Carmen Valdez: This era is not the ‘great equalizer.’ But it is the time for great change.

(Brandon Thibodeaux | The New York Times) Steam billows from the coal-powered Huntington Power Plant in Huntington, Utah, Feb. 7, 2019. About half of the premature deaths caused by poor air quality are linked to pollutants that blow in from other states, a new study found.

Recent global and local data have shown how drastically emissions have dropped as more people are staying home due to COVID-19.

While some have celebrated this cleaner air, environmental groups like the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah) believe that these celebrations are premature and oversimplify an intricate topic. However, by recognizing what makes this issue complicated, important lessons may be learned.

The decrease in emissions stems primarily from reduced commuting. For some, including my colleagues and I, this means having the flexibility to save a trip to the office and work from home. For many others it means not working and financial insecurity for an unknown amount of time. And still for more, reduced commuting isn’t even an option, as people still have to travel to work every day, putting themselves on the front lines by necessity rather than by choice.

On-site work and job loss are more prevalent among those who also disproportionately bear the brunt of this virus due to increased exposure to air pollution and other general health risks. Centuries of systemic injustice and indifference have created a continuous cycle of health, economic, and power disparities among low-income communities, communities of color, immigrant populations and Native populations, putting them at greater risk of harm from natural disasters, diseases, and environmental threats.

Heavily polluting industries have historically been intentionally located near or within these communities, exposing them to poor air and water quality that results in chronic health problems, including asthma and other lung diseases. This has now been compounded by a pandemic characterized by serious and often fatal pulmonary damage. Compared to predominantly white, higher-income communities, these vulnerable communities are experiencing a disproportionate number of cases and deaths due to pre-existing conditions caused by this intergenerational cycle of environmental and health disparities.

Celebrating a reduction in emissions as the silver lining of working from home without recognizing these inequities minimizes the lived experiences of people who have carried these intergenerational burdens while being called upon to continue to support our economy and society as essential workers during this hazardous time.

Rather than viewing 2020 as “the great equalizer,” we — organizations, lawmakers, community leaders, companies, families and you — must see this time as a lesson about valuing the work and the risks of those who make our lifestyles possible and as a call to action to make sure that everyone has the same economic and health opportunities. The takeaway must be the implementation of sound, equitable policy measures that reduce emissions and improve health for all, not just the privileged.

For example:

  • Investments should be made by the government and by private corporations to ensure that there is safe, affordable, and reliable access to clean energy, air, and water in every community.

  • Residential, commercial and industrial development should be affordable for all and planned in a way that prioritizes energy efficiency, transportation options and other smart growth principles.

  • Access to safe public transportation should be expanded into existing communities to address first-mile, last-mile, and frequency issues.

  • Industry, like Utah’s oil and gas sectors, needs to be held accountable to act in accordance with regulatory standards rather than having their emission violations slide under the radar.

  • There have now been nearly one hundred rollbacks of federal regulations, completed or in process, that will put more pollution into our environment and threaten our economies and our lives. The recent clean cars rollback will stop the progress on car efficiency standards, increasing tailpipe emissions by 10% and putting 60,000-200,000 jobs at risk. Regulations like this must be restored.

It’s 2020 and it shouldn’t take a pandemic to make us take action to simultaneously protect our air and vulnerable communities. There are no more excuses as to why we, all of us, aren’t stepping up already. It’s time for sustainable solutions that raise everyone up together, rather than leaving the many behind.

Carmen Valdez

Carmen Valdez is the grassroots organizer at the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.