As we are still working to come to terms with the significant impacts of the global climate crisis, we add to that a deadly, crippling crisis in the form of the novel coronavirus – a never-before-seen illness that laid bare the inequities in our nation’s public health system.
And now yet another crisis – sadly, nothing new – the death of an unarmed Black man at the hands of a white police officer, sparking widespread grief and protests in spite of the highly infectious virus that continues to loom.
The climate challenge, the pandemic, and the uprising over police brutality. They seem unrelated. But actually, they come from the same root: Decades of racist policies and systemic disinvestment in Black and brown communities that have left a significant segment of our population vulnerable on too many fronts.
This wake-up call has been a long time coming. As a nation we have a moral imperative to address our history of structural racism head-on and identify comprehensive solutions that end this longstanding burden on our most at-risk populations.
While we can’t undo these injustices overnight, we must act now to address the root causes of the widespread disparities in health care, education, law enforcement and the environment. It took decades of poor planning and unjust policies – particularly here in New York – to effectively transform Black and brown individuals into sitting ducks for a virus like COVID-19.
In fact, nearly 23 percent of the reported deaths are African-American, despite this demographic constituting roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population. And retirement homes with a higher proportion of Black residents have quickly become outbreak clusters.
In part due to a history of discriminatory housing practices and redlining in the five boroughs, racial minority populations have been forced to live closer to fossil fuel infrastructure and high-polluting power plants. It is time for the state to seriously consider policies to accelerate the shutdown or repowering of these dirty plants, including instituting a social cost for the production of polluting carbon – otherwise known as carbon pricing.
New research by Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health has revealed a clear link between long-term exposure to pollution and COVID-19 death rates. The study found that an individual who lives for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate pollution is eight percent more likely to die from COVID-19 than someone who lives in a region with just one unit less of that pollution.
Simply put: If Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit over the past 20 years, the borough would have seen roughly 248 fewer COVID-19 deaths in April alone.
With the coronavirus taking a toll on low-income and Black communities – the same areas forced to navigate high levels of pollution – it is critical that the state embraces innovative solutions that incentivize the energy industry to quickly close or retrofit high-polluting power plants. Enacting a carbon pricing plan can help deliver New York’s clean energy transition and reduce the historic and disproportionate burdens imposed on environmental justice communities.
Fortunately, there is a carbon pricing proposal on the table, put there by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO).
Carbon pricing would embed a cost per ton of CO2 emissions in the sale of wholesale electricity. This model would create a price signal for investment in new clean energy resources and encourage existing generators to minimize their CO2 emissions through upgrades and efficiency improvements.
In short, it makes cleaner energy more profitable and carbon-emitting energy more expensive. And at a time when the pandemic has taken a significant economic toll, including on the renewable energy sector, that argument is hard to beat.
With COVID-19 exacerbating the existing inequalities in New York City and experts predicting a second wave of the virus this fall, state policymakers cannot wait to act. Carbon pricing can help New York meet its clean energy goals faster and more cost-effectively while drastically reducing emissions in overcrowded and high-polluting neighborhoods downstate. The time to support this proposal is now.