Developing Resilience at the Intersection of COVID-19 and Climate Change
By Cassidy Childs, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow
Across the West Coast, where smoke from massive wildfires have blocked out the sun with hazy orange skies, the climate crisis and the pandemic have collided, threatening the heart and health of communities. On September 27th, the Glass Fire in Napa and Sonoma County prompted at least 68,000 people to evacuate. In the senior neighborhood of Oakmont, hundreds of elderly residents were evacuated by city buses, unable to socially distance as the flames drew closer. The pandemic has complicated the efforts to combat wildfires by limiting the usage of inmates as firefighters, limiting evacuation center capacity to follow social distance protocols, and possibly exacerbating COVID-19 transmission due to hazardous air pollution. For the populations struggling with the economic turmoil of the pandemic, the wildfires aggravate existing problems.
This unprecedented challenge can serve as a lesson about resilience. By realizing that crises of any kind disproportionately harm the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, policies that directly address poverty and inequality will increase resilience. At the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, sustainable development remains an integral goal for the US and the world.
Public Health and Climate Change
Public health and climate change are often conceived of as separate issues, despite an inextricable link between the two. The environment is a strong determinant for human health and life expectancy- environmental indicators, such as air quality, water quality, and sanitation resources, reveal the quality of life and expected life outcomes of a geographic area. Public health policy often involves improving environmental factors by creating and enforcing environmental regulations. These regulations prevent pollution from infiltrating air, water and food resources; as such, environmental protections translate to human health protections.
Environmental hazards are unevenly and unjustly distributed. Mapping national environmental indicators reveals that environmental hazards disproportionately affect minority and low-income communities. EPA studies have refuted that environmental hazards are solely linked to economic status, proving instead that indicators of race are more accurate than economic indicators around environmental hazards; this constitutes environmental racism, wherein communities of color are more likely to bear the burden of environmental hazards. Communities of color often have less capacity to mobilize political resources to prevent the zoning and allowance of environmental hazards in their neighborhoods. Communities of color, particularly the Black community, have been historically disempowered to participate in political processes and underrepresented in political office. These environmental hazards repress property values in communities of color, preventing the generation of wealth and perpetuating cycles of oppression. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable people bear higher risks for climate hazards too.
There are two notable ways that climate change can pose risks for human health. First, scientists predict that climate change will increase the severity of natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires and typhoons. The risk from extreme weather events affects the general population of the area, but has a disproportionate impact on people of low socioeconomic status. Those with less resources to seek shelter, evacuate, or miss work will be less equipped to deal with an extreme weather event. Furthermore, the most high-risk areas for extreme weather events are often where low-income housing is located, particularly in highly-populated areas. People of higher socioeconomic status will generally seek safer places to live, paying higher housing prices for lower natural disaster risk. Furthermore, wealthier areas that generate more property tax revenue fund better quality public and emergency services. Ultimately, those with the most resources will be able to recover and adapt from the natural disaster risks that climate change presents.
Second, climate change will destabilize existing ecosystems and create long-term changes, such as increasing drought-like conditions in areas that were not previously prone to drought. The changes to these ecosystems can have devastating impacts on public health, including increased food and water shortages, mass migration, international conflict, respiratory diseases due to increased exposure to tropospheric ozone, and increasing vector water-borne diseases. Additionally, many root causes of climate change also increase the risks of epidemics and pandemics. Deforestation, concentration of domesticated animals, and warming temperatures all make the spread of diseases more likely. In the case of deforestation and the concentration of livestock, sickened animals are more likely to come into contact with humans and transmit diseases like Ebola and COVID-19. Warming temperatures provide favorable conditions for some infectious diseases to thrive, including Dengue, Lyme disease, and Malaria. For these reasons, mitigating and adapting to climate change is a form of public health policy.
Where Climate Change and COVID-19 Collide
The devastating effects of climate change are being felt at this moment. In a study released by Earth’s Future, climate scientists report that from 1972 to 2018, climate change has driven a 500% increase in the size of wildfires in California. This year, California witnessed some of the largest wildfires in state history month before the typical October peak. According to California Governor Gavin Newsom, a series of 10,000 lightning strikes caused over 300 fires and billions of dollars in damage in August. While there have been over 40 reported deaths as a result of the wildfires across the West Coast, researchers estimate there could be an additional 1,000–3,000 indirect deaths due to the smoke and poor air quality. These statistics are expected to worsen as fire season in California continues.
