The Covid Recovery Must Begin With Climate Action

Global pandemics and deadly climate disasters should be once-in-a-generation crises. But in 2020, U.S. mayors from coast to coast have been forced to confront both.

New Orleans experienced its busiest hurricane season since 2005: Five hurricanes made landfall in Louisiana, and frequent rain storms flooded the streets of New Orleans. Meanwhile, Boston experienced one of its hottest, driest summers on record, while the fall brought flooding in some of our most densely populated neighborhoods.

Our cities weren’t alone:Phoenix saw a record number of heat-related deaths; Portland, Oregon, experienced itsworst-ever air quality as wildfires raged on the West Coast; andMiami faced destructive high tides as sea levels continue to rise.

For mayors, the effects of climate change are a reality that we deal with every single day. It means downed power lines, blocked roads, flooded basements, crowded shelters and hospitals, and people who are scared. It is an immediate threat to the health and safety of our residents. And because of the disproportionate impact it has on low-income communities and people of color, it is one of the most pressing social justice issues that we face.

Absent any leadership from the climate-denying Trump administration, cities have been leading the charge to stop climate change on our own — through coalitions like theClimate Mayors,C40, and theUrban Sustainability Directors Network — to spearhead bold efforts at the local level.

Boston and New Orleans, two diverse coastal cities separated by 1,500 miles, have been hard at work taking action at the local level. When the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement, we remained committed to its carbon reduction goals, by raising the emissions standards for our buildings, investing in green jobs, and focusing on sustainable mobility, like walking, biking, and public transit. We’ve also been aggressively preparing for future climate impacts, by strengthening our public health response to heat waves, and protecting our coastlines from rising sea levels and intensifying storms. The value of sustainability is embedded in everything we do at the city level: from how we design our streets to where we build our parks to what kind of job training programs we fund.

Like mayors across this country, we’ve seen clear parallels between climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. Both crises have hit low-income communities and people of color first and hardest. Both crises have emphasized how vital it is that we listen to science and prioritize public health above all else. And both have proven how important it is that we make significant investments in the long-term wellbeing of our communities ​now​, or face devastating consequences down the line.

So as we plot the course for our national recovery from Covid-19, climate action must be central to our strategy. If we don’t, then even if we can eradicate the virus from the hardest-hit areas, those same populations will continue to face an existential threat the next time a major climate disaster hits their community. Our country has already been brought to its knees by Covid-19; we cannot stand back and let another preventable crisis ravage our communities anytime soon.

Mayors have been reassured to hear the incoming Biden-Harris administration pledge to tackle both Covid-19 and climate change with the seriousness and urgency that both crises call for. They’ve laid out a coronavirus recovery plan that works hand-in-hand with their climate goals.

President-elect Biden has frequently said there can be no economic recovery without confronting our public health challenges. We hope the administration will continue to stress that acting on climate is one of the most important ways we can maintain public health long after Covid-19 is behind us.

We also strongly support the president-elect’s call for a federal commitment to repairing and replacing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. This is an unparalleled opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of jobs building levees, roads and bridges that are strong enough to withstand storms, waterfront parks that can absorb floods, and a stronger public transportation network that will get our economy moving while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Cities can offer a blueprint on how to advance green infrastructure programs as part of our national Covid-19 recovery. The City of Boston, for example, is developing a Carbon Emissions Standard to reduce emissions from its largest buildings. This means many older buildings will be retrofitted in order to make them more energy efficient. Boston is also creating career pathways so that low-income Bostonians and people of color are ready to do these green jobs once they become available, ensuring that the populations most impacted by climate change are those who benefit.

New Orleans, meanwhile, is investing $141 million in the Gentilly Resilience District, an effort to address chronic flooding and urban heat island effects, while improving recreation and transportation access in one of the neighborhoods that was hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The initiative is funded by HUD programs developed under the Obama-Biden administration, including a multi-million-dollar investment in workforce training for green jobs.

We should scale these efforts up and apply the same ideas to our Covid-19 recovery efforts at the national level. America’s mayors and America’s cities are ready to lead in this arena, by advising our national leadership on the methods that have worked in our communities, and by drawing on the talents and determination of our residents to accelerate our efforts as a country. If we can do that, then we have a chance to emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than we were before.

Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston, and chair of the U.S. Climate Mayors. LaToya Cantrell is the mayor of New Orleans and a member of the U.S. Climate Mayors.

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