Guest Column: Looking at the environmental silver lining, and lessons learned, in coronavirus

The sound of Burt Reynolds’ black Trans Am gunning down the highway in the 1981 film “Cannonball Run” was so badass that every one of us coming up at that time knew exactly what we aspired to drive.


When news hit that the real-life cannonball run—a high-speed drive from New York to L.A.—was accomplished in record time earlier this month, in part because so few cars are on the highway, it made a neat bookend to my childhood fascination and my current crush:


NASA satellite data shows air pollution in the Eastern U.S., including Northeast Ohio, dropped by 30% due to stay-at-home orders in the COVID-19 pandemic.


This revelation followed amazing satellite imagery over Europe and Asia showing air pollution had suddenly and dramatically disappeared. Reports came flooding in that the Himalayans were visible 150 miles away in Punjab for the first time in 30 years. Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, was reporting the cleanest air all year.


Forgive me for looking to silver linings in the wave of death and destruction to the economy, but this news will probably translate into fewer deaths from coronavirus.


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found this week that the respiratory virus is linked to higher mortality rates in cities where the soot from cars and trucks have eroded public health for decades.


Regions like Northeast Ohio have perpetually failed to reach national standards for particulates and soot, a situation we have become inured to. Despite constant warnings and threats of pulled funding from the federal government, improvements in air quality have been stagnant. The only action really has been to move the goal posts back on targets for years.


So, forgive those of us who sat up and took notice of the incredible blue skies over Cleveland recently. It is, in fact, a small miracle in an otherwise horrid pandemic.


It also may be ballast to the horrid decisions being made to loosen federal restrictions on air pollution from industry, and the evisceration of fuel economy standards that quietly slipped past our nets this month.


What is fascinating about this situation is how quickly we have been able to row in the same direction. It gives me hope. Because this is practice for the next global catastrophe lurking around the corner.


What lessons should we take from this? First, there is an economic benefit for clean air. When we let polluters decide how much to despoil the air we breathe and the water we drink, we end up with burning rivers and higher rates of asthma which can lead to more death at times of crisis.

Over the past several weeks, NASA satellite measurements have revealed significant reductions in air pollution over the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast United States.

We should be thinking about making blue skies over Northeast Ohio permanent. Many of us have shown that telework is a real, binding strategy for efficient and eco-friendly work.

Last week, our region’s transportation agency, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA) was deciding its 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Plan and seeking public input.


The agency could take a page from San Diego where the transportation agency is going to fund more telework, more public transit, more bike-friendly streets.


The hard truth is the world would need to shelter in place for a whole year like this to bend the arc on carbon dioxide emissions, which are invisible, but the cause of so much global warming, according to Charles Keeling, the world’s foremost authority on atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas.


That doesn’t bode well, unless we take this opportunity to spin tragedy into something else in what writer Albert Bates calls The Great Pause.


We desperately need a complete makeover. Now is a time when we have a store of will that is being built up from being around family and our neighborhood and being reminded of what matters most.


We should take this opportunity to question what got us here. So that we emerge from this with a stronger immune system, with communities that can think and act, fix what’s broken and feel empowered to do so now.

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.