NASA images depict a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide from the average level amounts from 2015-2019 during March to March 2020.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires last week hosted a virtual town hall with Berkshire County's legislative delegation, the area's elected officials got a little face time with their constituents to talk about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All but one.
State Rep. Paul Mark, of Peru, was an audio-only participant in the hourlong webinar.
"It's good to see my colleagues," Mark said at one point. "I haven't seen any of you for at least a month now."
"And we still don't see you," quipped state Rep. John Barrett III of North Adams.
That is because Mark is among the many Massachusetts residents who are underserved by internet access.
It is a problem that local officials have been talking about for years. The deficiencies have never been more stark than during the "stay at home" guidelines instituted in Boston last month in response to the pandemic.
And on Wednesday's 50th anniversary of Earth Day, one local climate change activist was thinking about the digital divide as an environmental issue.
"All of our staff is working from home or sitting outside a library on a laptop to do anything," said Jane Winn, the executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. "It's made me aware of how much having affordable, ubiquitous broadband is a global social, environmental and justice issue.
"I knew it was a social issue and an important one but it was not one I was going to spend a lot of time on because I didn't think it was a climate issue. And I take all of that back.
"Right now is the time to make that happen — when people are used to going online to make everything happen. There have been some large environmental organizations I've been begging for years to allow remote access to their meetings in Boston, and they're finally going online."
From remote learning models for public school students to e-commerce to the Zoom boom to greater than ever use of streaming entertainment services, online connectivity is one of the few things allowing many Americans to cope with the lockdowns put in place to "flatten the curve" of cases and combat the novel coronavirus.
Where climate change comes in: All those Americans working from home are skipping their daily commutes, keeping cars in the garage and pollutants out of the air.
An article last week published by National Geographic detailed one of the great paradoxes of the pandemic: Pollution is associated with higher COVID-19 death rates, but measures taken to combat COVID-19 coincidentally lead to cleaner air.
"From China's Hubei province to industrial northern Italy and beyond, pollution levels have plummeted as lockdowns aimed at slowing the viral spread have shuttered businesses and trapped billions of people at home. In India, where air pollution is among the world's worst, 'people are reporting seeing the Himalayas for the first time from where they live,' Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air," told National Geographic.
NASA data indicates a 30 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide, whose primary source is fossil fuel burning, in the I-95 corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., when comparing March 2020 with the average for March from 2015-19.
National Geographic noted that no one is advocating continuing mandatory lockdowns just for the environmental benefit, "But the cleaner pandemic skies do show how fast we can bring down pollution when we reduce our burning of fossil fuels."
That gives hope to activists, like Winn, who want to see systemic change to lower Americans' reliance on those fuels.
"Look at the amount our emissions have dropped," she said. "Air is cleaner in our cities. People are home and attending meetings and school and everything on broadband.
"Then you get to rural areas where dumping money into public transportation is expensive and doesn't accomplish much. But if you can improve access to the Internet, you can dramatically improve people's lives."
Mark agrees on the need to make that investment.
"Myself and many people in the Berkshires and throughout Massachusetts live in communities where there is very limited internet service and limited cell phone service," he said in Friday's virtual town hall. "So that's why I'm not on video because I can't handle it where I live, and I'm sitting in the car, parked somewhere, so I can get on here.
"That's been something that me and a lot of my colleagues in the delegation and throughout Western Mass have been trying to make sure people in Boston are aware. Students who are home need special accommodations; they need to be treated in a manner in which they have equal access to education as their peers who are able to get online and watch videos and things that aren't available to us in towns like Peru."
Even in towns like Williamstown, where connection speeds are better and good enough for public bodies to hold meetings on Zoom and other platforms, broadband access has been an issue.
Since last year, an ad hoc committee in the town has been studying the issue and has developed a proposal to explore a municipally owned broadband service. Ironically, that effort is in a holding pattern due to the COVID-19 pandemic; a public forum planned in March was canceled, and a pair of votes needed at town meeting, like the annual meeting itself, are postponed.
But Mark is not the only one promoting Internet access on Beacon Hill.
"I'm an optimist," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli of Lee, the dean of the Berkshire delegation. "I think a lot of good is going to come out of this [crisis]. For years, everybody on this call has been talking about telemedicine. We're doing telemedicine right now. I hope that's something that will stay intact long after this has passed. We talk all the time about distance learning, not only for our colleges but for K-12 systems, so we're starting to do something with that as well.
"Representative Mark is absolutely right. We still have far too many communities, and Paul's town is one of them, that are in that 'digital disconnect.' So we need to continue to make those kinds of investments, but I believe there's a lot of good that is going to come out of this, if we stay focused on the long game. We have immediate needs, but let's not take our eye off the long game as well. Distance learning, telemedicine, those are just two examples that I think are very positive things that are happening today that should stay long after this is over."
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