AMERICANS REALLY hated locking down for COVID-19, so why does the US keep locking down for climate change?
Sometimes we are locked in, due to wildfire smoke and heat; and sometimes we are locked out, with homes leveled due to flooding and fire; but the bottom line is–we keep locking down.
Our children aren’t playing outside because it’s 118 degrees Fahrenheit or there is fire at the door or they can’t breathe due to air pollution or wildfire smoke. In Hawaii last month and across the Northeast and the midwest last summer, wildfires led to involuntary lockdowns.
Yet while lockdowns due to COVID were difficult, they seem like a cakewalk compared to the current and future dire lockdowns due to climate.
As cattle and crops struggle to survive in 118 degree heat and fish die in 100 degree water, lockdowns due to climate catastrophes are and will be accompanied by mass food, housing, and water shortages.
There will be less food, or poorer quality food, with lower nutritional value, due to the high levels of pollutants and carbon dioxide. Or just no food.
There will be less water. Or only contaminated water. Or no water. Ditto for breathable air.
As our soil becomes depleted, either through drought or flooding or chemical contamination, fewer parts of the world will be either cultivatable or habitable. This is already happening. Note the cautionary tale in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and many other US states where agricultural land has been devastated due to flooding. Much land across the southwest is now desertified due to drought.
The result is ever more refugees – climate refugees, refugees of US citizens in our own country.
Where will these displaced American refugees find shelter? And food? And work?
The excess deaths due to the extreme weather that is the trademark of climate change are worrisomely reminiscent of those due to COVID-19. Last August, refrigerated morgue trucks lined up outside hospitals in Phoenix, where this summer’s epic heat wave resulted in excess mortality.
We don’t have to suffer these involuntary lockdowns. This is a collective choice. The United States has elected to treat climate change as an endemic disease, but accepting climate deaths is a choice.
As soon as we act to reverse climate change, the climate corrects towards normal. This is nicely illustrated by the data from the voluntary COVID-19 lockdowns, where carbon emissions plummeted in only weeks and average worldwide temperatures fell by .3 degrees C in a matter of months compared to 2019.
What if instead of waiting for disasters to force us to lock down and decrease air pollution–a key driver of climate change–what if we started to practice planetary CPR in an intentional way?
This would be easily achievable without even writing a new law: it could start now–today–by enforcement of existing laws.
Which is good, because enforcing the law is something that all Americans can agree on.
For example, if highway speed limits were enforced, air pollution from the transportation sector would plummet, resulting in an instant fall in greenhouse gas emissions, improvement in worldwide temperatures, and drop in extreme weather events.
Currently, cars and trucks on major US roadways travel an average of 15 mph over the posted speed limits. If all cars and trucks immediately followed the law in the US alone, carbon emissions would derop substantially, up to 30 percent, according to one Dutch study. If we stopped building new highways and covering the ones we have with petrochemical salts that serve to quickly degrade them and thus drive the market for new asphalt, that would also decrease fossil fuel emissions.
Enforcement of EPA Clean Air Act regulations declined dramatically in recent years, according to an NBER report; but if air and water pollution regulations were enforced across the US, air pollution would plummet, health would improve, and greenhouse gas levels would fall. Likewise, light pollution creates massive amounts of air pollution since it is dependent on the burning of fossil fuels; it is an unnecessary drag on the electric grid, physically heats up the planet, and could be immediately mitigated by changing to lower wattages.
Like other countries, we need to establish levels above which we will immediately implement successful efforts to limit health harms when pollution rises to unacceptable levels. In New Delhi, the Indian government closed all schools, power plants and traffic for a month in November 2021 due to health-damaging air pollution. No such health-preserving actions were mentioned in the US when air pollution rose to historic levels due to wildfires and citizens were forced to don masks in order to breathe.
The US could have modeled its disaster response on India’s; instead, office buildings on Wall Street carefully adjusted the indoor air quality to healthy levels; others were left to fend for themselves. Untold numbers died due to the complications of wildfire air pollution, which include heart disease , stroke, and asthma.
The response to unending disasters posed by our unstable climate is paralyzed by inaction; or wrongly focusing on wars overseas when the war that we should be waging is that of decreasing all sources of pollution so that human survival and that of millions of species on earth can be assured. Our focus should be not on military supremacy but on survival; the impressive funding offered by the Inflation Reduction Act to combat climate change in many cases wrongly subsidizes the fossil fuel and extractivist industries that only further our planetary misery.
We can’t continue to talk of future action when the present is being destroyed. Action now will mean less suffering later.
Decreasing the pollution that is driving the climate crisis improves equity by acting as treatment and prevention. In accepting the needless death toll of climate change, which disproportionately affects low income populations but ultimately imperils the health of all populations, valuable time is lost. We are all at risk. Let’s start acting like it.
Brita E. Lundberg is chair of the board at Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group of nationally-recognized experts in public health, pulmonary and emergency medicine, cancer epidemiolog,y and environmental health that focuses on educating the public regarding the twin existential threats of nuclear development and climate change.