interested to see how people taking a creative approach to designing new medical equipment or designing other mitigation efforts for COVID can teach us about how technology components and information can flow from one to the other.