Pollution and Pandemics Go Hand in Hand

The Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice March in San Francisco, CA, was part of worldwide protests in 2018. Photo/Peggy Elwell

Published on PTLN on 5-07-20

Pollution and Pandemics Go Hand in Hand – Let’s Defeat Both

By Helena Birecki

SAN FRANCISCO, CA —Consistently cleaner air since the start of “shelter in place” is a relief for our lungs, and it’s saving lives. Could it be a welcome partner in our fight to “flatten the curve” of Covid-19 and future pandemics? Pollution-induced conditions like heart and lung disease markedly worsen health outcomes for those with Covid-19, and the virus may spread more readily in polluted air. Ongoing exposure to polluted air may increase risk of hospitalization even for children.

The same emissions from burning fossil fuels that cause air pollution also drive climate change, and that could increase the likelihood of new pandemics. According to Dr. Aaron Bernstein of the Harvard School of Public Health, “climate change hits hard on several fronts that matter to when and where pathogens appear, including temperature and rainfall patterns.”

Even in the absence of viruses, reducing pollution and mitigating climate change are key to public health. The World Health Organization acknowledges that air pollution causes 7 million deaths per year, and the European Society of Cardiology puts that number at 8.8 million. Fully one third of all deaths from heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke are due to polluted air.

This terrible toll is not distributed evenly. It follows the pattern of other environmental and social injustice. Low-income communities of color suffer most. A 2019 study in the Bay Area found that residents of previously red-lined communities had emergency room treatment for asthma more than twice as often as their “low risk” neighbors. UCSF Dr. John R. Balmes considers the evidence that people living with dirtier air are significantly more likely to be hospitalized for or die from Covid-19 “particularly important for hospitals in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, which tend to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution than affluent, white communities.” Adding to Covid-19 ‘s disproportionate impact on people already hard-hit by pollution and poverty, many cannot shelter in place because they do essential jobs that allow their more privileged neighbors to self-isolate.

Our present crisis forefronts the danger and inequity of business as usual. As we recognize the devastating health consequences of pollution, can we adapt our habits and laws to maintain cleaner air long-term? Could our present crisis springboard the broader dismantling of environmental racism?

The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change framed our circumstance optimistically— tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.

Yet how do we balance health imperatives with financial needs? Covid-19 is devastating small businesses, ballooning the unemployment rate and worsening massive housing insecurity especially for workers in the service industry. Many, understandably, just want to get back to the “good old days” before Coronavirus hit. Some, like the Trump administration, cynically use the crisis as a back-door give-away to big polluters, effectively trading our lives for corporate profits. 

We must identify the “choice” between a viable economy and a livable world as a false one. Prior to the pandemic, the two fastest growing jobs in America were in solar and wind power.  Tech companies are “thriving” while employees work from home. 

We can both create good jobs and safeguard our air and water. We have the technology to replace business travel with teleconferences and run homes and businesses on clean electricity. We can build out clean, reliable energy by combining power from solar, wind, and geothermal sources with storage. California’s recent emissions trends show that a growing economy can go hand in hand with cleaner air, and that the right changes to our transportation, buildings, and electric grid will go a long way towards improving our health. 

In the Bay Area, we have efforts afoot on all three fronts, many of them spurred on by activists. Continued engagement by Climate Reality Project members convinced the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District to adopt a Climate Emergency Resolution that calls for zero-emission buses and improved bicycle access across the Golden Gate Bridge. The Sierra Club’s work was pivotal in the City of Berkeley’s ground-breaking legislation to electrify all new buildings, and the San Francisco Climate Emergency Coalition has been working to keep Supervisor Mandelman committed to introducing similar legislation for all-electric new buildings this month. The Reclaim our Power Utility Justice Campaign, anchored by the Local Clean Energy Alliance, aims not only for clean electricity, but for a transition to a distributed, community-accountable energy system which would be safer and more resilient in the face of natural disasters like wildfires. 

The ideas, the technology, and the opportunity are here. Our strong and effective response to the Covid-19 crisis proves that we can act together to improve our world. Will we raise our voices, lend our energy, and cast our votes for a better future? Now it is up to us.

Helena Birecki is a San Francisco-based climate activist focused on the synergy between climate action and equity. She is on the Steering Committee of the SF Climate Emergency Coalition, and also is involved with the Climate Reality Project and Sunrise Bay Area. 


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