The aforementioned Glass fire in Sonoma and Napa County has revealed the complications that COVID-19 brings in the midst of natural disaster. With only hours to evacuate hundreds of elderly residents from the senior Oakmont community, emergency management used city buses for evacuation. Now, local public health officials are voicing their concerns about a spike in COVID cases following the evacuation, particularly for the elderly residents. Because of these new vulnerabilities, local officials are struggling to provide the resources and systems for adequate support and solutions that address the pandemic and the fires.
Beyond the West Coast wildfires, COVID-19 is escalating risks for extreme weather events across the US. In Florida, Hurricane Isaias posed the similar risk of further spreading COVID-19 during evacuations. Before the hurricane made landfall, researchers modeled potential evacuation plans for Florida residents to determine how the spread of COVID-19 could best be limited. However, each of these simulations projected a significant increase in COVID-19 cases. Ultimately, the evacuation for Hurricane Isaias was limited to Ocracoke Island, which houses less than 1,000 residents, and thus no major outbreak occurred. That said, large hurricanes — such as Hurricane Laura in Texas and Louisiana — continue to threaten heightened risk of COVID-19 exposure during evacuation. In Washington D.C. and the greater Mid-Atlantic area, historic heat waves and COVID-19 are complicating public safety efforts. Heat-related injuries and deaths are expected to increase with climate change, particularly for low-income, elderly, and minority communities — without access to air conditioning, these vulnerable populations may be exposed to COVID-19 while seeking a public cooling center. COVID-19 has a greater potential for transmission indoors, and COVID-19 disproportionately impacts the same populations that are heat-sensitive.
Sustainable Development and Resilience
The most resilient communities are those whose basic needs have already been met, enabling them a to recover and adapt to additional losses from disturbances, such as COVID-19 or natural disasters. The UN defines development as “achieving a higher quality of life for all people,” while sustainable development ensures that such development does not come at the cost of the future generations. Therefore, sustainable development policies are most likely to increase community resilience by improving the lives of the most disadvantaged groups. Sustainable Development Goal 11 prioritizes making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. In doing so, SDG 11 recognizes that support for vulnerable groups is the key to decreasing loss following disaster:
“By 2030, significantly reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses relative to global gross domestic product caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations” (Target 11.5).
Food insecurity — defined as a lack of reliable food access for a healthy lifestyle — has increased from 10.5% to 23% across the US since the outbreak of COVID-19. With many people relying on food assistance programs, government welfare programs are crucial for maintaining people’s basic needs. In terms of extreme weather events, displaced people might also need to access temporary food assistance, rendering food aid programs as essential for climate change adaptation.
Access to healthcare is another crucial target for sustainable development in the context of climate change and COVID-19. Vulnerable populations are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards and develop pre-existing conditions, such as asthma. With climate change, these environmental hazards are likely to increase as ecosystems become more unstable and natural disasters worsen. Low-income and minority populations have been the hardest hit by COVID-19 in the US, because they are more likely to work essential jobs, more likely to have pre-existing conditions, and less likely to have adequate healthcare access and coverage. Access to healthcare and healthcare coverage is necessary to improve the resilience of a community.
Community resilience is also predicated on social learning and social capital. Communities that learn to develop systems that prevent and react to disturbances will be more resilient, and as will communities that have stronger links to each other, to social groups, and to essential services. For the US, fostering social learning and social capital would require creating more robust and efficient emergency systems and creating infrastructure that fosters community bonds. Community spaces such as community centers, recreational centers, churches, coffee shops, and parks are examples of infrastructure that strengthens community bonds and social capital. In the case of COVID-19 and the climate crisis, individuals that have clear protocols and a strong social network can prevent inundated government services.
To fortify emergency systems, governments should allocate more resources and funding for relief programs. Governments can work on these relief programs by strengthening ‘rainy day funds’, which ensure funding when national or state emergencies occur. In the US, experts are concerned that the social fabric in the country is deteriorating, using the mental health and emotional fulfillment of individuals as proxy indicators of social well-being. Increasing social capital in the US includes updating and optimizing emergency infrastructure, improving mental health and education resources, and providing more emergency resources.
Climate action is essential to prevent the worsening of the climate crisis. We are only beginning to see and feel the effects of climate change, which are expected to rapidly worsen in coming decades. Mitigation is the most equitable response to climate change, because those with more resources will always be better at adapting to ecological change. Sustainable development policies that equip vulnerable populations with the resources and abilities to overcome crises will be most effective for increasing community resilience and protecting public health. COVID-19 and natural disasters will continue to ravage communities throughout the US, but the legacy of these tragedies must be used as a turning point for better change.