The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was recorded on January 21, 2020; by May 1 over 1,000,000 cases had been reported. To slow the spread of the virus, states across the country issued stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders, instituted social distancing measures, and closed non-essential businesses. President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13th.
While many offices transitioned quickly to remote work, the closure of restaurants, personal care services, and retailers cut paychecks for millions of workers. And with schools and daycare facilities closed, even families with working adults are struggling to cope with the financial and practical implications of the crisis.
In an attempt to mitigate some of the economic effects of the crisis, the federal government passed three legislative packages in quick succession. The first, signed into law on March 3, provided funding for healthcare and testing costs, as well as small business subsidies. The second, signed March 18th, included tax credits expanding paid sick leave, increases in unemployment benefits, and food assistance. The third, known as the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security” (CARES) Act, passed March 27th and included almost $2 trillion in aid, including direct payments to households, bailouts for airlines and other industries affected by the crisis, and loans and grants for small businesses.
In addition to Congressional actions, the President directed companies to shift production to medical equipment. General Motors shifted production to ventilator parts. However, the federal government continues to resist using the Defense Production Act to mobilize companies to shift production to personal protective equipment like masks and face shields.
While some states are beginning to ease social distancing restrictions, many experts predict the number of cases in the U.S. will continue to rise into the summer, and even predict a second wave of infection in the fall. It will be months before the economy returns to normal operations, and so subsequent recovery and economic stimulus packages will need to be passed to provide aid to workers, small businesses, tenants and landlords, and states and municipalities.
While some Democrats made efforts to get clean energy, climate-smart infrastructure, and climate change mitigation funding into the initial recovery packages – particularly the most recent, $2 trillion stimulus package – outraged pushback from Republicans largely put a stop to these efforts. But if as a country we are to recover and meaningfully prepare ourselves to be resilient to the next large-scale health or environmental disaster, it is critical that we invest heavily in climate mitigation and adaptation programs now. And in addition to preparing us for the next climate-related disaster, up-front investments in infrastructure, renewable energy, energy efficiency upgrades, adaptation planning, and other climate-related programs will create jobs, cut costs, and spur investment.
Any future federal recovery or stimulus package should take into account climate change projections over the next 5, 10, 20, and 50 years. Priority should be given to programs that support resilience to natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and floods, as well as those that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or encourage reforestation and expansion of carbon sinks. As COVID-19 has demonstrated vulnerabilities – specifically in low-income communities with poor air quality and densely populated metropolitan regions – we must address them with an eye to climate change or risk facing a similar or even greater crisis in the future.
Loans and grants should be made available to support the construction of clean energy infrastructures like solar panels and both onshore and offshore wind turbines, creating jobs and reducing the carbon intensity of the grid. Funding for energy efficiency improvements can save residents money and improve air quality – thus reducing vulnerability to respiratory infection, and put private contractors back to work. Investments in improving our nation’s infrastructure – whether for transportation, water, or waste – should be focused on climate mitigation and resilience, and should give priority to natural infrastructure. Investments in strategic planning for cities and states can ensure that we are ready for when the next crisis strikes – and whether it’s another public health crisis, an extreme weather disaster, or another climate-related impact, we can be sure it will provide security.
Despite efforts of Republican leaders to diminish efforts to support renewable energy, there is broad support across the American people for stimulus funding for the renewable energy industry. A poll by Climate Nexus, Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that 75 percent of respondents believed their state should prioritize the clean energy industry over the fossil fuel industry.
Above all, all attempts to address this crisis must make the promotion of equity of utmost importance. Disproportionate effects of the pandemic fall on communities with lower incomes, and particularly communities of color; so too, do the impacts of climate change.
Activity Rating: ** long-lived impact – negative
It remains too soon to tell how deeply the coronavirus and the federal government’s response to it will impact the country’s climate change efforts, but it is clear that the depletion of state and municipal funding will have long-lasting effects on local climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. At the federal level, recovery funding will set the stage for federal priorities now and in the future, and if climate change and clean energy are left out of these packages, it could set climate mitigation efforts back significantly.
The coronavirus crisis is indicative of our country’s ability to respond to large-scale public health and economic disasters in the short term, but the climate crisis will force the U.S. to face crises like these more frequently throughout the coming decades. It is imperative that the Environmental Protection Agency conduct an analysis of the impact of the coronavirus on climate change mitigation and to develop policies that respond to the impact of coronavirus on the environment.
Administrator Andrew Wheeler
William Jefferson Clinton Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N. W.
This post was submitted by Climate Scorecard US Country Manager Stephanie Gagnon