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Can environmental mitigation save us from mounting crises?

Can environmental mitigation save us from mounting crises?
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Crisis upon crisis besets our cities: first a pandemic and untold devastation to so many livelihoods and neighborhoods, and now the tumult that has erupted from centuries of racial inequality and injustice. Behind these crises is yet another — climate change, which is making for a summer that may be hotter than any other in recorded history. It may seem, at first, that these crises are distinct. But they are not. 

To see how these strands come together, consider how the coronavirus has not spread equally: Black Americans are more likely to be infected with the virus and are twice as likely to die from it. Black Americans are also much more likely to live in communities with poorer air quality. Breathing polluted air from industrial and transportation emissions over many years increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other medical problems that increase the odds of dying from COVID-19. 

People of color are also more likely to live in communities that are hotter because of the urban heat island effect and lack of green space, combined with greenhouse gas emissions, drive more dangerous summer heatwaves. Hotter temperatures put people with existing conditions at risk of getting sicker, and may even spur more interpersonal violence, including at the hands of police, as a 2019 study found. In short, the pandemic, climate change and racial injustice don’t just weave together, they feed on each other. 

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City officials, mayors and governors can no longer look at these problems in isolation, even though the structure of their bureaucracies may favor that approach. Problems as massive as climate change, pandemics and racial injustice cannot be siloed or tabled until tomorrow, much less until next year. Action on climate change has immediate, near term health benefits, particularly in communities of color. A 2015 study in Southern California found that, in just a four-year period, children’s lungs were working better, largely thanks to the state’s stringent fuel efficiency standards in cars. Cleaner air means fewer of the long-term health problems and comorbidities we keep hearing about that make COVID-19 a deadlier disease for some.

Concrete solutions that address environmental, health and racial justice issues build much needed resilience into the fabric of society and are achievable, even now. Cities in Germany, Italy and South Korea have seized on the pandemic to rapidly carve out more space for non-polluting transportation: car-free streets full of walkers and bikers.

Seeing these problems more broadly also helps break through departmental budget barriers to find the funds needed to support solutions. The city of Jakarta’s public bus fleet, one of the largest in the world, carries 200 million riders each year. The proposition of electrifying its buses seemed too costly, until the numbers were run including the health benefits from cleaner air. With that math, the deal was too good to refuse. Imagine if American cities had cleaned up bus fuel years ago? We might have saved lives, and especially black lives, from this pandemic. 

The same kind of thinking evidenced in Jakarta’s decision around its bus fleet is sorely needed in the U.S. to save valuable infrastructure projects. Take a recent project to help protect a vulnerable, lower-income neighborhood in Bridgeport, Conn., that was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. In the wake of COVID-19, federal and state funding may dry up for the project, along with its benefits not only to flood control and storm surge prevention, but to green space — and the health and equity benefits that can come with it — in a place where it’s needed. It’s a solution to not just the threats of climate change but to several of the social and racial inequalities the virus and the protests have been making so much more visible. 

For cities looking to make gains beyond the transportation sector, planting trees can improve air quality, cool the air and promote wellbeing, especially when urban tree canopy expands in the places most devoid of it now. Planting a tree may seem too weak to address the problems at hand, but their value can easily be underestimated. Beyond their ability to filter air pollutants, trees can prevent floods and runoff that can fuel outbreaks of waterborne infectious diseases. 

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A growing body of evidence also suggests that children raised in communities with more green space may be far less likely to develop mental health disorders as well, with one recent decade-long study finding that children who grew up in places with the most green space had half the mental health disorders as those growing up with the least, after controlling for other factors that might explain this difference. We need practical, achievable fixes like trees in our cities.  

The pain and anguish we face today calls for new ways of combating the predicaments we face. If we learn nothing else from the crises of today, we must make our cities and country resilient in the present — and viable for the future. We must fully account for health and equality in the actions we take and investments we make and acknowledge that these inherent human rights are inseparable. 

Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH, director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan C-CHANGE) and a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Kathy Baughman McLeod is director and senior vice president of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council.