Climate crisis — we need to put our money where our mouths are

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In his blog, Gates Notes, Bill Gates recently wrote that, “The loss of life and economic misery caused by this pandemic are on par with what will happen regularly if we do not eliminate the world’s carbon emissions.” He is right. I’m an environmental justice organizer who works in Detroit, which is a hotspot for pollution and for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Like many Americans, I am deeply afraid of the impact that the virus will have in the months and years to come, but I’ve also come face-to-face with the climate crisis and I’m even more terrified by the direction the country is headed in on this front. Every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that has shaken our nation to its core — economic calamity, devastating public health impact and widespread racial disparities — are indicative of the frequent crises that we are certain to face if we do not act aggressively to lower emissions in a fair and urgent fashion.

I was a student at Rice University in Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, I saw how devastating the disaster was for all communities. In one of the nation’s most diverse cities, I saw neighborhood streets lined with ruined furniture and priceless family heirlooms. But as time drew on and some neighborhoods got the investments they needed to get back to normal, a familiar pattern emerged — racial disparities. In Houston’s Black neighborhoods in particular, families who had already dealt with damage from the 500-year storm that hit the region two years prior, struggled to afford contractors to rebuild their tattered roofs and flooded homes. Inequality compounded as these neighborhoods struggled to secure funds in the face of a countless number of barriers. I was nine years old when Katrina hit, and I still remember images of leveled Black neighborhoods and the subsequent negative portrayals of Black residents seeking supplies.

While COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black communities may be surprising to many people, these communities have historically faced disparities and discrimination in the midst of crises. These gaps will only be accelerated in a world defined by once-in-a-generation weather events happening every year. The threat that climate change poses to Black communities is existential. 

While COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold economic calamity not seen since the Great Depression, climate change will cause even greater damage to our economy. What has been missing from climate related headlines and debates is a frank discussion about the downstream costs to our economy. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey, Irma and Michael caused over $262 billion in damages, overwhelming FEMA’s budget. In 2018, California faced the costliest wildfire in the state’s history, and one year later the Midwest was hit with historic flooding that caused over $6 billion in damages. And it’s not just billion-dollar natural disasters that will continue to decimate budgets and strain our economy — climate change is set to disrupt global supply chains and drive down worker productivity.  

It’s true that revamping our energy sector with clean energy jobs and investing in nationwide flood infrastructure would cost billions per year, but these investments will be less expensive than the $69 trillion cost facing the global economy and the nearly 11 percent drop in GDP we are certain to face by the end of the century if climate change is left unchecked. For decades, short-sighted politicians have used fiscal responsibility as a bludgeon against any calls for smart national investments that would keep us safe and prosperous in the long term. We need to be upfront about the real costs of inaction and we must be willing to make hefty investments that will ultimately save us money. Otherwise, the costs for our inaction will far outpace the current costs of COVID-19 relief efforts.  

It’s hard to imagine another public health threat as significant as a pandemic but our carbon emissions are already killing thousands per year. Heat waves are extremely deadly and are becoming more common due to climate change. Air pollution is also killing thousands of Americans per year and recent reporting suggests air pollution is worse than previously thought. In fact, many of the factors, namely toxic air pollution, that put our nation at great risks in facing climate change, have already weakened us in our fight against COVID-19. Additionally, climate change’s impact on infectious disease rates may prove to be more significant than even COVID-19. In particular, vector borne diseases like West Nile Virus, Zika and Lyme’s disease are also set to proliferate as a result of rising global temperatures. All in all, the public health risks associated with climate change include more frequent disease outbreaks, devastating impact on student achievement and rising health care costs, effectively making it the most significant threat to public health. 

As life altering and disruptive as this pandemic has been, it did not have to be this bad. This administration’s response to the pandemic — one of resisting science, cutting corners and sowing disinformation in every possible way — has cost our nation dearly. This approach alone has exacerbated the pain of this experience a thousandfold. But we are doomed to face similar fates in the fight against climate change if we do not learn from this and act. In reminding the citizens of Philadelphia to remain vigilant about fire protection, Benjamin Franklin famously said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This has become a tenet for public health advocates for years and applies to our efforts to protect our communities in the face of climate change.

The effects of climate change will trigger — and have already begun triggering — a public health crisis, an economic crisis and racial justice crisis far larger than this pandemic. Rapid carbon emissions reductions, sustainable global energy policies, green jobs programs and investments in flood infrastructure all represent an ounce of prevention far less costly than the alternative. These policies won’t cure us — but they could certainly lessen the pain. There is no later, there is no better, other time. We must move with urgency.

Justin Onwenu is an organizer for The Sierra Club in Detroit. He is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Tags Black communities climate action Climate change climate crisis economic crisis Environmental justice environmental policy Global warming Pandemic racial disparity socioeconomic disparity

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