By SUNITA SOHRABJI/EMS Contributing Editor

From left to right: Dr. Anthony LeRoy Westerling, Professor of Management of Complex Systems, UC Merced; Dr. Rajendra Shende, Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre and former director of the United Nations Environmental Program; Dr. Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University

Low-income people around the world are grappling with the syndemic of COVID and climate change, simultaneously battling poor health and environmental injustice with few resources.


In the U.S., numerous studies note that Blacks and Latinx people are three times as likely as their white counterparts to become infected with COVID. Poor environmental conditions, including bad air quality with high levels of particulate matter, lead to higher levels of death from COVID in low income communities of color.


“Covid-19 is like a heat-seeking missile that is targeting the most vulnerable populations in terms of health, but also targeting the most environmentally sensitive population of African-Americans and Latinos,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “Father of Environmental Justice” at a Sept. 25 briefing organized by Ethnic Media Services.


University of California Merced Professor Dr. Anthony LeRoy Westerling, an expert on California wildfires, and Dr. Rajendra Shende, chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre think tank in India, also spoke at the briefing. Westerling said the fires currently raging throughout California are the largest fire season on record and the most severe fires the state has ever encountered.


Shende said January 2020 was, globally, the hottest-ever January on record. Coupled with the “tiny micron sized enemy” that is the coronavirus, the researcher — who in 2007 shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore and a group of scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — darkly hinted at the “Sixth Extinction.”


A 2018 survey released by the Environmental Protection Agency noted that in 46 U.S. states, people of color live in more polluted areas than their white counterparts, and breathe 38 percent more polluted air filled with fine particulate matter.


Air pollution annually accounts for more than 200,000 deaths, said Bullard, currently the Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. He noted that African American children are 10 times more likely to die of asthma.


The racist practice of redlining has deterred people of color from moving to better neighborhoods with cleaner air and water, stated Bullard.


Climate change also has a deeper financial impact on people of color, said the sociologist. “If we do nothing in terms of climate policy in the US the country will experience a six percent drop in its GDP, but the South will experience a 20% drop. The south is already the poorest part of the country.”


When natural disasters strike — such as hurricanes and storms which have increasingly crippled the Gulf Coast — resources are slow in getting to the areas in greatest need. Post Hurricane Katrina, which decimated large swaths of the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed greater priority on $800,000 homes in wealthy neighborhoods than it did on $80,000 homes in poor neighborhoods using a dubious cost-benefit model, said Bullard. “Those that are on the wrong side of the levee are the least protected,” he said.


“If we want to build back in a fair and equitable manner, we have to talk about resources that will go to those areas of most need, as opposed to money following money. We just can’t use cost-benefit analysis,” stated Bullard.


Gulf Coast residents were challenged by COVID-mandated shelter-in-place orders amid Hurricane Sally. Bullard challenged the absurdity of such orders for people living with 15 inches of water in their homes.


30 years from now, severe seasonal wildfires in California will be the norm, said Westerling, referring to a climate assessment he participated in which simulated millions of miles of fires in the state to predict the dire results.


“Climate change is definitely the primary driver here,” said Westerling, acknowledging that many decades of fire suppression and poor land management have contributed to some of the fire severity and size.


President Donald Trump visited California Sept. 14 to survey the wildfire crisis. The President negated the role of climate change in the disaster, stating: “I don’t think the science knows.” He attributed the wildfires to poor forest management.


Westerling noted the irony of that statement coming from Trump: the federal government owns most of California’s forests. “So it’s really his responsibility as president to make sure those lands are being managed appropriately.”


“This administration is completely divorced from science. They are not interested in hearing the scientific conclusions about fire and climate change,” he stated.


The Professor of Management of Complex Systems in the Ernest and Julio Gallo Management Program at UC Merced suggested a multi-pronged approach to combating wildfires, first by slowing down the pace of climate change by getting carbon emissions to zero and then to negative emissions.


“We have to start taking carbon out of the atmosphere,” he said.


The second prong would focus on managing California’s landscape more intensively to reduce the state’s vulnerability to wildfires and reducing the impact. Westerling also suggested building housing in existing communities rather than increasing rural sprawl in wild lands.


Shende of the TERRE Policy Institute, said substantive action on climate change, with all the nations of the world coming together, must be taken by 2030. If individual countries continue their piecemeal approaches, the world will face disastrous climate impacts, including a rise in temperature by 3 degrees Celsius. The IPCC noted in its 2018 report that a three degree rise in temperature could cause massive heatwaves, heavier rainfalls, diminishing crop yields, and rising sea levels.


“The rich have a buffer to absorb shocks,” said Shende. “Climate change is exacerbating the disproportionately severe sufferings of the poor, and further adding to the already existing inequalities.”


Shende noted that with the 2016 Paris Climate Change Agreement — which the U.S. pulled out of shortly after Trump took office — developed nations took a pledge to help developing nations, which were bearing the brunt of the crisis. The same approach must be used to tackling the COVID pandemic, he said, noting that piecemeal approaches by individual countries will not mitigate the global crisis.


He urged the United Nations — which is currently holding its annual General Assembly — to utilize its power to bring the world together in search of a solution, and to assure that remedies, including vaccines and therapeutics, are prioritized for the poor.