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Prioritize people over pollution

Prioritize people over pollution
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America is facing a one-two punch. As the COVID-19 pandemic pummels us, we are also receiving a painful reminder of the long-term threat we currently face — climate change. 

Today marks the official beginning of hurricane season. Yet already, we’ve experienced two tropical storms and our own forecast at the Earth System Science Center calls for an unusually dangerous Atlantic hurricane season with as many as 20 named storms possible.

This combination is a disheartening reminder of how global warming’s impacts do not pause for other emergencies that face our country. Imagine trying to social distance and keep your family safe in a hurricane shelter this year. It’s a frightening prospect. Simply put, climate change is a force multiplier that makes other crises even more intense, creating even greater risks to our communities and health. 

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Even with the novel coronavirus rightfully at the top of our collective priorities, we cannot stop recognizing that the Earth is relentlessly telling us that it’s warming. The last six years have been the hottest on record, and 2020 is shaping up to be just as hot. The damage is staggering and only getting worse. 

As global warming continues unabated, Americans aren’t just getting hammered by climate-exacerbated storms. The West has been in the grip of an early heat wave and drought, setting up multiple states for a bad wildfire season. Gulf waters have been warmer than usual, and spring arrived earlier than ever in the South. 

Rising carbon dioxide concentrations from burning oil, gas and coal have now hit record levels. A recent study shows a devastating amount of methane emissions coming from the largest oil and gas drilling region of the United States — the Permian Basin — which extends west from Texas into New Mexico. We must stop digging up and burning all dirty fossil fuels now. 

With so much at stake, the Trump administration’s response is illogical and misguided. In an attempt to prop up the very industry causing the greatest harm in our existential battle against climate change, the president is promising to bail out oil and gas companies. 

If that wasn’t dangerous enough, the administration is relaxing regulations on methane, allowing the industry to pollute even more. On top of that, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is using the pandemic as an excuse to suspend its enforcement responsibilities, allowing polluters to shirk their social responsibility in the name of profits. This move will not only increase global warming, but also exacerbate air pollution, which is linked to even higher COVID-19 death rates.  

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The administration's “all of the above” energy strategy is, simply put, a recipe for disaster for the American people — and one that our already strained system cannot handle. 

The EPA needs to get back to its mission of protecting our environment and health, and, as we recover from the pandemic, Congress must invest our country’s power and expertise in clean, renewable energy like wind and solar. Let’s get our priorities straight.

Michael Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State and a newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Andrea McGimsey is the senior director of global warming solutions for Environment America.