Let’s Not Trade One Public Health Crisis for Another: COVID Response Can’t Ignore Climate

Last Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a sweeping relaxation of rules in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Power plants and factories can now essentially decide for themselves if they are to comply with existing air and water pollution regulations, a remarkable decision that will only exacerbate the current public health crisis

Just the next day, a $2.2 trillion stimulus package was signed into law, and while it almost bailed out the oil and gas industries, it mostly steered clear of doing so (more on that below). 

As the U.S. government spends an unprecedented amount of money, and Americans drastically alter their lives, some critical questions emerge: how will our collective response to COVID-19 shape the future of our planet? Will we leave unrepresented future generations out to dry? At the end of the day, we have a chance to come out on the other side of this pandemic much better prepared to deal with the other, ongoing collective crisis: global climate change. But it is not a given that we will be.

These are incredibly difficult and stressful times, so be mindful to take care of your physical and mental health as you are able. Staying informed, and keeping a clear head is critically important. Here are some things you can do to stay healthy, and remember to check in on loved ones, and neighbors.

Below, I’ll dive into what’s happened at the federal level to date, and how climate policy has been impacted by the response to COVID-19 thus far. The two critical ongoing storylines to watch here are: 1) how Congressional funding will be allocated between fossil fuels and renewable energy; and 2) how executive-branch agencies, namely the EPA, are using the current crisis as an opportunity to roll back environmental protections. 

1. Stimulus package money should not fall into the hands of polluters. But has it?  

First thing first: let’s take a closer look at the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the enormous federal relief package signed into law last Friday. The Act — which provides direct payments for most Americans, expands unemployment insurance, and supplies loans for small businesses — doesn’t explicitly bail out polluters in the way many worried it would. 

The initial plan, chiefly introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), sought to bail out the fossil fuel industry by:

  1. Giving oil and gas companies low-interest loans as part of the $500 corporate ‘slush fund.’ The bailout fund, which initially meant to be exclusively controlled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, would have most likely supported polluting industries in a disproportionate way. 
  2. Buying $3 billion of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — a stockpile of crude oil owned by the US government — in order to deliver immediate relief to the industry. The reserve was established after the Arab oil embargo of 1973, and has been tapped in response to emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina. To raise the price of gas at the pump in the wake of the pandemic-related recession, the Department of Energy looked to purchase 77 million barrels of oil for the reserve.  

Progressive members of Congress rallied against these provisions, with Representative Nanette Barragan (D-Ca) leading an effort to oppose the former, and Representative Jared Huffman’s (D-Ca) working to nix the latter

Senator Ed Markey (D-Ma), on a Fire Drill Friday webinar last week, criticized GOP members for viewing the stimulus bill as an opportunity to “keep the share of ExxonMobil high.” 

Speaking alongside Markey, Jack Shapiro, who heads the Climate Leadership Campaign at Greenpeace USA, noted that hundreds of thousands of climate advocates mobilized against fossil fuel lobbyists. 

The result? The administration’s ill-advised attempt to purchase millions of barrels of oil was halted, and explicit bailout money for polluters was mostly omitted from the final version of the legislation. But, the details surrounding the $500 billion corporate fund remain murky, and $32 billion in funding has been allocated for the airline industry without any climate-related strings attached. 

Read our article on reducing emissions in the airline industry

“We still have some concerns that this bill could allow oil and gas companies to apply for some of the $500 billion in bailout funds,” Shapiro said. “Not a single cent of our tax dollars should go toward bailing out the oil and gas executives who have profited from climate destruction for far too long.” 

While the finalized bailout fund has more oversight mechanisms in place, including an inspector general and a congressional oversight structure, Markey emphasized it will be important to monitor how money is distributed. 

“We know that a lot of polluters are going to be going right into the oval office and saying ‘help us’,” Markey said. “We’re gonna have to be blowing the whistle if the fossil fuel gang shows up and our industries are left behind as part of the extinction efforts of this administration.” 

Given that subsequent stimulus bills appear to be inevitable, relief and incentives for clean energy must be prioritized. With the future of so many industries uncertain, it’s imperative that the companies that will spearhead our transition towards the clean economy of the future, and a livable planet — wind, solar, hydro, and others — are propelled. 

This wouldn’t be the first time a major Congressional stimulus package invested in climate mitigation. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, for example, put $5 billion into weatherization programs, helping to reduce energy bills and heating-related greenhouse gas emissions.

