Graphic by David Deloso / North by Northwestern

Los Angeles just came off its longest stretch of good air quality in four decades. Viral social media posts appear to show dolphins and swans returning to Venetian canals. But while many have attributed these occurrences to decreased human activity due to COVID-19, LA’s air quality could be linked to the weather, and the purported dolphin and swan sightings have been debunked. (The dolphins are in Sardinia, half a day’s transit from Venice, and the swans are regulars in canals in Burano, an island in the Venice metropolitan area.)

Misinformation about potential ecological upsides to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic is proliferating online, and so are controversial takes on who’s to blame. Twitter user @ThomasSchuIz went viral last month when he tweeted, “Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine[.] We’re the virus[.]”

Social media users have used the language in Schulz’s tweet in increasingly colorful and satirical evidence of Earth’s recovery.

Behind the memes, arguments over ecofascism attack the implication that humans as a whole are responsible for environmental degradation.

A 2019 analysis by the Climate Accountability Institute found that just 20 fossil fuel companies, including Chevron, Exxon and BP, are responsible for over a third of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965. Powerful agro-corporations are driving deforestation in the Amazon by raising cattle for slaughter. But the U.S. government is developing plans to bail out these industries after they took hits during the COVID-19-induced economic downturn.

Deforestation and agriculture and livestock production might even be spurring the transmission of new diseases to humans, according to new research.

It’s true that emissions have gone down due to pandemic-related halts in production and consumption. One study suggested that China’s lockdown and corresponding decrease in factory activity saved thousands of lives by improving air quality. Britain went 18 days without using coal to generate electricity, a record for the country.

However, the current dip in pollution won’t last unless countries and industries make structural changes to environmental policy, say scientists.

"Visible, positive impacts — whether through improved air quality or reduced greenhouse gas emissions — are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress," wrote Inger Andersen, head of the U.N. Environment Program, in an op-ed for the U.N.

Otherwise, when countries kickstart their economies, the production of pollution will bounce back.

“When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,” said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, in an interview with Wired.

Thirty countries will meet virtually next week at the Petersburg Climate Dialogue to discuss green post-pandemic economic recoveries and carbon emissions cuts. U.N. chief Antonio Guterres called for major carbon emitters, like the U.S. and China, to get on board with emissions reduction plans.

For now, Politico notes, environmentally-friendly clauses and investments haven’t been major parts of national industry bailouts or the loan packages and debt accomodations from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
At least the pandemic memes are always here for us.