COVID-19 exposed infrastructure fault lines that will only get worse with climate change

woman in a mask on a polluted street with cars
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On Earth Day, President Biden declared, “The United States sets out on the road to cut greenhouse gases in half by the end of this decade.” With those words , the world changed and the hope to save our planet sprung once again. After four years of science denial and a malicious campaign to degrade our environment, Biden has brought the United States back into the work of investing in our planet to build a more just, healthy future.

As a physician, I immediately pictured the faces of the patients I’ve served here in the United States, and around the world. I thought about the lives that would be saved, and the pain and suffering that would be averted. For me, climate change is not an abstract concept about atmospheric gases, it is a matter of life and death.

But now the real work begins. To fulfill the United States’ commitment, we must reshape our economy. To do so, we must pass the American Jobs Plan, Biden’s bold infrastructure plan.

This plan has spurred an animated discussion about what exactly counts as infrastructure. Critics insist the plan should focus solely on roads and bridges. But as a physician who has cared for COVID-19 patients this year, this response has struck me as misinformed. I understand the ways in which SARS-CoV2 is a malignant and nasty virus. But I also know that this country’s neglected infrastructure — physical, social and economic — has hastened its vicious spread. The fact is COVID-19 has followed the fault lines of structural racism embedded in our national infrastructure. They are the same fault lines that make communities of color far more exposed to the dangers that climate change poses.

You may be surprised to hear that as a physician I think so much about clean electricity standards, electric vehicles, net zero building codes, deforestation and agricultural practices. But fossil fuel driven climate change is the greatest public health threat we’ve ever faced. Take a recent study that showed that air pollution alone accounts for approximately 1 out of 5 premature deaths worldwide. Air pollution and exposure to severe heat increase the risks of premature labor and low birth weight, and Black women are exposed to far more risk. And a warming planet threatens our food systems and water supply, the foundations of our health.  

The American Jobs Plans commits to providing 40 percent of climate and clean infrastructure benefits to disadvantaged communities. It reckons with our history and charts a new path forward. For instance, in too many communities, highways were used as a tool of racial and economic segregation. Because of federal policy, some public spaces were replaced with four lane overpasses, exposing the communities below to disproportionate air pollution. We made gas guzzling cars king, defined our town spaces by roads, and fueled traffic gridlock. But we can choose a different way. 

The American Jobs Plan will help many people work from home with high-speed broadband and let them skip the commute. It will invest in state-of-the-art public transportation and electric vehicle infrastructure that vastly reduces air pollution. 

In the place of lead water pipes that harm the cognitive development of our children, the plan will provide clean water. It will help us secure a clean, resilient electric grid that will decrease pediatric asthma related hospitalizations and keep kids in school instead. And it’ll plug toxic wells that release gases that dangerously warm our planet, increasing the risks of infectious diseases and heart attacks, and instead stabilize our climate, all while creating good paying union jobs. 

It is understandable to feel overwhelmed by climate change. But we have a choice — to continue to be defined by structures that no longer serve us or remember that COVID-19 made our need for big, structural change heartbreakingly clear. We can have the vision and conviction to build a new future that reflects who we are as a country.

Biden’s Earth Day declaration has set us on a road to that future. Now, we must execute the plan. Infrastructure funding is not just about fixing potholes, it’s a declaration of our values. It’s about providing the foundation that Americans need to build successful, productive lives. The American Jobs Plan invests in the scaffolding of our society and mends the holes in our planetary and social fabric. It’ll sustain our planet and save lives.

The soul of America lives within the infrastructure we build around it. But it’s time to build something altogether better, something worthy of us. We have everything we need to make that vision a reality. We must pass the American Jobs Plan. 

Gaurab Basu, MD, MPH is a physician and co-director of the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Health Equity Education & Advocacy. He was recently named to the Grist 50 list of top climate leaders in the U.S. and is also a Health Equity Fellow at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Harvard Chan School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GaurabBasuMDMPH.

Tags american jobs plan Climate change COVID-19 Earth Day Environment Gaurab Basu Infrastructure Joe Biden Pandemic

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