This pandemic has put a magnifying glass on just how badly we need nature, climate action, and environmental protection, especially in US communities of color. Recent political turmoil has also shown that the availability of public green space is not the only issue. Rather, access, or the ability to easily reach and use these spaces without facing discrimination, the erasure of cultural histories, and racist policing, is also essential to unlocking their benefits and boosting equity.
On a global scale, scientists believe that deforestation and the wildlife trade brought the coronavirus to humanity. And in many ways, COVID-19 shares parallel causes and effects with climate change. Rising global trends in urbanization, deforestation, and meat consumption mean that the risk of animal-to-human transmission of new diseases will remain high long after we heal from, or learn to live with, the current pandemic. Moreover, the climate crisis is causing the territory of mosquitos, ticks, and other disease vectors to spread, while keeping them from dying out in cold seasons. So we can posit that a lack of conservation, a lack of climate action, and a lack of respect for nature and wildlife caused the current pandemic, and increases the risk of future pandemics. In short, COVID-19 is a failure of conservation.
Drilling down into US culture, we find a serious environmental justice problem. Latino communities and other communities of color are bearing the worst of the pandemic’s effects and have borne and will continue to bear the worst effects of the climate crisis. Latinos and African Americans are not only getting sicker and dying at higher rates than whites, but they are more vulnerable to the knock-on effects of lost employment and food insecurity. This again comes back to conservation. These are communities with accumulated vulnerabilities such as respiratory problems caused by air pollution from fossil fuels and vehicles; communities that lack green space that helps clean and cool the air and provide space to exercise and boost mental health and immune response. We can’t forget that when we poison the environment, we also poison ourselves. And now we’re seeing the results of poisoning the most vulnerable and discriminated among us.
The good news is that just as the problems of health, climate, and conservation are connected, so too are the solutions. The same policies and investments that improve mental and physical health – especially during pandemic times – reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause the climate crisis, and bolster our resilience to future crises. If we target these solutions equitably, with an eye for access and community ownership, we can match the greatest benefits to the greatest needs. And now is the moment to reflect on how we can create a resilient, just, and sustainable society, economy, and nation.
These solutions are rooted in conservation, in the health and well-being of human communities, in the principles of justice and equity, and in the protection and restoration of nature. None of this is rocket science, nor is it dependent on future technologies that may or may not emerge or work as expected. We lack only the will to enable them. And now is the time to do so, with the pandemic and protests shining a spotlight on inequality and discrimination, and helping us to rethink the structure of our society and economy.
Firstly, we need outdoor space. Space to exercise, recreate, and enjoy the natural environment. Space to lower stress, boost the immune system, and restore mental and respiratory health. This was true before the pandemic, and now more than ever, we need space to do all that while maintaining a safe distance from others. Only one-third of Latinos live within walking distance of a park, and low income, immigrant, and minority neighborhoods are desperately park-poor.
Recent days have highlighted that it is not enough to have these spaces nearby – they must be welcoming to all people, with a public recognition of their shared history of colonization and racism. These spaces need active measures to ensure that visitors, features, and security systems are hospitable to people of color. Creating more accessible and welcoming green spaces in the communities that lack them would pay dividends in equity, public health, resilience, well-being, and even personal savings, as living near vegetation reduces energy use for indoor temperature control.
We need nature protection and restoration, for the sake of clean air, water, soil, and oceans. Millions of acres of public lands need rehabilitation and maintenance and hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines and fossil fuel wells need to be reclaimed.
We need communities that are designed for people, rather than cars. To keep our air as clean as it is now, when most are staying at home, we need to be able to walk and bike to work, school, and around town. Personal vehicles are a huge drain on public space (for parking and highways), personal savings (for maintenance, insurance, registration, parking, etc.), public health (air pollution and sedentary lifestyles) and public budgets (for maintenance and public health spending). Historically and up to the present day, they are a cause for the destruction of neighborhoods of color, a contributor to the climate crisis, and increasingly lead to long-term debt burdens. The ability to do without a car would be hugely beneficial for impoverished, marginalized, and environmental justice communities, as well as everyone else.
Indoors, we need buildings that preserve health rather than sap it away. Retrofitting buildings for energy and water conservation lowers energy usage, thus lowering household energy bills and the pollution generated by fossil fuel use. It also keeps homes at a comfortable temperature and humidity level, lowering hospitalization and mortality rates, especially when the power goes out or temperatures rise and drop to extreme levels, as they are increasingly predicted to do. This solution especially benefits the poor and those with preexisting health conditions.
We need energy, waste, and food systems that protect the climate, ecosystems, oceans, and waterways, and eliminate the burden of pollution that is faced by environmental justice communities and manifests in climate change, deadly industrial accidents, plastics and trash in the food supply, dead zones, and more. In short, we need clean energy and a circular economy.
Environmental regulations that have been rolled back must be reinstated as soon as possible, and further action taken to ensure a just transition to a waste- and pollution-free economy. Just one example of these rollbacks is the repeal of clean water rules, which threatens the country’s sources of safe drinking water. People of color are more likely to lack access to safe drinking water, a basic human health need that can be met with better environmental enforcement.
The federal government must take action to keep states and municipalities afloat. With budgets overspent on the pandemic response, conservation and climate priorities will be on the chopping block. The federal government must step in to ensure that state and local governments have the funds they need to maintain services and prepare their populations for the climate and health hazards to come.
All of these policies, granted, require massive investments to overhaul our energy, building, land, waste, and transportation infrastructure. They might also require new structures for employment, such as the creation of a new Civilian Conservation Corps. But the benefits, in terms of job creation, personal savings, health and health spending, disaster resilience, and equity for suffering communities, vastly outweigh the costs. And it turns out that our economy needs a massive, nationwide stimulus as it is.
There is so much work to be done. What better way to replace lost income and provide meaningful work than to give us a chance to rebuild a more equitable, resilient, and healthy America?