Latino communities in Arizona are facing a series of crises — the severe public health ramifications associated with COVID-19, the ensuing economic devastation, the dire threat of climate change, and historic racial inequities. While each crisis requires unique solutions, they are undoubtedly intertwined and clearly being felt first and worst among communities of color.
COVID-19 cases are continuing to skyrocket in Latino and Indigenous communities, and an increase in infections is stressing hospitals around the state. At the same time, climate change-fueled extreme weather events are continuing to devastate our communities. In the western United States, wildfires burned over 800,000 acres last year. Furthermore, a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that 2020 smashed the previous record for the number of extreme weather events causing over $1 billion in damages, with 22 such disasters total. Here in Arizona, Phoenix experienced a record-breaking 145 extreme heat days.
The relationship between COVID-19 and climate change is clear. Science has shown that air pollution makes COVID-19 symptoms more severe. COVID-19 attacks respiratory function, and sadly, Latino communities are disproportionately more likely to breathe in polluted air with every breath. Phoenix alone continues to have some of the worst air pollution in the United States, and wildfires will only continue to make that pollution worse across the West.
There is hope ahead. In his first weeks in office, President Joe Biden signed a flurry of climate-related executive orders to roll back efforts by the previous administration that further enflamed the climate crisis. It must not stop there. In these early days of the Biden-Harris administration, the president should build on these initial steps, and Congress must also do its part. We need bold climate solutions from our leaders in Washington and continued action to build towards a stable climate and healthy environment.
A strong climate plan must include a transition to cleaner energy sources like wind and solar, prioritizing opportunities for communities of color that historically have been unable to access clean energy. Such a transition would spur massive employment opportunities, while reducing respiratory problems like asthma, which Latinos disproportionately suffer from, as well as heart attacks, cancer, and more. It would also help improve the quality of our water supply and make us less susceptible to drought, wildfires, flooding, storms, and extreme heat.
Other climate-related initiatives like energy efficiency could help signal a pathway through the morass. Energy efficiency creates jobs, reduces energy bills for families, and keeps older and sicker populations healthier at home. Because energy efficiency keeps homes more comfortable while lowering energy use, families are safer and are able to stay home and isolated from others if the power goes out, as it frequently does during storms, fires, and heat waves.
More nature conservation, restoration and parks, especially in Latino and other communities of color that are severely nature-deprived, have huge health benefits and keep the climate healthy. Green spaces reduce the heat of cities in the summer to save families money on energy bills, encourage the outdoor recreation economy, help mental health, lower damage from floods and reduce air, soil, and water pollution.
There is much that can be done. The alternative to climate action, though, is inaction — letting our communities suffer and die from racism, pollution, climate disasters, and a pandemic that afflicts us all, but disproportionately kills essential workers and the most vulnerable among us.
Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we keep families safe, employed, and healthier in their homes. If targeted equitably, a meaningful climate plan will not only bolster our economy and put more people to work but will also help heal long-standing disparities that are causing communities of color to become sicker from the pandemic.
President Biden and leaders in Arizona must know that it’s #TimeToAct on the climate crisis and put plans into action, and that the recent executive orders, while a bright start, are only that: a start. Our communities are in need of a way forward, for today, for our heritage, and for future generations.