Once the science is understood, we face additional questions By Julie Peller Ph.D.

The necessary societal changes implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic created unique opportunities for scientists who study the atmosphere and air quality. Imagine that your work involves the study of air pollution, and some of the primary pollution emissions were forcibly reduced across an entire country, an experimental scenario you could never create to understand human influences better. For example, in China, an approximate three-week lockdown was imposed this past winter and was followed by an unprecedented drop in air pollution. Similarly, in New Zealand, restrictions led to an 80% reduction in traffic volume at the lockdown height. The scientific analyses are showing that carbon dioxide emissions in New Zealand dropped to the same degree. 

In the San Francisco area, shelter in place orders lasted for nearly six weeks beginning last March, and traffic was reduced by about 45%. According to the collected data, carbon dioxide emissions fell by approximately 25% compared to the six weeks before the shutdown. This real-world data suggests if half of the gas-powered cars in San Francisco were replaced with electric vehicles, the reductions in air pollutants would continue. These analyses provide us with knowledge of human-induced air pollution and the air quality improvements from removing these emissions. The scientific community will continue to learn an enormous amount about air pollution from these “experiments.” This will provide incredibly valuable information that should be used for public policy to benefit human and environmental health. 

Once the science is understood, we face additional questions: will the greater community – through world leaders, elected officials, faith communities, and others – learn and act on behalf of the greater good? Or will this information be dismissed as too uncomfortable or too challenging? Or even worse, will people who have decision-making power view the information as contrary to their views or in conflict with financial interests and ignore or suppress it? How many people will be informed about this type of important information on air pollution? How do we better broadcast important scientific data?

According to Pew Research Center’s surveys, most people say they have at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests. On a personal level, I am a bit of a science nerd and am happy to talk science anytime and anywhere – pure science, based on validated experiments and measurements, which seeks truth and facts. (I must admit that it is interesting that very few people outside of my work world ask me about science.) Like so many essential aspects of our lives, it is imperative to seek fact-based information, even personally. This is certainly a message we hear from Pope Francis, “Loving the truth means not only affirming it but rather living it, bearing witness to it in your work.” “The issue here is being or not being honest with yourself and with others.” 


Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~5 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work

One response to “Once the science is understood, we face additional questions By Julie Peller Ph.D.”

  1. During the spring shutdown the aerosol emissions due to fossil fuel consumption were reduced 14%. The air quality improved by that much globally.
    However these emissions also increased the intensity of sunlight striking the earths surface proportionately in a phenomena known as Global brightening.
    The aerosols unlike co2 remain in the atmosphere for just weeks. It has been modelled and if all fossil fuel aerosol emissions were to stop suddenly, within weeks the global temperature increase would increase by 2.5 degrees and within a year 90% of the worlds population would die.
    This is a little discussed phenomena discovered over a twenty year period in Israel beginning in the 50’s.
    It seems we are in a tight spot far more serious and deadly than just pollution related lung diseases.
    Look into the Global dimming paradox, it’s truly depressing!

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