Written by: Natalia Brown
It is without question that systemic injustices and corruption have become especially salient throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Public consciousness and civic action are soaring amidst record levels of unemployment, sensationalized video exposing the horrific realities of police brutality, and intensification of the climate crisis.
Climate change, which scientists have come to an overwhelming consensus is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases by human activity, is recognized as a threat-multiplier. As such, risks associated with climate change overlap with and exacerbate political, social, economic, and human health issues. Well stated by Rosemary DiCarlo, Head of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs for the United Nations (2018):
“The risks associated with climate-related disasters do not represent a scenario of some distant future. They are already a reality for millions of people around the globe – and they are not going away.”
Inherently oppressive policy mechanisms, such as redlining, have concentrated polluting infrastructure responsible for excessive emissions in Black, Latino, and Native American communities (1) (2) (3). While accelerating global warming and amplifying climate-related risks, pollution exposure increases these minority communities’ vulnerability to a number of developmental and chronic respiratory illnesses. Unsurprisingly, disproportionate exposure to pollution likewise contributes to the greater vulnerability of marginalized communities to contracting and dying from COVID-19.
A demonstrator addresses protesters in Harlem. [The Guardian/Flo Ngala]
Acknowledging the parallels between these intersecting crises; the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee of the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a remote hearing on June 9, 2020 entitled, Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities.
Mustafa Santiago Ali, the Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization of the National Advocacy Center at the National Wildlife Federation was among the witnesses. In his testimony, Ali draws an unsettling parallel between deeply rooted systemic racism, the militarization of policing in the United States and exposure to toxic air- and water-borne pollutants:
“Black communities are dealing with the systemic racism that has infected the policing in our communities that is literally choking us to death. The rolling back of environmental rules and regulations has us gasping for air due to the cumulative public health impacts from the burning of fossil fuels in our communities. Covid-19 continues to devastate black, brown and indigenous communities both in infections and deaths. When we say, “I Can’t Breathe” we literally can’t breathe.”
Jackeline Patterson, Senior Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, likewise highlighted the intersections between the current crises and expressed the need for a policy-backed, integrated approach in her testimony.
Frontline communities across the nation are actively seeking and trialing solutions to recover and adapt in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, economic downturn, systemic inequality, and climate change. Their targeted approach acknowledges and builds upon the differences between neighborhoods, organizations, businesses, government institutions, and individuals’ identities to address common needs.
Rising sea levels, which are exacerbated by climate change, threaten the Louisiana coastline where offshore drilling occurs. [Getty/Drew Angerer]
Amid historic protests against the injustices that have long oppressed Black Americans, President Trump signed an executive order to eliminate regulations used by and for the protection of frontline communities fronted with potentially harmful, federally-funded development projects.
Among the most pivotal environmental laws in the United States, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) empowers citizens to partake in a thorough review process that strongly exemplifies democratic decision-making. Simply stated, state or local officials must complete an environmental review before federal funds may be allocated to a proposed project. The American public is able to comment on the proposal; often shedding light upon social, economic, health-related, ecological, or cultural effects not previously accounted for by the responsible federal agency. It is required that this feedback be taken into account and acted upon before the project can receive approval. In effect, this process enhances transparency, holds decision-makers more accountable to their constituencies, and sheds light upon alternatives with potential co-benefits not previously identified.
NEPA is one of the regulatory mechanisms weakened by President Trump’s recent executive order. This is significant, even more so in the context of the multitude of crises plaguing the nation. Giving local stakeholders a metaphorical seat at the table sheds light upon critical implications for residents’ health and safety, the economy and environment — all of which are currently fronted with multiple crises. NEPA is widely considered landmark legislation, representing a historical achievement after the status quo of advancing development projects without greater review generated detrimental, unintended consequences that exacerbate environmental injustices. Rather than being perceived as obstacles to recovery, thoughtful regulations merit to be considered as instruments for ensuring that long-term value is derived from federally funded projects.
As our nation navigates a multitude of complex crises, industry leaders across disciplines have emphasized the importance of socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable investment and development to effectively restore American communities moving forward. We have a civic obligation to seek leadership that acknowledges the bigger-picture outcomes of their actions and exemplifies regard for the well-being of the individual actors in our democracy.