Coronavirus and Climate Change

By James Evans

UCLA Health Sustainability Programs Manager

My friends and colleagues alike know I spend most of my free time in the mountains rock climbing. This past weekend, in the time it took to climb Fairview Dome in Tuolumne, the skies turned from bluebird to apocalyptic as the wind blew in dark smoke from several wildfires. My holiday weekend plans, like those of many others, were abruptly cut short as the smoke engulfed the Sierras from Sequoia to Mono Lake and beyond.

California just set an alarming new record for acres burned at over 2 million and countingLos Angeles County recorded its highest temperature ever over the weekend: 121 degreesMany of our state’s national forests are temporarily closed, and one of my colleagues’ home has been reduced to ash. Other states are experiencing extreme weather as well. In 48 hours, Colorado set records for both heat and snow, and as we enter the heavy part of hurricane season, 16 named storms have already ravaged the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. NOAA predicts 25 named storms, an amount they’ve never forecast before.

It’s never been clearer that climate change is happening right now. Not in 2030, or 2050, or 2100. Now. Although it is expected we will see a welcomed temporary decrease in carbon emissions in 2020 due to the global pandemica new study has shown that both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice melting rates now match the IPCC’s worst-case scenario for global warming. The new-normal is hot, getting hotter, and our emissions reductions must become permanent and then continue declining. A return to business-as-usual once our economy recovers appears to now mean returning to our worst-case scenario, which comes with consequences that will need to be re-evaluated as well.

Just as the climate crisis exacerbates all of the social, economic, and racial inequalities currently being discussed in the national conversation on environmental justice, coronavirus also accentuates the poor health and economic conditions of underserved populations. We know that poor air quality from fossil fuels and ash can lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular morbidities, which also increases the likelihood that these patient populations could suffer severe symptoms if they contract the virus. We know that minority populations are affected disproportionately by coronavirus and climate change alike. And we also know a hotter world increases the likelihood we will see more, yes more, pandemics similar to, or potentially even worse than the one we’re currently fighting.

Healthcare professionals are consistently ranked as being the most respected by the public, and just as they have more than stepped up to meet their responsibility to society during the ongoing pandemic, they must also step up to be advocates for our patients and communities as leaders and experts on the connection between environmental health and human health. I cannot think of better example than our masks filtering out both ash and pathogens at the same time. We must act on the climate emergency with the same urgency that we have during this crisis, and demand our elected officials do the same, because unfortunately the human cost of not doing so will be far greater than what we’re currently experiencing.

COVID-19, BLM, and Environmental Racism

By Devon Bhakta

UCLA Carbon Neutrality Ambassador

“That’s probably not healthy,” I remember thinking as I looked up at the crop duster flying low over my head, dispensing pesticides out onto the fields across the street from my house. At such a young age, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the ramifications of those pesticides on local air and water quality and the health of the migrant farmworkers who were inhaling this toxic rain of pesticides.

Growing up in a small farm town in California’s Central Valley, I never could’ve imagined such a concept as ‘environmental racism’, yet I had been living in a hotbed of it for most of my life. Despite California being hailed as one of the most sustainable states, the Valley is full of pollution that disproportionately impacts low-income minority communities. The Central Valley has some of the most heavily polluted groundwater in the country, filled with nitrates, heavy metals, and agricultural runoff that cause numerous health conditions, and those who are most affected by it are poor and rural Latinx communities. These communities also suffer at higher rates from respiratory and heart diseases as a result of having some of the worst air pollution in the country. It wasn’t until I enrolled at UCLA that I learned about how much environmental pollution there is around my hometown and how it disproportionately affects low-income people of color—and that’s precisely why it’s so important to discuss these issues and educate those who may not know about it. Throughout California and the rest of the U.S., low-income communities of color are hit hardest by pollution, which is often overlooked in discussions of sustainability.

Now more than ever, the concept of environmental justice must become a central pillar of sustainability. With the growing Black Lives Matter movement, environmental racism is being discussed as one of the systemic injustices that people of color face. Air pollution is one of the worst of these injustices for the Black community; research shows that white people inhale 17% less air pollution than they emit, whereas Black people inhale 56% more than they emit. This has implications for the effects of COVID-19 on people of color. Higher levels of air and water pollution lead to higher levels of preexisting health conditions like asthma and cancer among people of color, which in turn makes them more at risk of severe complications from COVID-19. According to the CDC, Indigenous, Black, and Latinx people have a COVID-19 hospitalization rate approximately 5 times that of white people. Nationwide, Black people are dying at 2.5 times the rate that white people are, with Indigenous and Latinx people dying at the next highest rates. More and more, the data is showing that COVID-19 is not just a health crisis, but an environmental justice crisis as well.

Environmental racism is not a new issue, but one that has been pervasive in the U.S. for many decades. Addressing these systemic inequities needs to be a fundamental part of the environmental movement going forward.