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E 11-2020        November 2-9th, 2020

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Dual Pandemics

How the Election Influences Environmental Racism

By Ilana Herzig

Under the Donald Trump presidency, disproportionate health ramifications for BIPOC communities and impacts of the climate crisis and COVID has grown. The Trump administration initiated a series of  nearly 100 attempted reversals of environmental policies and protections, in addition to removing America from The Paris Climate Agreement. Alongside a botched handling of the pandemic in the United States, the actions of this administration exacerbated the consequences of environmental racism.

“Environmental racism is when governments put projects that impact the quality of one’s air and water in primarily Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color because those communities are less able to speak out and resist,” said Dalhousie Professor, Dr. Ingrid Waldron. The director of the The ENRICH Project, project co-lead of Improving the Health and Outcomes of People of African Descent, and author/co-producer of book-turned-film, There’s Something in the Water (2019) explains that governments identify Black and Indigenous communities in rural areas where individuals have lower-incomes, and experience other forms of structural and institutional racism and this makes it harder to fight back. They are often "communities that are targeted for particular projects that are dangerous to their health because the government knows that they can get away with [it]." Residents suffer health impacts such as reproductive illness, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory illness, such as asthma and lung cancer – on top of mental health consequences of systemic racism and anxiety from concerns of contamination.

A recent Harvard Study found that “Covid-19 patients who lived in polluted areas were more likely to die than those in less polluted areas.” InsideClimate News reported, “the risk of premature PM 2.5-related death for Blacks was three times greater than the national average.” The study also highlighted “the disproportionate health burden on minority communities, where PM 2.5 exposure is greatest and which are seeing the highest Covid-19 death rates.”

COVID has compounded the havoc wreaked by the Trump administration and amplified environmental racism. “COVID lays bare the existing health disparity and the problem with the health system,” Dr. Waldron says. “It’s the exact same communities that are suffering health effects of environmental racism, that are suffering from COVID.”

A variety of studies from Environment International and Environmental Health Perspectives suggest that long-term exposure to pollutants resulting in life-threating health issues correlates with racial segregation such as in Flint Michigan’s Water Crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children are twice as likely as white children to have asthma and ten times as likely die from such complications. A study by the University of California found the likelihood of death from a heatwave in Los Angeles increases twofold for the city’s Black residents.  This doesn’t account for racism within the climate movement itself. Various climate activists, including Mari Copeny of Flint, Michigan – famous for her 2016 letter to President Obama about her hometown’s water crisis – echoes this sentiment found in studies by the EPA and others.

“Flint is not unique,” Copeny, the now 13-year-old climate activist tells Vox. “There are dozens of Flints across the country.”

Organizer and climate crisis expert, Sam Grant of MN350, adds “people in BIPOC bodies are directly impacted by the climate crisis in many ways and increasingly see that the climate crisis amplifies the many forms of harm we’ve experienced over many generations in our communities.”

The dual pandemics of racism and COVID do not paint an appealing picture of another term against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s flouting of scientific guidelines and medical warnings amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, militarizied response to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, and refusal to disavow his white supremacist supporters.

The President of the United States’s administration has censored and scrubbed climate change from government sites and agencies, disregarded and defunded landmark studies and research on health hazards of climate change, replaced scientists and experts with oil and coal executives and lobbyists, or relocated various bureau headquarters in order to provoke a mass exodus of experienced staff.

According to The New York Times, 30 of this administration’s proposed rollbacks remain in progress. But 70 environmental, public health, and worker safety rules and regulations have already been revoked. They include the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, Clean Water Act, weakening National Environmental Policy Act, loosening fuel economy and methane emission checks, dropping energy efficiency standards, clearing the way for broadly opposed pipelines (including Dakota Access and Keystone XL), and obliterating restrictions for fossil fuel use and land leasing for offshore drilling. This attack on climate science has also set the stage for other countries and leaders around the world to follow suit.

Changes initiated by the Trump administration have the potential to spur tens of thousands of premature deaths, hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks, thousands of emergency room visits, and hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants by 2030. The gigatons of CO2 emissions from all of these policy reversals alone would prompt irreversible climate change. However, that’s not accounting for those decisions that could be overturned by a more conservative Supreme Court or the myriad rollbacks delayed in court that would likely proceed given more time.

Should – by one means or another – Trump have a second term, climate experts have raised concerns beyond the climate crisis. According to Technology Review writer James Temple, “After years of watching the administration unravel climate policies, subvert the rule of law, stack courts, politicize a pandemic, undermine the election process, and hint about third and fourth terms,” climate scientists “are terrified of what the president may do if he remains in office.”

But for many even the desired outcome of a Biden triumph leaves something to be desired. “A great outcome on November 3rd is still inadequate for me,” said Grant. “And yet, the alternative of giving Trump four more years, is not something that we should let happen.” Dr. Waldron offers that she is heartened by community organizing, civil disobedience, and continued education spearheaded by BIPOC leaders. Grant notes that he’s observed a promising ethos of mutual aid and collaboration, healthy discourse, state leadership emerge alongside a “new organizing framework that honors the full intersectionality of race and climate…that supports mutual flourishing.” But for it to proceed, a lot of work must be done.

“Either way, the fight is going to be the same,” he says. “It’s just unimaginably more insane if Trump gets to continue. And he seems to be indicating that if he doesn't win, he is going to declare voter fraud, which is scary. We’re sounding less and less like this thing that we say we are in the world. And more and more like the countries we are always attacking or vilifying. And that is us now, on so many levels.”

In the words of EcoWatch, “The Next Election is About the Next 10,000 Years.” But to Jamie Margolin, a Queer Colombian climate organizer who co-founded of Zero Hour, it’s also about the past. “If we want to survive this thing, we’re going to have to dig deep and get to the roots. We have centuries of damage to undo, so it’s time to get started.”

The President openly states he will not peacefully cede power, actively works to dismantle climate change policies, butchers the US’s response to an outbreak bearing over 210,000 deaths and spurs division and hate with almost every word. This election and our subsequent collective action or inaction as a society, may determine the future of our democracy and our planet.

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