Coronavirus, Climate Change And How We Can Build A More Equitable America
The difficult work of dismantling the racial and economic inequities that the coronavirus has so clearly exposed will go on for much longer than the current emergency.
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Co-written by Rev. Leo Woodberry
See if this sounds familiar: A global threat hits people of color especially hard. But powerful individuals and interest groups either downplay the threat or call it a hoax.
And when the evidence that the threat is real becomes overwhelming, claims fly that fixing the problem would cost too much. To quote the president, “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.” So the crisis worsens and its effects multiply, and Black and brown communities suffer most.
We’ve seen this with climate change, and now we’re seeing it with the coronavirus. Consider the intersecting paths of these two global threats, which shine a harsh light on the consequences of systemic racism.
The coronavirus numbers are shocking. Chicago’s population is 30% African American, but 68% of the city’s known deaths from COVID-19 are Black. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, African-Americans make up 28% percent of the population, but 73% of deaths related to the coronavirus. In Louisiana, Black people make up 32% of the population, but 70% of the COVID-19 deaths.
While the coronavirus may be colorblind, Black Americans are more likely to come down with COVID-19 because they suffer greater rates of asthma and other lung diseases, as well as heart disease and other chronic health issues. This is where climate action comes in: much of Black communities’ vulnerability stems from an energy system that focuses on profit and political power, holding fast to dirty energy options at the expense of the climate and human health.
The dirty energy numbers are shocking, too: 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of coal-fired power plants. Black Americans are exposed to 38% more polluted air than white Americans. 71% of Black Americans live in counties that are in violation of clean-air standards. Breathing polluted air weakens the lungs. So it’s hardly surprising that COVID-19, which attacks the lungs, is especially deadly for Black people.
And whether we’re talking about a new virus or chronic lung disease aggravated by fossil-fuel pollution, Black families are less likely to have the resources needed to distance themselves from the threat, access quality healthcare or get their lives back on track after an illness. It’s hard to do any of that when you don’t have money saved up, and not only are workers of color much more likely to earn poverty-level wages than white workers, they also have not been given the same opportunities as white Americans to store up generational wealth. A typical Black American family has a net worth that is only about one tenth that of a typical white American family.
So from the standpoint of justice — of equitable treatment for all Americans — what do we do about this pandemic, and epidemics that are certain to follow? And how does it link to climate action?
First, our hard-working and exhausted healthcare professionals need to be aware of racial disparities in coronavirus treatment that reflect inequities in healthcare more generally. On top of everything else we’re asking them to do, they need to make sure they’re giving every American equal consideration when it comes to scarce medical resources such as coronavirus tests, hospital beds and ventilators. We must also do a better job of consistently collecting data on the race and ethnicity of COVID-19 patients.
And of course all of us Americans need to do the basics: stay at home, check on vulnerable neighbors and take physical distancing seriously. We also need to make sure we’re better prepared next time. America needs to rebuild structures such as the National Security Council directorate charged with planning for the next pandemic, an office dissolved by the Trump administration.
Of course, the difficult work of dismantling the racial and economic inequities that the coronavirus has so clearly exposed will go on for much longer than the current emergency. And when you’re tackling a problem that immense, it can be hard to see where to start. But we believe climate equity and environmental justice provide a clarifying set of lenses.
Here’s the future we envision: Structural changes that put resources in the hands of communities hit hard by the effects of climate change and wounded by our existing unjust energy system. Community-led solutions managed by local agencies run by the people on the front lines — the people who know best how to heal their own communities, and how to forge a path to a more equitable future.
We are witnessing a massive global shift to clean, renewable energy that doesn’t pollute and doesn’t cause climate change. This historic shift will have enormous economic, environmental and social consequences. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a clean energy system that spreads its benefits — including healthier air, more affordable energy and increased wealth — among all the people it serves.
As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said during World War II, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The coronavirus crisis is highlighting the inequities that the climate crisis is aggravating, and making it blindingly obvious that we must do better. We must build a cleaner, more equitable power system and a safer, more prosperous future — for all Americans.
Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee representing the 4th District of Virginia. He is the co- founder and co-chair of the Congressional United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force.
The Rev. Leo Woodberry is pastor of Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, S.C.; executive director of the New Alpha Community Development Corporation; and a leader of the Justice First movement.