The lack of cars on the road and planes in the air because of the pandemic is improving our air quality, but not all of the changes we've made in our lives are beneficial. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Chief Communication Officer for the Woods Hole Research Center, Heather Goldstone, about how the response to the pandemic is affecting the climate. Goldstone is also WGBH News' former science correspondent and the former host and executive producer of WCAI/WGBH Radio's Living Lab Radio. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: I hope you're staying safe down there and everybody's good in your house, for starters.

Heather Goldstone: Well, this definitely harkens back to the good old days of talking to Morning Edition on the phone from my home office rather than a studio.

Mathieu: How about that? So we know that the air quality has gotten better around here. Everyone's breathing deep and trying to think of something nice to say. But we hear from experts it's not sustainable and will likely come right back once people are out more, driving around [and] flying around. So what's the silver lining?

Goldstone: Well, let's start with digging into that a little bit more. We've seen recently from the U.S. Energy Information Administration a projection that we could see energy related greenhouse gas emissions this year drop by 7.5 percent. And as you said, we've seen immediate changes in air quality in cities around the world as a result of this economic shut down. While that on the surface sounds like a good thing, as you said, what we know is that this is temporary. We don't know exactly how long it will last, but we know that this is temporary. And what's interesting about that figure from the Energy Information Administration, that expected 7.5 percent decline in emissions this year is almost exactly what we know from U.N. science analyses is what we need to do every single year for the next decade in order to hit climate stabilization goals like those that are in the Paris Climate Accord.

What we also know is this is not the way to do it; that's not what we're saying. This is absolutely not what we're talking about in terms of ways to reach that 7.5 percent decline each year. But what this gives us — and here's where we get to the silver lining, I guess — is a sense of how dramatic the shift needs to be. Again, we're talking about a shift, not an economic shutdown, as the long-term solution. It gives us a sense of how dramatic that needs to be, and also hopefully gives us a sense that we are capable of really dramatic action in the face of a crisis when we do embrace the scientific expertise and the projections for what the toll of something like a pandemic or climate change could ultimately be, and embrace that ability to actually take action.

Mathieu: Well, interesting. So let's think about that 7 percent figure for a little more perspective. First of all, has that ever happened in modern history where we've fallen 7 percent like that? And if that is the goal, how would we then reach it?

Goldstone: No, it's historic to see U.S. energy-related emissions fall — if that is what it ends up being — by 7.5 percent in one year. What we've seen in recent years is steady or slightly declining emissions over the past few years. Although earlier this week, the EPA released their annual greenhouse gas inventory and for the first time in three or four years, we saw an increase in U.S. emissions of about 3 percent. So no, a drop of 7.5 percent is not something that we have seen before. But how would we go about doing that? I think that means a shift in where we get our energy from [and] it does mean behavior changes. And I think there are definitely risks in what is happening now in responding to this pandemic at every level — from personal right up to federal policy — that risks that really fast shift that we need to make over the next decade.

So what are some of those risks? Well, just on a personal level, if we are traveling around and can do this, tending towards our own cars instead of towards public transportation in order to maintain social distancing. We're seeing things like grocery stores don't allow you to use a reusable bag anymore. So personal behavior changes right now are in some cases moving us in the opposite direction of where we would like to be going in order to address climate change. But I think the bigger picture is that we are also seeing at the federal level what is, unfortunately, a very familiar scenario playing out. From the early days — and I'm talking a month or so ago — when we started hearing from public officials really strongly here in the U.S. about the risks of this pandemic, we saw denial from federal officials that this was really a problem that we needed to address. We've seen minimization and blaming other people, and we're seeing that now in protests around the country, where people are denying the reality of the threat of COVID-19 in part because of a backlash against what needs to be done. And that's unfortunately all too familiar to climate scientists. But we're also seeing potential real risks to climate action, both on the political front, seeing the Trump administration rolling back things like environmental enforcement or pollution regulations. In some cases just an ill-timed continuation of policies that they've been pursuing over the past couple of years, but in some cases directly tied to this pandemic, saying we can't afford to do this kind of environmental action right now because of the pandemic. So that's a real problem.

Then we're also seeing, and we'll continue to see, the impacts of an economic shutdown on the renewable energy sector that we need in order to make this dramatic shift. So we're seeing solar installers, which are often small businesses, really struggling. We're seeing wind turbine producers struggling with disruptions in their global supply chains. So there's a real risk to this economic downturn as well.