Today — Earth Day — I believe Mother Earth is celebrating along with us, because the greenhouse gas pollution that’s been overheating her and strangling all of us has temporarily abated. Inside the dark cloud of the coronavirus there’s a silver lining: We suddenly have clean air and clear blue skies — a glimpse of a future we can create — and that’s something to celebrate.
While we’re sheltering in place, though, we might want to think seriously about how greenhouse gas emissions, the coronavirus and social justice intersect. We know pollution affects low-income neighborhoods, where a large portion of the residents are people of color, much more than wealthier neighborhoods. In areas around fracking and other extraction sites, for example, the incidence of cancer and respiratory diseases is significantly higher than normal. And worse, many don’t have the means to pay for adequate health care in our pay-to-play medical system.
Now we’re finding that the people living in these same areas are also suffering in greater numbers from the coronavirus. It makes logical sense that having other illnesses — especially respiratory — would weaken the immune system and make one more susceptible to the virus. COVID-19 would also be expected to result in death more often in these folks than in otherwise healthy individuals — and that’s exactly what’s happening. Proportionally, more people are dying of coronavirus in low-income communities than in elite neighborhoods.
The “perfect storm” of pollution, a deadly virus, an already unhealthy population, and a “health care” system that functions primarily for the well-to-do is a loud wake-up call to organize our society differently after COVID-19. We should never allow polluting industries to be located in residential communities — anywhere. We should reform our health care system so it provides basic care for everyone, regardless of financial situation, race, age, employment status, or anything else — as a fundamental human right. We should halt all investment in fossil fuels and double down on investments in renewable energy sources, to eliminate nearly all pollution and guarantee that Mother Earth can continue to celebrate.
COVID-19 and climate-changing pollution are related in ways other than health effects, too. Both are global problems requiring a global solution, both are destroying our economy — one faster, one slightly slower — and both demand a World War II level of action to resolve them. However, because its cause and effects are obvious and rapid, the powers-that-be have responded more quickly and aggressively to COVID-19 than they have to carbon pollution — even though the damage from climate change promises to be immeasurably greater.
It would be wise for our politicians to learn the lessons from the pandemic and change their approach to dealing with climate change. First and foremost would be: Don’t delay! The longer we delay, the worse the situation will get, and the more people will die unnecessarily. Secondly, big problems require big, coordinated solutions. To date, we’ve addressed climate change in a lethargic, piecemeal fashion, which isn’t going to do the job. Finally, the financially strapped must be helped.
To support people suffering from the economic impacts of the pandemic, both Democrats and Republicans agreed it was important to get cash to people, so Congress passed an emergency relief package giving direct payments of $1,200 to most adults and $500 to most children.
When Congress is able to turn its attention to climate change, it should not forget this lesson: Direct cash payments are a simple, transparent, and fair way to support Americans when economic winds are shifting.
Climate change demands that we stop emitting greenhouse gases, so over the next 10 years we need to make a major change to a clean-energy economy. That will be challenging, but if we provide cash rebates to Americans, we can ensure the health of the economy while making a gentle transition to a sustainable future.
How? Congress could place a fee on carbon pollution, which would drive the economy away from fossil fuels toward renewables, and it could return that money as equal payments, or “dividends,” to all Americans each month. This would be especially important for low- and middle-income Americans, who might otherwise struggle with rising costs as we shift to a clean-energy economy.
Congress and the president chose to use the tool of putting money in the hands of Americans to keep the economy going. When COVID-19 is no longer a problem, we should use that same tool to combat climate change. Mother Earth will definitely celebrate that!
Cher Gilmore is a member of the Santa Clarita chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby and lives in Newhall.