Addressing climate change in a post Covid-19 world

The 12th and last of the webinars in the series, “A (K)new World Reimagined”,  examined the challenges of air pollution and climate change, particularly for Black communities and people of color — hardest hit by this toxic mix as well as being disproportionately more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The first speaker Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, said: “The systemic inequities that make certain populations differentially vulnerable to the various impacts are the same systemic underpinnings that comprise the root causes driving environmental injustice, including climate change. Between racism and xenophobia and sexism, they all combine with poverty, housing insecurity, racial profiling, differences in access to health care, under-resourced education and privatized criminal justice. These factors combine to result in disproportionate exposure to pollution that attacks the lungs, rendering communities even more vulnerable to COVID-19. Air pollution is also known to weaken the immune system, which further compromises people's ability to fight off infections.”

She cited a study showing how even small increases in fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, have had an outsized effect in the US. Black and Hispanic people are typically exposed to 56% and 63% more PM2.5 pollution than they produce through consumption and daily activities. In sharp contrast, non-Hispanic white people are typically exposed to 17% less pollution than they produce.

Referring to the Black Lives Matter global protests, she said activism was on the rise and people were getting organized: “We saw the uprisings that have taken place, and we've seen the organizing that has taken place: frontline communities are rising up, putting together platforms.

“Communities are demanding reinstatement and strengthening of environmental regulations. We’re demanding research and data on racial impact analysis.”

Another speaker Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, the Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation and also the founder and CEO of Revitalization Strategies, amplified the themes.

“We know that for decades, our most vulnerable communities tried to get people to pay attention to the public health impacts that were happening inside their communities: how they were being made sick, how their lives were being shortened. And unfortunately, we didn't have enough people paying attention at that time.

“We now know that those same toxic chemicals that were coming out of those stacks and our piping inside of these facilities is that same pollution that is playing a role in warming up our oceans and our planet. So, if we had paid attention to the environmental racism that was happening and the environmental injustices, because let me just call it out. We have lower wealth white communities who are also being impacted. If we had paid attention, we could have minimized some of the impacts that we see going on from climate injustices and the climate crisis that we see ourselves facing, both domestically in the United States and of course across the planet.”

Dr. Ali talked about the environmental and atmospheric damage caused by deforestation, which “black and brown communities have been defending for millennia”.

He also spoke of the incoming US administration and hopes of infrastructure opportunities to help rebuild communities in a more climate resistant way.

“Now we have a chance to respond in a very affirmative way. And we've also got a set of opportunities around this new climate economy that excites me if we do it right.”

He cautioned, however, that the clock was ticking extremely quickly and said: “It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice. It's going to take a lot of ingenuity and innovation and we have to make sure that everyone is a part of that mix.”

Another featured speaker was Dr. David Schimel, a senior research scientist and technical group supervisor for carbon and ecosystems at the Jet Propulsion Lab, California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena.

Dr Schimel outlined the findings of a think tank, The Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS: a joint institute of the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory), on what could be seen from space, on the ground from citizen observations, from social media data and in the media about the COVID dynamic as a phenomenon in the environment. He said monitoring by KISS showed that in many cities air quality improved quite significantly in April through to May 2020. However, in some cities, air quality did not really improve;  in fact, in some cases it got even worse, he said.

“For the 2020 period, we anticipate a reduction of global emissions of greenhouse gases of about 10%. Now let's put that in perspective: carbon dioxide has been increasing in the atmosphere since the mid-1800s and we now have over 150 years of accumulated emissions. How far back in time did we go? That is to say if emissions in 2020 were 10% less than 2019, how many years back does that go? It only goes back to 2011.”

Dr Schimel argued that the many restrictions of the COVID-19 period had been a giant experiment on how to mitigate climate change and that even the huge sacrifices made during the shutdown showed that “the individual choices of individual people are not enough on their own to affect the climate system”.

“We have to have systemic change to energy production and consumption, to the way in which we power our society. And I think that this is very, very synergistic with thinking about justice and how we change our society,” he concluded.

The webinar, “Addressing climate change in a post COVID-19 world”,  on Dec. 3 2020, was part of a series in a collaboration between the Atlantic Institute, Atlantic Programs, Rhodes Trust, Obama Foundation, Schmidt Science Fellowship and the Roddenberry Foundation.

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