California is battling catastrophic wildfires, and as tragic and damaging as they are, the visible destruction is only part of the story. The state is now experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world as a result of the fires, and that is particularly worrisome given emerging evidence that exposure to air pollution may increase the likelihood of both being infected with and dying from COVID-19.
As California continues to suffer from raging wildfires and, more broadly, as economies around the world reopen, exposure to higher levels of carbon emissions may be the unavoidable risk factor that increases vulnerability to the virus of already vulnerable demographics worldwide, particularly older people and people who are disenfranchised. We need to be taking urgent action to improve air quality and address the climate crisis along with our other efforts to contain and treat the coronavirus.
Recent studies have demonstrated a concerning link between worsening outcomes from the coronavirus and high levels of air pollutants. One noteworthy analysis from Italy observed that higher concentrations of fine particulate matter corresponded with higher COVID-19 incidence and mortality across 110 geographic areas in the region. The infection rate tripled when particulate matter increased 250 percent, and mortality rates doubled when particulate matter increased 220 percent.
The authors proposed a reason for these increases in infection and death that should worry us all: The enzyme responsible for COVID-19’s entry into lung cells appears to be present in higher concentrations when air pollutants exist in high numbers.
In the United States, these effects are especially concerning for residents of counties like Los Angeles, Riverside and the inland areas of California that are exposed to high urban air pollution; such chronic exposure is a known risk factor for cardiopulmonary diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, weakening defenses to dangerous pathogens like COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, these same areas have among the highest COVID-19 infection rates in California. And that health impact is again asymmetric, with older people, under-resourced people and people of color most at-risk. As fires burn, the smoke and air pollution worsens respiratory conditions for already vulnerable populations that have been plagued with the burden of our polluting industries for generations.
Unfortunately, government at all levels has been taking exactly the wrong steps to solve this problem. The Trump administration has been rolling back environmental protections from day one, putting vulnerable communities across the country at even further risk. The administration has already completed 68 of 100 targeted rollbacks of environmental rules, including repealing and replacing Obama administration-era emissions rules for power plants and making it easier for new power plants to avoid emissions regulations.
Meanwhile, there have been groups of Democratic and Republican legislators in states like California attempting to undo statewide climate progress as well, perversely citing COVID-19 and the need to unburden the economy as their excuse. In late March, as COVID-19 was just beginning to disrupt our country, the legislator who chairs the Transportation Committee in the State Assembly sent a request to the California Air Resources Board to suspend implementation of clean air regulations during the pandemic. In April, another group of legislators sent a letter to the California Air Resources Board attempting to undermine clean air policies that regulate air pollution from heavy-duty trucks and ships.
What we need is the opposite approach. There are some clear areas where we can take meaningful action, and do so quickly, starting with the transportation sector. This sector is the largest source of carbon emissions in the country, and the federal government has the executive authority to re-up fuel efficiency standards for all vehicles — especially heavy-duty vehicles like trucks — and increase rebates, subsidies and purchasing of clean cars, buses and trucks. States should be taking similar action to radically transition to clean transportation.
In addition to scaling back emissions, we need to invest in areas that can help promote air quality. Our public lands and urban green spaces offer powerful opportunities; trees, vegetation and soil all capture pollution and take it out of circulation. Increased investment in urban greening and protecting natural landscapes, especially in and around our most polluted regions, is essential to creating resilience against climate impacts. In California particularly, prescribed burns, restoration, development-free zones and better forest management are other significant areas needing investment — ones that can also create jobs.
We also need to plan with foresight when it comes to how we use land and expend energy. Intentional land-use and zoning rules can protect neighborhoods where families and seniors live and children go to school. Policies like health buffer zones where oil and gas drilling happen are important policy tools for change, yet essential health protections like these have been defeated as recently as this year in California.
A confluence of environmental and public health crises is not the time to roll back clean air standards. It’s the time to intervene wherever possible to improve environmental protections.
We deserve leaders who listen to scientists and understand the clear connection between public health and the environment. We need to fight for a better climate, not despite the current global health crisis, but because of it.