South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Commentary: Clean air on the chopping block amid pandemic
April 17th, 2020

By Amy Armstrong, Post & Courier

We are all trying to adjust to a dramatically different way of living — from losing the ability to physically connect with our friends and community, to staying confined in our homes, often with children who would otherwise be in school, to losing our jobs and income. This pandemic is affecting nearly every aspect of our lives, not to mention the threats facing health care workers and the lives lost and sickened.

Alongside these disruptions and threats, however, some silver linings have emerged. Notably, air pollution levels have dropped dramatically in some of the most polluted cities in the world, with significant benefits to human health. When traffic and factory operations decrease, their harmful air emissions also fall, and data from around the world shows marked improvement in air quality as a result. This respite is a small bit of hope in light of recent studies showing that mortality rates from COVID-19 can be as much as 15% higher in cities with poor air quality. This same study concluded that even a marginal improvement in air quality would save many lives. While the sudden and significant improvements in air quality we are seeing now will pass with the virus, we’ve witnessed that 1) if we decide to make changes that reduce pollution we can and 2) the planet is remarkably resilient.

Yet, as this blueprint for improved environmental quality and human health is being revealed, our federal government is moving in the completely opposite direction. Rather than seeing this crisis as an opportunity to rethink how we can do better and make permanent changes to reduce pollution, the Trump administration seemingly sees this crisis as an opportunity to double down on its rollback of existing protections and to enable more unchecked pollution. Since this administration came into office, dozens of laws designed to protect environmental quality and human health have been weakened or gutted, and, unfortunately, this crusade against environmental laws is one of the few activities that hasn’t been slowed down by COVID-19. Rather, since this pandemic hit the U.S., these efforts have intensified, all while citizens and communities are consumed with caring for their loved ones, trying to make ends meet, and staying safe.

Currently on the chopping block are Clean Air Act vehicle emissions standards, which would decrease air pollution and thereby save lives, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to kill some of the most striking and significant bird species in the country. These rollbacks are on top of the administration’s ongoing efforts to expand offshore drilling. Moreover, citing COVID-19 as rationale, the EPA most recently decided to forego and forgive pollution monitoring and reporting requirements under our most important environmental laws, clearing the way for unchecked emissions during this crisis. In a world where we have to prioritize what is essential, control over emissions into our public air and water can’t be discounted.

During this unprecedented crisis, the public deserves to know that our government won’t pursue lasting decisions leading to further pollution, loss of wildlife and marine life, and poor air and water quality. Instead, drawing upon the positive environmental lessons from this crisis, the government should step up protection of the quality of our natural environment, which will have lasting benefits for human health long after this health emergency has passed.

Collectively, as citizens of this planet, we must recognize that environmental health and public health are mutually inclusive. We have witnessed the value of science and sound leadership during this pandemic, especially in areas where the curve has flattened. We have shown that we are able to modify our behaviors to respond to one global health crisis. Let us also show how we can do the same for the global climate crisis. We know that a large-scale response is possible. We just need the collective will to do it.

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