Earth Day

This Earth Day, Remember We Are All Connected

This Earth Day, Remember We Are All Connected
Elizabeth Lee at the Student Climate March in New York, September 20, 2019.

An important lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that we are more closely connected than some of us may have initially imagined. Regardless of country, we all are part of a shared humanity and subject to the fragility of life. When our sisters fall victim to viruses and disease miles and continents away, there is a ripple effect in places near and far, and it doesn’t take long for such ailments to spread and infect millions.

While conventional wisdom may suggest that we focus on the people whom we are most closely connected, we are learning via the coronavirus that we must be as concerned with our neighbor as we are with the people under our roof. What we do—or fail to do—can greatly impact not only our personal wellbeing but also that of our neighbors, community, nation and the world. And while we must care for ourselves, we must also care for everything around us.

This is the message we should carry with us as we celebrate Earth Day 2020. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are being called into shared responsibility and collective action to address the corrosive effects of climate change on the environment. In the same way that our actions can influence the spread of the deadly coronavirus, our country’s choice between continuing to rely on fossil fuels or proactively transition to renewable energy can either decimate the long-term sustainability of mother earth or reverse the damage.

These are not lofty decisions that don’t impact our life. They impact everything from our ability to breath clean air to even our ability to conceive.

For years, my spouse and I struggled to conceive a child. As I researched the reasons for the delay, I was stunned to learn that individual and corporate behaviors could help or hinder my ability to become pregnant and carry the child to term. Even more shocking, if my family lived in places where fracking of oil and natural gas was prevalent, my ability to have a healthy, full-term pregnancy would be compromised. Had I lived near fracking wells in Pennsylvania, I would have had a 40 percent increase in likelihood of preterm birth, the leading cause of infant death. A peer-reviewed scientific report from Reviews on Environmental Health noted that fracking chemicals have been “associated with adverse effects on the menstrual cycle and overall fecundity in women.”

While I was eventually able to become pregnant, women who live in communities where there is fracking, may struggle to get and stay pregnant.

Our energy dependence on fossil fuels impacts not only pregnant women, but also children long after birth. A report published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health stated, “[f]ossil-fuel combustion by-products are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health and future and are major contributors to global inequality and environmental injustice.” These impacts “include impairment of cognitive and behavioral development, respiratory illness, and other chronic diseases—all of which may be “seeded” in utero and affect health and functioning immediately and over the life course.”

The reliance on fossil fuels also affects who is currently getting sick and dying from coronavirus. Fossil fuels use, from coal power plants to transportation, increases the level of fine particulate matter in the air that can severely compromise our lungs. A recent nationwide Harvard study examining data from more than 3,000 counties determined that a person living for decades in a county with higher levels of air pollution from particulate matter is 15 percent more likely to be killed by the coronavirus than someone with one unit less of fine particulate matter.

Environmental Racism

The COVID-19 pandemic is a deadly reminder of how environmental racism plays out in the United States. A 2018 report from the EPA had highlighted that in 46 of the states of the U.S., communities of color are exposed to higher levels of dangerous air pollution than white communities, and African Americans  had 54 times higher exposure than the overall population. Now recent reports have shed light on how the coronavirus is infecting and killing African Americans at greater rates. For instance, while African Americans make up only 26 percent of the population in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, they account for 70 percent of those who have died.

Unfortunately, the federal government has weakened pollution standards for vehicles and methane, indefinitely suspended EPA enforcement of environmental laws, and is soon expected to weaken regulations on coal-burning power plants. I pray that the federal government change course and heed the Harvard report: continue enforcement of existing air pollution standards “to protect human health both during and after” the coronavirus pandemic.

As a person of faith, it has never been acceptable to be narrowly focused on individual goals and aspirations – regardless of how noble they may appear. The prophets and apostles exhorted us to be as concerned with how the most marginalized in society are faring as we are with the well-being of our own family members. And the times we are living in demand so much more.

We must be increasingly vocal in our advocacy and outreach to local, state and federal officials, relentlessly urging them for bipartisan action to protect the most vulnerable, keep our air clean and to move towards renewable energy that is centered on justice and equity.

In the same way that the coronavirus has demonstrated the global connections of people across the world, inaction on climate change will impact us all. And while people of means have had an easier time getting their hands on COVID-19 tests, no one is immune from the impact of a deteriorating environment. Climate action is an imperative for people who we may never meet, yet with whom we have an undeniable connection. And individual action is not enough. One person or a group of people in one community deciding to abide by social distancing orders, will not be enough to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic. The same is true with action on climate change. Action by one governor or one municipality be insufficient to reverse decades of damage to the environment. We need collective national action.

If your neighbors or your elected officials aren’t heeding pleas to change our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants, keep pushing. Your life depends on it.

Elizabeth Chun Hye Lee is the United Methodist Women executive for Economic and Environmental Justice. She is also the organization’s Climate Justice Lead.

Posted or updated: 4/21/2020 12:00:00 AM