If we can mobilize against COVID-19, we can for climate change too

Armed with lessons from the pandemic, and with Indigenous knowledge, we can honor Earth Day in lasting ways.

river landscape

Cedar River near the town of Maple Valley, Oct. 19, 2018. Rivers, lakes and other bodies of water across Washington could see more pollution allowed under a rollback of EPA pollution standards. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Last month, while the world was coming to terms with and reeling from the effects of COVID-19, the Trump administration quietly implemented open season on the environment. In an unprecedented move, the Environmental Protection Agency announced an indefinite suspension of enforcing environmental regulations until the crisis passes. While the agency has vehemently downplayed the potential fallout, the decision has effectively given a hall pass to the fossil fuel industry and other usual corporate suspects to whom the EPA has historically been little more than an inconvenient barrier to their bottom line. Disturbingly, companies can now flout regulations intended to protect not only the environment, but public health as well.

This latest move is simply an extension of settler colonial mentality, which includes the systematic dismantling of the EPA and the role of science in policy making. In 2018, the EPA unveiled a proposal entitled “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” Like so many policies that bear suspiciously innocuous names, this one warrants closer scrutiny. Under the guise of increasing transparency in scientific studies, it would require raw data and confidential medical records when considering studies and would severely limit the science upon which the EPA could draw up policies. An updated version of the proposal last year would retroactively place these requirements on past studies upon which landmark environmental and public health policies have been made. In short, any EPA policy that the administration deems unnecessary or unfair to the industry — whether dealing with clean air, chemical byproducts, banned pesticides or oil leaks — can potentially be undone.

COVID-19 has altered the landscape and functionality of our society in enduring, if not permanent, ways, many of which we will continue to unpack for generations to come. As a nation, we must recognize that many of the people who have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic — lower-income communities, the elderly, communities of color, Indigenous communities — are the same people who have long been disproportionately affected by industrial pollution and environmental deregulation. This pandemic has made plain that there are those among us who unjustly bear the brunt of policies that put profits over people.

Read more: Trump’s reliance on the private sector is no way to fight a war

Wielding this knowledge, we as a society have an opportunity and a moral obligation to radically reconsider our relationship with the natural world. We should not allow our government to make it easier for companies to extract limited resources at such a high cost to biodiversity, the environment and ultimately ourselves, especially when there are proven sustainable technologies rooted in Indigenous knowledge and systems that can and will eventually replace them. We should look to the Indigenous communities of the world who have, for untold generations, coexisted with their environments, not needlessly fought against them. We have come together and taken bold and unprecedented steps in response to COVID-19 to ensure the public health of our most vulnerable. We can and must do the same if we are to address the next common enemy at our doorstep: climate change.

It is unfortunate that the EPA has devolved into a shell of its former self, especially when we consider it was founded as a direct result of the very first Earth Day, in 1970. Today, I encourage you to join me in celebrating its 50th anniversary. The theme this year is climate action, and you can find or sponsor a local event on the earthday.org website. This week, let us send a message to the EPA and the current administration that our land, water, air and public health are not for sale.

It needn’t take much to honor this sacred day. Something as simple as picking up trash on your daily quarantine walk or replacing your household single-use plastics with more sustainable alternatives is a great start. Already doing those? Great! Consider divesting from the institutions that buttress the extractive energy industrial complex by switching to a community bank or credit union. Write to your local and state representatives in support of funding for public transportation, clean air and water initiatives, and environmental education. If necessity is the mother of invention, and we can collectively inspire new ways to entertain and educate ourselves at home during this uncertain time, we can surely innovate novel approaches to addressing climate change.

We’ve already seen how social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have visibly reduced smog and pollution in major cities across the world, including Seattle. Under the threat of COVID-19, we’ve glimpsed, astonishingly, not only the extent to which we affect the environment around us, but how much it affects us as well. A recent Harvard study has shown that communities with even slightly higher levels of pollution will have higher COVID-19 mortality rates. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 7 million people around the world die annually from the effects of pollution. This need not be a fait accompli; we can change this. Instead of being content with a temporary improvement in air quality, we should use the momentum of our solidarity against COVID-19 to address our role in climate change once and for all. We have the capacity to flatten the curves of both coronavirus and climate change because they are inextricably linked, just as we are to our environment.

As we emerge from our homes in the year ahead, we will be stepping into an entirely new world. I hope it is one in which we better understand our own fragility and that of the natural world. But before then, we as a society need to have a collective conversation about how we want to move forward together, before the familiar muscle memory of self-destruction kicks back into gear. What lessons can we take forward from sacrificing our own immediate interests in order to protect our most vulnerable? How can we address the disparity in communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and climate change, and the root causes of that disparity? What industries can maintain and indeed thrive with a substantial telecommuting workforce? What does it mean to be a part of a community? To be a neighbor? To think seven generations ahead? In confronting these difficult questions and taking the next necessary steps, we can honor the countless lives lost and those who have sacrificed everything to protect us.

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