City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, the author (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)
These months will go down as one of the most trying periods in our city’s history. We are consumed by the grief of lost loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors, while facing a level of economic uncertainty not seen in generations. In this moment of crisis, many of us feel compelled to put on blinders and focus solely on addressing the present situation, and there is no doubt that efforts to combat COVID-19 will require vast resources and attention from our best minds.
As with many other issues confronting our communities, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated by a broad array of societal problems, particularly environmental degradation and injustice. We must take a comprehensive approach to fighting this disease, one that not only looks to meet our short-term needs, but puts forth solutions that greatly improve our public health and economic resilience to prevent and withstand future emergencies. This starts with protecting our environment.
Research is now showing that communities most impacted by pollution, predominantly black and brown communities, have higher rates of infection and death from COVID-19. This should come as no surprise. The virus impacts the respiratory system; high levels of pollution lead to increases in respiratory illnesses, which leave the body less equipped to fight off the virus. With this knowledge in hand, one would expect our leaders to double down on environmental initiatives to improve our air quality.
However, following the pattern of past economic downturns, environmental programs are among the first to see budget cuts, allowing elected officials to crow about a balanced budget, while their constituents are left vulnerable to future catastrophe.
In June of last year, the New York City Council officially declared that we are in a climate emergency. COVID-19 has not displaced this emergency, which worsens by the day. And yet, the proposed cuts in the Mayor’s recently-released Executive Budget directly target concrete initiatives that would mitigate effects of climate change: suspending the city’s organics program, which will lead to increased methane emissions, and disinvesting from building bike lanes, making it harder for people to use alternative modes of transportation at a moment when people are more hesitant than they’ve ever been to ride public transit. Environmental initiatives, like a robust organics program and network of bike lanes, are not just necessary components of a well-functioning, modern municipality, they are also basic elements in any plan to mitigate an environmental catastrophe and improve public wellness.
The scope and scale of both the public health and economic costs of climate change have the potential to dwarf what we’ve witnessed during the immense coronavirus crisis. Future generations would be left to deal with rising sea levels, longer and more frequent heat waves and droughts, and poor air quality. The results will be tragic; millions living in low-lying areas will be displaced from their homes, food and water shortages will occur, and deaths from heat and respiratory-related illnesses will skyrocket.
Responding to the twin emergencies of COVID-19 and climate change can seem overwhelming, but it presents a critical opportunity to improve our public health, revive our economy, and create greater equity within our communities. This is precisely the time to make investments that better prepare us for the next emergency. But before we can make further environmental investments, we must stop divesting in the limited number of environmental initiatives already on the books. We must protect and accelerate progress already underway.
As we watch the coronavirus curve flatten, we should not be thinking about how we “get back to normal” – normal is what left us unprepared, normal is what led to people of color dying from the virus at greater rates, normal is what left low-income folks completely devastated by the economic downturn.
We must rebuild our communities with equity and resiliency top of mind. This is not the time to follow the Republican orthodoxy of austerity; this is a time to figure out how we can prevent future large scale crises, like the looming climate crisis. Our goal should be a green economy, allowing us to reduce pollutants -- improving public health and mitigating climate change -- all while putting people to work building solar panels, processing compost, growing food locally, and in myriad other vocations.
We can start by preserving the environmental initiatives we already have. If we do not rise to tomorrow’s climate crisis with the necessary urgency, the coming decades will bring cascading crises that no government will be equipped to respond to.
City Council Member Antonio Reynoso represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens. On Twitter @CMReynoso34.