Why we must fight climate change amid the pandemic

Health crisis underscores the need for urgent environmental action

A COLLEGE STUDENT in Easton asked me whether I thought that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we could still get the country and the world to focus on the climate crisis. I told her that we had no choice: the only long-term strategy to rebuild our economy and protect our communities hardest hit by this terrible virus begins with voting for the Green New Deal, saving our planet, and rebuilding a clean energy economy. That’s why my campaign rolled out policies on the climate crisis and COVID-19 response together: they must happen in tandem. The pandemic doesn’t diminish the urgency of the climate crisis—it underscores it.

We find ourselves in a complicated generational crisis: navigating a devastating pandemic, an economic catastrophe, and reckoning with the consequences of 400 years of systemic racism in our society. In the meantime, we still have to face urgent challenges in our communities, from an affordable housing crisis, to a gun violence crisis, and an opioid crisis. None of these issues emerged from a vacuum, nor do they exist in isolation today. That’s why COVID-19 cannot delay us from working toward intersectional solutions. In fact, it highlights the urgency of them. The climate crisis is no exception.

The communities of color who have experienced chronic exposure to air pollution for decades and other consequences of environmental racism were disproportionately vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic. Decades of redlining and intentional polluting of these communities have resulted in the concentration of toxic industrial sites in black and brown neighborhoods. Take Chelsea, just north of the 4th Congressional District: it has one of the highest rates of COVID cases in Massachusetts, and it’s a city with a highway above it, Logan Airport next to it, some of the highest rates of air pollution, a lack of safe housing, and a lack of reliable transportation.

A complex web of systemic racism, the denial of science, and unrestricted lobbying has turned the once grave threat of global warming into the urgent, existential crisis that climate change is today. There is no single action, no silver bullet, that will solve the climate crisis. We need people in all levels of government who will view every policy that comes across their desk through the lenses of environmentalism and equity.

As a presidential speechwriter in the White House when President Obama put together the Paris Climate Accords, I saw firsthand how stable, thoughtful leadership can help combat this crisis. I was also surrounded by experts who warned that climate change could lead to the spread of infectious disease, and worked with the pandemic response team that President Trump later disbanded. Later, I was in the attorney general’s office when we were investigating ExxonMobil, suing the Trump EPA, stopping offshore oil drilling, and upholding the Clean Water Act, where I learned exactly how fossil fuel executives and their allies in Congress would try to muzzle scientists and erase climate science. This is all to say: leadership matters. Because real leaders listen when experts talk.

We also must call for regulations on former government employees’ lobbying activities and a lifetime lobbying ban for members of Congress. As we root out this corruption on Capitol Hill, I will propose measures such as a carbon tax, environmental trade deals, and rigorous emission restrictions to ensure that from here on out, our laws stand only for the public good.

While climate change poses immense risk to our communities, I see this crisis as an opportunity to build a better, safer world for all people. As we fight to reduce vehicle emissions, we must advocate for smart urban planning and investment in local and regional transportation initiatives. As we take on carbon emissions from food waste—which, if it were a country, would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world—we will work to connect the more than 860,000 Massachusetts residents who are food insecure with access to fresh, healthy food. As we tackle the emissions of the construction sector, we will ensure the green renovations our public schools and affordable housing units desperately need are safe and healthy. And we must include environmental justice provisions in the legislation in order to build the truly intersectional solution we need to combat this crisis.

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We have leaders in this country, including our very own president, who have purposely spread lies and propagated ignorance about climate science. Enough is enough. We are undoubtedly in the midst of a climate crisis, one which we have a mere decade to remedy. Inaction regarding the climate crisis is a choice we cannot afford to make. The future of this planet—of everything and everyone we care about—is at stake. With comprehensive legislation and bold, tangible action, we can work to reverse decades of environmental damage to and repair our planet. But we cannot wait another moment – let alone another election cycle. This is no time for incrementalism—we need big, bold action, and a leader who is ready to take it now. This moment makes that need crystal clear.

Dave Cavell is a Democratic candidate for Congress in the 4th Congressional District.