Pandemic and climate crisis have a lot more in common than we think – they’re both forms of environmental injustice
Charles Ellison | ecoWURD | Managing Editor
With the 2020 election over, and a new Biden administration expected in 2021, there will be more than a few urgent priorities dropped in the new president’s lap. At the top of that list will be coronavirus, of course: from how to manage it to eradicating and then helping the economy recover from it in the post-pandemic landscape.
However, there will be two big priorities to contend with. As urgent as putting a lid on the pandemic is the growing threat of climate change as it evolves into climate crisis. This year found us all witnessing a surrealistic, sci fi movie-like convergence of numerous social fabric destabilization events. Of the more prominent were uncontrollable climate-related disasters: a record hurricane season just ending, epic wildfires devouring entire states and record-cracking heat waves. As all of this happened, adding new stresses and strains on emergency management systems, we also witnessed very little federal government interest in commanding an effective national response. Cities and states, along with their constituents, were left to their own devices.
The expectation that the incoming Biden administration plans to address both 1) coronavirus and 2) climate change aggressively is a promising sign. How much fruit those efforts bear, still, will largely depend on other political factors such as the political composition of Congress and how much of a role state and local policymakers play – not to mention how far the private sector goes without stalling itself over “free market” worries.
To arrive at success, equity and inclusion should be included as key benchmarks. Both coronavirus and environmental climate concerns are environmental justice issues; they both meet at the intersection of racial and vulnerable population imperatives – and they are both determined by struggles over the spaces people live in. Communities devastated the most by both sets of catastrophes, particularly Black communities, could insert themselves as leaders on both issues, setting the agenda and pace for success – and not only as primary victims and targets of the circumstances created by these disasters, but as primary subject matter experts.
Environmental injustice is fast evolving into, arguably, the most significant problem of the 21st century – indeed the most urgent problem facing historically marginalized Black people in the United States (and throughout the global Black diaspora for that matter). Stressors triggered by climate calamities and public health crises are creating conditions for increased income inequality and hyper-scarcity. These conditions make existing challenges like racism much worse.
Coronavirus and climate crisis are both forms of environmental injustice. The extent of coronavirus’ destruction on Black, Brown and Indigenous communities depends greatly on proximity: where do those communities live, are the living spaces and neighborhoods dense, thereby disallowing preventative measures such as ‘social distancing?’ How much reliable, well-resourced and responsive healthcare do they have access to? How prevalent is chronic disease in those communities since COVID-19 infection can aggravate what are called ‘co-morbidities?” In the case of climate crisis, it’s also a war over space or the spaces people live in: Are the places where people live most vulnerable to events like heat waves, flooding and hurricanes? Can these communities access resources to escape impending climate events – or do they have enough assets (like home and flood insurance) to respond to those events when they happen? Do these climate-related events prevent access to quality healthcare?
With both issues growing and intersecting, impacted communities are in a perfect position to lead through agenda-setting. Extra advocacy on coronavirus public health and economic relief can lead to progress on a wide range of issues, especially as it relates to healthcare, income disposition and education innovations. Pandemic recovery shouldn’t just mean the end of COVID-19 through vaccine distribution, it should also entail the end of health disparities, mass unemployment and academic achievement gaps that are exacerbated as a result of high infection rates. “We talk a lot about the average 2 deaths per day resulting from police violence. But we never really mention the more than 274 deaths per day, on average, attributed to some form of racial bias in healthcare,” Kevin Ahmad-Jenkins, a social epidemiologist who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania, tells ecoWURD. “That results in an estimated annual loss of more than $1 trillion … that we know of.”
“But, there are no protests. We need to get people to care about the statistics.”
Resolving those social and economic justice issues in ambitious coronavirus “stimulus” could also be bolstered by climate crisis-driven stimulus. Both “Marshall Plan”-style relief packages should contain features that simultaneously 1) invest in communities while 2) eliminating the disparities and discrimination they’re constantly faced with. A “climate crisis” stimulus would include the large-scale creation of new clean energy and so-called “green” economies that are centered around complete environmental health and remediation. That translates into greater public health returns, job growth and wealth generation through the incubation of Black-owned sustainable start-ups. Recent research shows that the expansion of “green” or “clean energy jobs” actually reduces wage inequality. “Mean hourly wages in each major category of green jobs (clean energy production, energy efficiency, and environmental management), were above the national average by at least $2 per hour,” cites Amanda Novello and Greg Carlock in a Century Foundation briefing. “Wages in each category were also at or above $15 per hour for the lowest decile of earners, at least $4 per hour above earnings at the low-end for all workers nationally. Out of all occupations nationally, over 30 percent of workers earn under $15 per hour, whereas that figure is around only 4 percent of green workers. Notably, in effect, there is less income inequality within green jobs than the national average, despite there being lower educational requirements, on average, than jobs nationally.”
This is crucial in a pandemic moment where more than 40 percent of Black-owned businesses have already closed this year alone, with more expected. A smart mix of coronavirus and climate crisis stimulus, dominated by a Black “Health, Wealth and Education” agenda, can offer an opportunity for these communities to become frontline stewards of the environment and public health as they re-invent themselves into first wave participants in a re-energized economy.