On this Earth Day, we are in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of health care workers heroically battling the virus without the support they need; care workers of all kinds; distribution, service, retail workers, and volunteers who are putting themselves at risk so that others have the goods and services they need to live; with the families of those felled by the coronavirus, with the increasing numbers of unemployed, underemployed, and precarious workers; with those facing death sentences in detention centers or prisons; with those facing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or xenophobia; with women and children enduring quarantine with their abusers; and with those who find themselves homeless or without any system of support. We want to join with all of you in the fight against the triple crises of COVID-19, climate crisis, and economic recession.
COVID-19 is a fast-moving catastrophe, and may likely claim over a million lives before we have a vaccine. Climate change is a slower-moving catastrophe, but is certain to claim millions of lives over time from stronger and more frequent storms, floods, and fires; from sea level rise and air pollution; and from the wars, genocides, displacements, and geopolitical conflicts that will arise from these factors.
Over the long term the climate may change so drastically that it will no longer support human life. For both crises, the impacts will be greater among those with the fewest resources and the least power, at home and abroad. The COVID-19 virus, due to its immediate deadliness, must be halted, but it would be a mistake to continue treating the issue of climate change as any less immediate and deadly.
The coronavirus and climate chaos stem from the same practices
Both crises are best understood through science. You can try to ignore biology and chemistry and physics, but you can’t defy them. And this science tells us that their causes are inextricably linked.
- As exploitative industries push into formerly pristine areas, including both industrial agriculture and extractive industries, mowing down forests and supercharging carbon emissions, humans and livestock come into more contact with wild animals and thus increase the chances of illnesses jumping from other mammals, birds, and insects to humans, as the majority of scientists believe happened with the novel coronaviruses causing COVID-19, SARS, and others before them. About three quarters of emerging infectious diseases are transmitted to humans this way.
- The extraction, refinement, and combustion of fossil fuels releases toxins into the air — particularly in low-income, black, brown and indigenous communities, who are disproportionately targeted for polluting industries — resulting in respiratory illness and a greater susceptibility to COVID-19 as well as other diseases which attack the lungs. We are already seeing this manifest in the USA, with African Americans making up 70 percent of COVID-19 casualties despite only comprising 33 percent of the population of Louisiana. We are seeing similar trends in other states such as Michigan, Illinois and parts of Wisconsin. In Connecticut, African-Americans account for 16 percent of the COVID deaths as of now, though they are just 10 percent of the population. Black and Hispanic people are considerably less likely to have health insurance, so this disparate trend is likely to worsen.
- As permafrost melts in higher latitudes, viruses as much as 30,000 years old have been unearthed. According to a French researcher, “A few viral particles that are still infectious may be enough, in the presence of a vulnerable host, to revive potentially pathogenic viruses.” We could be that vulnerable host.
- Climate change disrupts the migratory patterns and the life cycles of mammals, birds, insects, and marine life, creating new paths for the transmission of diseases.
This interconnectivity shows that to fight the threat of new zoonotic diseases, we must fight climate change. The problems are global, so too must be the solutions. This means a reversal of the extreme encroachments into the wilderness that place humans, livestock, and consumers in contact with new communicable diseases and also destroy the carbon sequestration capacity of our forests. It means our solutions will not be good ones if they do not address the structural causes of environmental racism.
We must face these problems in an economic recession
The economic crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic and climate chaos, but many economists have been predicting a recession since last year, with some signs — such as a record setting spike in unemployment claims — pointing to a possible full-scale depression.
To respond we must prioritize a massive jobs program that will organize the unemployed, and utilize this nation’s vast engineering, industrial, and logistical capacity for an emergency transition to clean renewable energy; toward a new system of sustainable and carbon-sequestering food production which advances public health and equity; and toward a health care system set up to meet the challenges of our times. As the pandemic, climate change, and the economic recession unfold, we say that not one more working person should be sacrificed; nobody is expendable.
We must follow the lead of the GE workers from Lynn, Massachusetts, who propose that their plant be used today to produce ventilators, and tomorrow we must make it possible for them to produce windmills. We must also follow the lead of the growing number of doctors and nurses who reject a healthcare system that has left them bereft of safety equipment, key medicines, and support. We must listen to those voices who advocate for humanity in a time of barbarity.