More than a decade later, as the effects of climate change are increasingly dire, and global emissions continue to rise, it’s important that big funding packages go much further in incentivizing the transition to a clean energy economy. These comprehensive bills provide lawmakers with the opportunity to get ahead of another ongoing, collective public health crisis, which will also cause Americans to suffer immensely. 

2. This is no time to scrap already-weakened EPA pollution regulations. 

As the public scrutinized the stimulus package and Congress’s actions, Trump’s EPA quietly rolled back environmental protections. On Thursday, the Agency announced it does “not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of noncompliance.” The policy will apply retroactively, beginning on March 13, and remain in place indefinitely. 

So, what exactly does this mean? 

Essentially, factories, power plants, and major polluters will decide for themselves whether or not the pandemic will prevent them from meeting existing requirements on limiting pollution. Businesses won’t have to report when they have exceeded dangerous air or water pollution levels, and the agency will not issue fines for violations of air, water, or hazardous-waste reporting requirements.

It’s a shocking move that will further jeopardize public health at a time when clean air is particularly vital. But EPA officials have maintained they expect “regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements where reasonably practicable, and return to compliance as quickly as possible.” The definition of ‘reasonably practicable’, however, is subject to interpretation.  

“The EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from Covid-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administrator, in a statement.

Former EPA officials have expressed shock and concern over  the move; Gina McCarthy, who led the agency under the Obama administration, characterized the newly-relaxed regulations as “an open license to pollute.” Cynthia Giles, who oversaw the EPA enforcement division alongside McCarthy, said, “This is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules. It is so far beyond any reasonable response I am just stunned.”

In addition to loosening EPA regulations, Trump announced a roll back on Obama-era clean car rules that compelled auto companies to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles each year. 

Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA), an organization of state and local air regulators, said: “We know coronavirus preys on people with respiratory problems, and this dirty air rule will make more Americans vulnerable.” 

Major environmental rollbacks are nothing new for the Trump administration, which has actively worked to reverse climate and environmental progress since taking office. Furthermore, given that COVID-19 has put hundreds of thousands of businesses in jeopardy and the economy in turmoil, rules and regulations have been loosened or even tossed in many aspects of society. Schools and universities across the country have indefinitely shut down, more than 250 million Americans are essentially on lockdown, restaurants have closed — the list of extraordinary measures goes on. 

The regulation of toxic, heat-trapping pollution, however, is simply not something we can afford to scrap, regardless of the financial burden that regulations may impose on corporations. It’s more important than ever that our air remains clean. The consequences of this rollback will have tremendous and lasting effects on our public health and wellbeing, while contributing to further the climate crisis, well after this pandemic is overcome.

Looking Ahead

“The planet is running a fever, and there are no emergency rooms for planets,” Senator Ed Markey said. “We have to act preventatively.” 

On a CNN segment last Sunday, Daniel Kammen, a Professor of Energy at the University of California-Berkeley, noted that just as COVID is overwhelming our systems and leaving vulnerable communities most exposed, climate change will do the same. 

“The real question is, can we take the positive lessons out of this horrible experience with coronavirus, and say, ‘We want to switch to clean energy now, it’s cheaper in many places, and we want to invest in better systems so that low-income communities can actually generate their own power and make themselves more resilient?’” Kammen said. “We’re not doing that with coronavirus today by denying some of the poorest communities testing and respirators, and we’re making the same mistakes on climate.” 

When we recover from this global health crisis, whenever that may be, we will be left with another immense challenge: to significantly reduce pollution and heat trapping gas emissions in order to prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis. But we will also have an opportunity to do things differently, and perhaps even a blueprint for what systemic change can look like. 

Or will we make the same mistakes, continue incentivizing polluters and letting them off the hook, and move closer toward an uninhabitable planet? We must use this unprecedented shake-up to remember that when push comes to shove, we are capable of passing sweeping legislation and changing our lifestyles in ways we had been hearing were ‘extreme’ or even ‘impossible’. Mitigating the climate crisis can be far less extreme than what we are currently living through — but we need to make sure to demand action nonetheless.. 

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to prevent future suffering, and we must capitalize on what could be our last chance to do so. This is not a time to loosen EPA regulations or give handouts to the oil industry — it is a time to fight for the future of our planet and our own. 

Featured Image: Photo Illustration by Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange. Hand Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash. Smoke Stack Photo by Mike Burton on flickr. Smoke Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash.