September 22, 2020 Climate

Double Jeopardy: COVID-19 & Climate Change

Written by: Frances Maurer


The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it. Many of the systemic injustices so visible to so many now, such as environmental and healthcare-related racism and the preferential treatment of white and rich communities by the government, were apparent to marginalized communities long before the pandemic. In 2020, these issues have fully arrived in the mainstream and media consciousness due to the global reach of COVID-19 and our nationwide failure to properly address them. And with a lack of immediate and concrete action, they will continue to affect our communities for years to come.

In many ways, the destruction wrought by COVID-19 can be seen as an analogy to climate change. Both become harder to prevent and mitigate the longer they go untreated — the harm done, the lives lost or environment damaged, is not always possible to undo. Further, a subset of misinformed people, propped up by large media outlets, dismiss both as a hoax. And both disproportionately affect poor, vulnerable, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities.

It can be difficult to understand the magnitude and urgency of either COVID or climate change, let alone both. Fortunately, they have several solutions in common, and can both be mitigated by a just recovery. Since we’ll have to rebuild in the wake of this pandemic anyway, we will do well to invest in infrastructure that can hold off, and hold up to, climate change. We are in a moment of necessary upheaval, and this could be what our society needs to become more resilient and protect future generations.

That’s why it’s more important than ever before to advocate for a California Green New Deal. California, our largest state and the world’s fifth largest economy, is in a unique position to lead the nation through bold policy. A statewide Green New Deal, as we will explore, seeks to build infrastructure and climate justice. This innovative legislative framework, critical to a just recovery from climate change, would also help us bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic by revitalizing and stabilizing the economy. Here at the Romero Institute, we’re organizing for these intersectional solutions to not only reverse course from our precarious situation, but to build a better tomorrow.

These two current crises have some of the same causes, which allows us to, in several ways, tackle them both at once. Besides the drive for short-term profit, which makes immediate divestment from dirty energy infeasible and affordable and preventative healthcare unaffordable for large swaths of the population, several other factors worsen both the COVID and climate change responses.

For one thing, as the Union of Concerned Scientists shows in this report, both climate change and COVID-19 require comprehensive disaster preparedness. The ongoing global pandemic has demonstrated that our international structures come up short when we’re dealt a blow as a species. Disaster response, even when deployed by many nations (more effective in some than others), is never encompassing or drastic enough. In our path forward, we must build resilience on the national, state, regional, and local levels.

Further, COVID-19 has led to the heightened economic vulnerability of already neglected communities when unemployment and evictions go ignored by the government. This economic instability leads to further vulnerability, both to the virus and to climate change. If an individual is evicted from their home because of the deepening economic depression, they will likely have substantially less access to the hygienic resources that can prevent COVID and may be forced into close contact with dangerous numbers of people. As the climate crisis continues, millions of people across the world stage will also suffer a loss of shelter from life-threatening natural disasters, sea level rise, and unlivable increases in temperature.

The conditions that people are living with today in communities of color — those were locked in by a housing policy, and what it locked in usually is poverty and pollution.

– Alvaro Sanchez with the Greenlining Institute

California is already seeing hostility toward its vulnerable, necessary workers in the midst of the pandemic. The LA Times writes that pandemic-related unemployment and evictions are hitting farmworkers hardest. Undocumented laborers lost 25 percent of their wages between February and April, and suffered 30 percent unemployment by May.

UCLA associate professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda notes that this is not only an immoral outcome, but an economically unwise one: “You are not going to be able to get [the workers] back if you have basically created a poverty situation where they are going to disappear.” California’s lack of protections for its migrant and farmworkers could affect not only the thousands of families displaced and killed by COVID-19, but everyone who relies on the food they harvest.

Air quality on the West Coast last week.
Air quality on the West Coast last week.

Climate change, according to an overwhelming number of medical experts, is also a public health emergency. And health crises, whether environmental or viral, require large-scale health responses. As one doctor notes, it is vital both in a pandemic and as climate change progresses that everyone in a nation have access to high-quality and affordable healthcare. Accordingly, 69 percent of registered U.S. voters support Medicare for All, with state voters also routinely approving Medicaid expansions in the face of conservative congresses. COVID-19 and climate change both ultimately impair our ability to breathe. COVID is a respiratory disease, of course, and climate change directly and indirectly worsens air quality, impacting communities and shortening lifespans. Unsurprisingly, the brunt of pollution caused by climate change is experienced by communities of color, often through seemingly race-neutral policies like restrictions on high-density housing. Alvaro Sanchez, who works with the Greenlining Institute for racial and economic justice, says on NPR: “The conditions that people are living with today in communities of color — those were locked in by a housing policy, and what it locked in usually is poverty and pollution.” While the pandemic and climate change rage on, it’s important to notice how multitudes of policies have created the unjust conditions that have fed these dual crises

But we can’t seem to stop at two respiratory hazards. Morbidly, as the now months-long movement against police brutality and for racial justice continues, police continue to use tear gas and chokeholds (alongside other brutality) on protesters. Recently, some attacks have involved expired gas, rendering it even more dangerous with unknown long-term effects. There is also mutual profit between dirty energy and dirty policing: several fossil fuel industries fund police foundations across the United States.

In this sense, the crisis of police and prison injustice is yet another public health crisis. As such, healthcare professionals overwhelmingly support the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-police brutality protests worldwide.

Photo by Quinn Norton
Photo by Quinn Norton

Permanent solutions to this type of injustice involve moving resources away from carceral and police states and into community solutions and preventative measures for crime — like ensuring housing, education, and employment for citizens. These solutions also have the effect of strengthening infrastructure, which helps with disaster (or pandemic) preparedness, and of strengthening economic stability, which helps protect citizens against both the pandemic and the effects of climate change.

Overlapping problems require overlapping solutions. Through a holistic reimagining of the way our state runs, a Green New Deal for California could meet the challenges of racial injustice, COVID-19 recovery, and the climate crisis. It would reallocate state funds to address the underlying causes of crime, recreate our economy on a sustainable foundation, and create permanent jobs and infrastructure in clean energy, climate resilience, and ecosystem repair, so current fossil fuel industry workers can take their skills elsewhere without losing their livelihood. Cleaning our atmosphere and water of pollution will also reduce the number of preexisting health conditions that increase risks of serious or fatal coronavirus cases, helping our communities stay healthier in the long run. You can help push California toward a more sustainable future by pressing your lawmakers to take action on the Green New Deal here.

One of the most foundational components of a California Green New Deal, and one that will allow us to address the challenges of racial injustice as well as COVID recovery, is the ability to generate and allocate money in a sustainable and equitable way. Fortunately, there are several pieces of legislation being discussed in Sacramento right now that would lay the groundwork for equitable revenue generation, including a millionaire tax and a keystone public banking initiative to help stabilize and strengthen the state economy. A California state public bank would invest in positive infrastructure, prioritizing low-income communities to build lasting economic recovery in the places that have needed it the longest. Similarly, a public bank could make sustainable investments in green initiatives, working for environmental justice and climate action as well as pandemic preparedness. Being publicly owned, it would be held accountable to the people, and exist to serve citizens instead of profit-at-any-cost.

Ultimately, though, the most powerful agents of the economy are those who produce value: workers. With their collective power, workers can hold their places of work to higher accountability than they would otherwise be. For instance, the American Federation of Teachers plans to strike if school districts open without meeting certain criteria for public safety. Collective action is workers’ most effective tool, and must be utilized in the fight against injustice.

Because we are in the middle of a pandemic unlike anything experienced in our lifetimes and a climate crisis unlike anything ever experienced by our species, we require solutions above and beyond what we have previously considered.

“We cannot return to the pre-COVID ‘normal’ that placed so little value on human life,” Jennifer Martinez and Christina Livingston write for CalMatters. “Instead, California can and must choose a new path forward that rewrites the public policies that created systemic racism and inequality,” building green and stable infrastructure throughout our state, and especially in poor and BIPOC communities.

As we fight COVID-19 and climate change in tandem, a Green New Deal and public banks for California can support this goal. We can also prioritize the values of public health and human life through more equitable healthcare and labor rights. Meanwhile, we will continue to build solidarity and collective momentum toward a better future for everyone.

This year has been extraordinarily difficult, but 2020 could be the catalyst for immense, just change — if we allow ourselves to demand it.