The return to normal?
“Normal” was a U.S. ravaged by fires, extreme storms, sinking coastlines, floods, and growing economic disparity, with 78% percent living paycheck to paycheck and on the edge of financial disaster.
“Normal” was virulent racism, fueled by a white supremacist, nativist mindset modeled by the occupant of the White House. “Normal” was migrant children dying in concentration camps. “Normal” was everyday violence against women, children, gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors. “Normal” was attacks against labor. “Normal” was tech companies supplying the government with surveillance means that would make George Orwell’s head spin.
“Normal” was the exploitation and violence against nature, in the name of profit for fossil fuel giants and agribusiness. These “normal” policies are not new, and are not limited to the Trump administration or to any one political party, although Trump has carried these practices to new and terrifying extremes.
What kind of recovery?
The government’s role should be to protect us from the threat of pandemics, the chaos of global warming, and the job losses experienced due to the accompanying downturn. The billions going to untraceable corporate bailouts which could include the airlines, investors in polluting industry, auto manufacturing, landlords but not renters, and dangerous factory farms must be transparently directed, instead, toward public programs and infrastructure that will shield us from the present crisis and ultimately avert those to come.
We call upon our government to:
- End all subsidies and investment in fossil fuel infrastructure and industrial farming, which are both practices that have displaced indigenous peoples, destroying communities and land alike. Immediately restore stolen lands to the indigenous and small-scale farmers so that agroecological food production and clean water can once again become the norm.
- Reconfigure the war industry for the emergency production of necessary medical and personal protective equipment in order to meet requirements of the pandemic, then apply the same rationale towards meeting the green energy requirements of a sustainable future. Connecticut is the second most dependent state on war spending per capita. Build windmills, not warplanes!
- Transition on an emergency basis to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. Use bailout money to put energy under real public control.
- Recognize quality healthcare as a human right and implement universal healthcare coverage posthaste.
- End the practice of factory farming — which both massively pollutes the environment and creates the conditions for pandemics — and restore our forests and wetlands to their full carbon sequestration capacity.
- Replace the military campaigns and crippling sanctions our government is imposing on other nations around the world, which at once pollute the environment and worsen the pandemic, with international scientific, medical, and economic solidarity campaigns. Our response to pandemics and alarming acceleration of global warming should be international collaboration, not competition and war.
- End the criminalization and persecution of immigrants forced onto the road by climate chaos. Empty the detention centers and provide the best healthcare available for all.
- End the environmental racism that has led to people of color bearing the brunt of climate change and the COVID-19 crisis. For decades the policies of industry and government have ensured that non-white areas have the worst quality air and water. From leaded water in Flint and Baltimore, to the dumping of coal ash in Puerto Rico, to pipelines which rob indigenous people of their pristine land and water, this injustice must end and restitution must be made.
- Release all incarcerated people with low risk of committing harm to their families, their communities or those their crimes have affected, with proper supervision when needed. This includes those with treatable medical or mental health conditions, elderly prisoners, those held pretrial who cannot afford bail, those who have shown an effort to rehabilitate, nearing the end of their sentence and those incarcerated for low level, non-violent crimes. A jail sentence should not be a sentence to death by pandemic or extreme weather, as occurred, for instance, during Hurricane Katrina.
- Follow the lead of the United Kingdom and use hotels to house the homeless during this crisis. There are at this time almost twice as many hotel beds in the USA as it would take to house not only the homeless, but the released prisoners as well.
- Accomplish these policies with a massive jobs program for the millions of people who are newly or chronically unemployed.
While we cannot march today in the giant global mobilizations that we had planned for this 50th anniversary of our country’s ecological awakening, we can proclaim our determination to build the kind of movement that our forebears envisioned.
The pandemic has shown us that the government has the tools to act decisively to commandeer the forces of industry, the military, and civil society to try to meet a crisis. There are no longer any legs to the argument that this cannot be done to save us from the next crisis generated by the heating of the climate. At the same time, we have seen the deadly hesitations and lack of political will that have prevented the timely and full use of this power, at the cost of many lives.
We have learned these lessons and are emboldened. Everybody has a stake in our future on this planet.
(Sources used in preparation of this commentary are listed here.)
Ian Bogoslovzky is a member of Connecticut Climate Crisis Mobilization/Enfield