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Why environmental justice must be a part of green COVID-19 recovery

The disparities of infections on essential workers and communities of color reinforces how any climate plan must focus on equity.

Why environmental justice must be a part of green COVID-19 recovery
[Photo: Nick Fewings/Unsplash; Daniel Abadia/Unsplash]

On September 10, when the air quality index in Monterey County, California hit 153—into the “unhealthy” zone, and up from an AQI of 79 the day before—the United Farm Workers of America shared an image of workers in King City, walking through a field as the sky glowed an eerie orange. Multiple wildfires were burning across the state, and farm workers were still out in the fields, working amid clouds of smoke.

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This wasn’t the only unsafe conditions those workers had faced lately. Farms across the country have also seen outbreaks of COVID-19 as farm workers often live together, ride buses out to the fields, and work in groups, increasing their risk of infection. As the United Farm Workers put it at the very beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, “You can’t pick strawberries working remotely.”

During the double crisis of COVID-19 and rampant wildfires, some California residents, now allowed to work from home, have opted to move out of the state and away from the worsening air quality and high rents while keeping their jobs. Rents in San Francisco have dropped between 14% and 15% year-over-year for one- and two-bedroom units, and homes listed for sale have soared 96%, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, a sign of people looking to or already moving out of the Bay Area. But for farm workers—and home health aides, and restaurant employees, and other essential workers—remote work isn’t an option, and neither is that chance to escape either the unclear air, or the increased risk of COVID-19.

That’s no coincidence; it’s an example of the way the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental justice are linked. Our COVID-19 recovery is a chance to address climate change with stronger investments in renewables, public transportation, and building infrastructure that create jobs while ushering us into a low-carbon future. But even if we have a green recovery, it won’t work unless it involves environmental justice, and those already disenfranchised populations won’t benefit from that future. “They’ll be left further behind,” says Juanita Constible, a climate and health senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.


This story is part of Fast Company‘s Building Back Greener package. As the COVID-19 pandemic and climate catastrophes continue, we’re looking at what should come next, and how we can reshape our climate future through the coronavirus recovery decisions we make now. Click here to read the whole series.


Environmental justice is the recognization that already-vulnerable communities, like people of color and low-wealth residents, also bear a larger burden of environmental hazards and the effects of climate change. It’s also an effort to make environmental laws, policies, and regulations that right those wrongs. What we see frequently across the country is the opposite: environmental injustice, or environmental racism. Low-wealth residents and communities of color are exposed to more air pollution; redlined neighborhoods are in areas that are hotter; homes in majority-Black communities are often undervalued, which affects what climate protections they may have, such as with flood insurance, or if climate projects are built in their region, and if and how much disaster funding an area might receive, Constible says.

These issues have existed for decades. A study looking at 20 years of toxic waste data from 1987 to 2017 found that more than half of residents who live less than two miles from toxic waste facilities are people of color. A 2018 EPA study found that communities living below the poverty line have a 35% higher burden of particulate matter emissions compares to the overall population; for Black residents specifically, that burden jumps to 54%. Of the six million people who lived within three miles of all the coal plants in the U.S. in 2012, 39% were people of color. For the 75 worst coal plants for pollution, nearly 53% of people living with three miles were people of color.  When it came to Hurricane Katrina recovery,  Black homeowners reportedly received an average of $8,000 less in aid grants, because the grants were based on housing values.

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What does environmental justice recovery look like? It’s not just funding for public transit, it’s a broader understanding of how transportation access can promote health, safety, and economic opportunity. Instead of just replacing broken, gas-powered bus fleets with new electric buses, a broad environmental justice program would supplement that with policies that made sure people could live close to where they work, and can get to where they need to go quickly and safely, whether by transit, by cycling, or by walking.

The same thinking applies to renewables; It’s not enough to say we need more wind and solar; we have to make sure wind and solar are available to low-wealth communities and communities of color, who often pay more for energy, or don’t have access to energy. If green jobs are the future of our economic recovery, it’s not enough to create those jobs; they must be available to people of all races, and allowed to unionize (efforts to undercut the labor movement have harmed people of color most). Those jobs also need to be available in the same places that low-wealth people and people of color are living.

It’s also about better public health data collection before, during, and after disasters, Constible says, so we can understand who is being affected, and by what. “One of the things we’ve seen during COVID is this really slow realization that Black and brown people were disproportionately dying, and still are, from COVID,” she says. “That same pattern is probably playing out with climate-related hazards like extreme heat, but our public health data system right now simply does not allow us to make as informed decisions as they should be.”

The benefits of righting environmental injustices extend past those immediately effected. Think of pollution; your neighborhood may not be as concerned with unhealthy air, which includes fine particulate matter known to cause adverse health affects, right now, but pollution is only getting worse. “Pollution doesn’t know a boundary,” says Sacoby Wilson, director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health lab at the University of Maryland. “That particulate matter, those VOCs, they don’t stop at the border [of] the wealthy neighborhood.” Plus, the health impacts that pollution has on those low-wealth and communities of color can be devastating, and is already happening. “The less pollution we have out there that disproportionately impacts communities of color, the less money is needed for [social] safety nets,” he says. “The less pollution, the more health we have, the more wealth we can build together as a nation.”

The populations that are in the crosshairs of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are also the ones that are helping the rest of us survive. Without restaurant workers, sanitation workers, farm workers, healthcare workers, capitalism as it currently operates would come to a halt, Wilson says. But these populations are also increasingly vulnerable. According to data from San Francisco, over a four-day span of testing in May, 95% of the positive tests were Hispanic, and 90% of those who tested positive said that they could not work from home, and most were low-income. A study of essential workers in April found that low-wage essential workers, like grocery clerks, home health aides, and delivery drivers, were  two to three times more likely than high-wage essential workers to lack protections like masks, hand sanitizer, and regular handwashing opportunities.

For workers who have been able to work remotely, who have relied on these last few months, and will continue to rely on, the delivery of goods and services, it’s thanks to these groups that are facing the most precarious circumstances. “If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us one thing, its that we can’t ignore the workers that make everything go,” Constible says. “Without people doing those jobs, we can do ours, we can’t live a healthy life, we can’t eat the food we want. We’re all in this together, even though it hasn’t been proceeding that way in the last six months.”

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COVID-19 will, most likely, have an end point. “But the climate crisis won’t,” Constible says. “It’ll only get harder unless we take action now.” Wilson adds that the pandemic has “made visible the populations that our economic policies, health policies, criminal justice policies, planning and zoning policies, and environmental policies have made invisible.” Our recovery has to focus on equity, he says, where the ones who have been hit “first and worst,” by COVID-19 and by climate change “are invested in first and the most.”

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