Science

The U.S. Risks Locking In a Climate Health Crisis in Response to COVID


As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations hit record highs in the United States, and the threat of a double-dip economic recession looms, many are calling for continued and enhanced government stimulus. While it is paramount that policy makers do all they can to address these urgent national interests, they must also take a long-term view. How they decide to allocate economic recovery funds will have lasting consequences, with the potential to either amplify or eradicate another deadly agent that has been freely proliferating for centuries: fossil fuels.

The short-term symptoms resulting from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels have long manifested, with air pollution claiming millions of lives each year and plaguing millions more with diseases of the heart, lungs and brain in the U.S. and beyond. In recent years, the longer-term symptoms have started to set in, with extreme weather events intensifying, food and water insecurity on the rise, and the first climate refugees,  including Alaska’s coastal residents, being forced to abandon their homelands. As with the differentiated impacts of the novel coronavirus, it is the most vulnerable and marginalized who bear the brunt of our fossil fuel-driven society.

Although it may seem odd to draw parallels between the novel coronavirus and fossil fuels, as a climate and public health researcher, I have spent most of 2020 working on two reports that compel me to make this connection. Published last week, the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change U.S. Policy Brief and the Production Gap Report both share one urgent message to U.S. policymakers: do not allow COVID-19 recovery measures to lock us into another global health crisis.

The Lancet Countdown details how the effects of climate change are undeniable and worsening across the U.S. Over the past two decades, for example, heat-related mortality for older persons has almost doubled. In 2019, two billion hours of labor were lost because of extreme heat conditions in the service, manufacturing, agricultural and construction sectors. Not to mention 14 climate-related disasters each causing over a billion dollars in damages. “Above-normal” wildfire seasons in the western U.S. and hurricane seasons in the Atlantic are becoming the new norm.

While no one is immune to these accelerating health risks, climate change is a threat multiplier that exacerbates existing health inequities and injustices. As documented by one case study in the policy brief, the impacts of this year’s Hurricane Laura, one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit Louisiana, were centered around the City of Lake Charles in Calcasieu Parish. This region is predominantly populated by Black and low-income communities, which have been enduring some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country stemming from the hundreds of oil, gas and chemical facilities situated along the Louisiana coast. Preliminary research suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution may be associated with increased COVID-19 mortality and morbidity rates. Indeed, commensurate with national patterns, the rate of COVID-19 infections among Black people living in Calcasieu Parish is 1.7 times higher than that for white people.

In order to stay on track to limit global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid worsening climate-related health impacts, the Production Gap Report shows that fossil fuel–producing nations need to collectively cut global production by 6 percent per year from now to 2030. Instead, their existing energy plans foresee an average annual increase of 2 percent, which would lead to more than double the production consistent with the 1.5 degree C limit by 2030. As the world’s largest oil and gas producer, the U.S. is a key contributor to this global production gap.

And so far, despite widespread calls for a green recovery, the U.S. government has directed the majority of its energy-related recovery funds toward supporting fossil fuels: $72 billion compared to $27 billion for clean energy, as of November. These funds add to existing government assistance in the form of fossil fuel subsidies, rollbacks of more than 100 environmental regulations and refusal to strengthen air quality standards for another five years.

But the incoming administration offers us a glimmer of hope. President-elect Biden has repeatedly committed to reentering the Paris Agreement “on day one” and put forward a plan for achieving “a clean energy revolution and environmental justice.” Vice President-elect Harris has proposed the “first-ever global negotiation of the cooperative managed decline of fossil fuel production.” The Production Gap Report and Lancet Countdown outline ways to achieve these goals, including the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and policy tools for leveraging decarbonization as an organizing theme for COVID-19 recovery efforts.

In the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic continues to demonstrate the brutal consequences that can occur when science is disregarded and responses are delayed or incommensurate with the scale and urgency of the problem—or absent altogether. As the incoming administration seeks to address the current public health emergency, they must be sure to avoid worsening other health crises—air pollution and climate change—in the process. Doing so requires a managed, equitable and urgent transition away from fossil fuels.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.


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