Op-Ed: The Urgency of the Moment

By Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), and Roseann Bongiovanni, Executive Director, GreenRoots, Inc.

Today, we acknowledge the 200th day since the first reported COVID-19 death in Massachusetts. This public health emergency is unprecedented, but it’s hard not to see the stark parallels between this crisis and our climate crisis – the science denial that has stood in the way of making progress, the systemic racism that leads to disparate health outcomes, and the bold, urgent action we now must take to save lives and save our planet.

As elected officials and activist leaders, we know that the central lessons from our battle against COVID-19 are parallel to those from our fight against the climate crisis. And the effective solutions will share key markers– based in science, informed by those most impacted.

There is no addressing the coronavirus pandemic without accepting the historic and ongoing burden of this country’s systemic racism. People of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinx, and Native American populations, are getting sick and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates. Hundreds of years of redlining and lending disparities, hiring discrimination, divestment in neighborhoods of color, and more, mean that today, Black Americans are getting sick and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates. Many tribal nations are struggling to keep their members safe without adequate access to running water and health care resources. Gripped by fear and xenophobia stoked by Donald Trump and in low-wage jobs with no paid leave, Latinx and immigrant communities like Chelsea, where more than two percent of the population has now tested positive for COVID-19, are being overwhelmed by the virus. 

We must also acknowledge the role that environmental injustice plays in this global pandemic. Research has linked higher levels of air pollution to higher rates of infection from the coronavirus, leaving communities of color and poor communities – which are more likely to be exposed to polluted air – more at risk. Communities like Chelsea and East Boston are so severely impacted by COVID19 precisely because of their continued exposure to industrial polluters. Chelsea Creek hosts 100 percent of Logan Airport’s jet fuel, 80 percent of New England’s heating fuel, road salt for more than 350 communities and many other noxious uses. It is no surprise that Chelsea and East Boston residents have among the state’s highest rates of asthma, hospitalizations for pulmonary and cardiac diseases, and cancer rates. And that makes it no surprise that years of systemic environmental racism have resulted in Chelsea’s astronomically high rates of COVID19, the highest in the state.

To tackle problems of this magnitude, we need bold action now. A coordinated rejection of the status quo and a decision to act today will save lives in the long run. By addressing historic environmental injustices and centering these same communities in the decision making around climate solutions, we will save the lives of our neighbors and prevent future generations from bearing the brunt of future public health disasters. COVID-19 has made painfully clear the desperate need for broader systemic reform – including a safety net that provides health care and economic security to all. That same systemic shift is exactly how we can bend our carbon emissions curve and help avoid the worst climate impacts. This is exactly what the Green New Deal calls for – a transformation of our economy and our democracy, with the ideals of justice, equity, and science entrenched in every policy we create. When we change how our energy is produced and used, we make our shared responsibility to cut down our individual carbon footprint easier and fairer.

That’s why in early July, we wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demanding the agency rapidly deploy mobile air monitors. We succeeded. A month later, the EPA committed to temporarily installing mobile air sensors in Chelsea and has committed to a permanent monitoring station if concerns are found. 

Assessing Chelsea’s air quality is an important first step. Addressing Chelsea’s air quality, however, will require partnerships between government officials and local communities as well as bold action.

We have a duty to put the lessons we’ve learned to work toward achieving our dream of a better world. The choices we make during the response to the coronavirus will shape society and policymaking for decades to come. We must make the right choices. We wouldn’t be in our lines of work—government, public service, activism, organizing—if we weren’t optimists at our cores. We believe in the coalition of communities calling for change. Policy is not abstract; it is about who thrives, and who has clean air to breathe. And we know that our movements are deeply connected.  We must act swiftly for climate justice while fighting for an equitable recovery from this pandemic. Relief and justice cannot come quickly enough.  

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