The blog of the Urban Institute
April 22, 2020

Earth Day amid a Pandemic: How Our Public Health and the Environment Are Connected

April 21, 2020

Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day—the annual commemoration of the planet’s environmental resources and their protection.

But this week also marks 10 years since the BP Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and massive oil spill. And both this week’s events land in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, in turn, lands in the middle of a series of tornadoes and early heatwaves in what is predicted to be the hottest year on record.

Given the health crisis, rallying around our planet’s health might seem challenging. But the underlying problems in these two arenas aren’t unrelated, and their solutions require similar actions.

Compounding problems for public health and the environment

Evidence from the connections between human effects on the environment (including global climate change) and our own physiological and mental health is rapidly evolving, especially in the COVID-19 context.

Some emerging findings include the unique ways environmental change may be expediting health risks; for example, several scientists speculate that deforestation, reduced biodiversity, and mass consumption have sped up interspecies viral interactions.

Vector-borne diseases are also known to fluctuate with temperature, with the novel coronavirus’ purported reduced spread during heat currently under scrutiny. But the persistence of other pollutants and particulate matter in the air caused by human-induced environmental change continue to exacerbate people’s respiratory ailments—increasing their COVID-19 vulnerability.

In return, the pandemic adds new burdens to the environment. Renewable energy production—a critical component of the necessary transition to a fossil fuel–free economy—has slowed. Under emergency measures, the federal government is repealing numerous long-standing environmental protections, as well as the enforcement of environmental legal obligations.

State and local governments are taking other precautionary measures with negative environmental impacts, such as repealing plastic bag bans, and households and industry are producing more waste. Climate research, investments, and policy actions have stalled during the pandemic.

Short-term precautions are necessary, but the long term must be kept in sight. We may experience what happens when people don’t interfere with the environment—as we see images of animals roaming the streets, clearer skies from reduced manufacturing, and oil use reductions while we shelter in place—but the bad news is still compounding: climate-related natural hazards will likely be on the rise this summer, possibly while stay-at-home-orders are still in place.

Underlying inequities put some communities at greater risk

Perhaps the most important connections between the current pandemic and global environmental change are the structures and institutions in which both are playing out.

The social determinants of health have a clear hand in the pandemic, with higher rates of cases and mortalities in the US reported in communities of color. These communities are also more likely to be “essential” workers with lower incomes, weaker personal safety nets, lower health insurance rates, and more preexisting medical susceptibility, workplace risks, and housing insecurity.

Similar conditions characterize the climate frontline communities, and they are the same structural issues that have been targeted by the climate and environmental justice communities for decades. These issues are exacerbated in moments of crisis, as hoarders of untested drugs and fraudulent storm chasers target people with lower resources.

The pandemic and the climate crisis are both massive social and economic disrupters, even though they work at different paces. But regardless of the crisis’ speed, we rarely factor in social disparities, structural racism, and income inequality in our planning.

Moving forward to ensure the health of our people and our planet

What policymakers, researchers, and the general public learn from the current pandemic can also apply to our longer-term environmental crisis.

The lessons start with upholding and believing in science and the credibility of scientists. We must also reinforce our public institutions and trust their guidance while holding bad actors, intentional and unintentional, accountable, knowing that markets cannot solve problems of this magnitude.

For both the pandemic and for climate change, we must commit to preventing more immediate damage and establishing a vision for the long term, beyond the current crisis. We must commit to ensuring that each of our actions produces a collective civic benefit because neither a virus nor the climate ends at our doorstep. We must procure resources for the public safety net, which has been long underfunded. And we must address inequities in our institutions to help protect communities who have persistently faced a disproportionate risk.

As our recent work demonstrates, environmental policies and programs can disproportionately burden communities at the frontlines of environmental change, in the least-sustainable built environments, with the fewest resources, and with the least investment. We look forward to expanding our body of work on this critical issue with our new research area page on climate, disasters, and the environment.

Inclusive environmental policies can ensure that all households, regardless of race, gender, geography, or wealth, have the opportunity to live on stable ground.

Schoolchildren play on melting ice in the climate change affected Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 18, 2019. With recent unusually high temperatures, life in this remote village has been affected, causing eroded land, flooding, and difficulties accessing roads and hunting. Local leaders are also mulling moving the entire village of 700 people to safer grounds. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

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