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Five Environmental Consequences of the Covid-19 Pandemic for Pennsylvania

The environmental, economic, and social impacts of Covid-19 are profound and are reshaping how we work, recreate, and live our daily lives. While the impacts of this crisis will continue to shift and grow with each passing week, a number of critical environmental observations relevant to Pennsylvania are becoming clearer:

1. The importance of our outdoor and green spaces is vital now more than ever. Governor Tom Wolf issued a “stay-at-home” order to compel citizens across the Commonwealth to limit their daily interactions with others to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The order allowed engaging in outdoor activities as long as safe social distancing guidelines were followed. Pennsylvanians have responded by visiting their state parks, state forest lands, and municipal parks in record numbers. The opening of trout season was pushed up by a week to provide anglers more access to fish stocked streams. Whether for exercise, taking in the warm weather, getting our children outside, or wholesome recreation, it’s clear that connecting—or for many re-connecting—with the historic trails, forests, streams, and lakes of Pennsylvania has been an important escape from the pandemic. The health crisis is re-teaching us how important our green spaces—and by extension the conservation of these special places—are to our mental and physical wellbeing. While for terrible reasons, new and old generations of hikers, anglers, birders, walkers, boaters, hunters, and runners are experiencing the state’s natural beauty, which could have long term positive impact on the use and conservation of our public lands.

2. Covid-19 is exacerbating the equity and justice gap between communities impacted by pollution and those that are not. Much reporting has been done on how the pandemic is impacting people differently. While blue collar workers are filing for unemployment, poor, immigrant, and black and brown neighborhoods are experiencing higher levels of infection and death than those that are more affluent. The pandemic is not necessarily an equal opportunist as its consequences are being felt more acutely by those without access to healthcare, those who can’t work from home, and those with underlying health and morbidity conditions, such as those caused by chronic pollution. According to new research from Harvard University, Covid-19 patients in areas with high levels of air pollution had a higher likelihood of death. Chronic air pollution from traffic, factories, and fossil fuel power plants cause more cases of asthma, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease that, when combined with severe lung inflammation caused by Covid-19, is often fatal. It brings into clear view the long-term damage caused by chronic pollution to our environmental justice communities and how reducing pollution should now more than ever be a top public health priority.

3. The Commonwealth’s boom-and-bust fossil fuel economy is unsustainable. Even before the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s fossil fuel economy was on its heels. Oil and gas company stock prices are down 60 percent this year irrespective of the pandemic and companies are now drastically cutting project costs and their workforce. Petrochemical companies worry that Covid-19 will result in yet another year of falling profits and production. And any recession caused by the Covid-19 crisis could mark the end of already struggling coal plants and coal mines. In other words, the pandemic is laying bare an unfortunate truth many already know—the Commonwealth’s fossil fuel industry has no clothes. The economic hopes hung around fracked gas, petrochemical facilities, and coal plants are a boom-and-bust mirage. It’s what makes the state legislature’s attempts to provide billions in taxpayer subsidies to the petrochemical industry even more unsettling. It puts into question why the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would want to provide waste coal plants yet another subsidy. And it is inconceivable why the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) has made supporting a natural gas and plastics buildout its top economic priority. It’s clear that Pennsylvania needs a new economic development strategy that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels because our reliance on that industry is destroying not only the health of our communities, but their opportunity for long term, sustainable prosperity.

4. The anti-environmental movement continues to advance even during a public health crisis. While the rest of the country and Commonwealth is focused on their safety and health during the Covid-19 crisis, the anti-environmental movement continues to advance its agenda. The Trump Administration made a stunning announcement to suspend enforcement of environmental and public health rules during the pandemic. The EPA is finalizing a rollback of fuel efficiency standards that the car manufacturers originally helped write and celebrated. The Pennsylvania Senate waited until the health crisis was in full swing to send to the Governor House Bill 1100, which would have provided open-ended subsidies for petrochemical plants (he vetoed it). And right now, a group of state legislators are pushing legislation to strip funds from environmental programs that conserve public land (see #1) as well as limit environmental protections. These efforts unveil how little regard the anti-environmental movement has for conservation, public health, and sustainable communities. 

5. Post-Covid-19, the Commonwealth has a generational opportunity to reshape the economy toward sustainable economic development. I’m an eternal optimist. Pennsylvania will make it through this health crisis. A new normal will set in, but our policymakers will need to get to work to restart the economy. The federal government already passed a $2.2 trillion stimulus to provide a 2-month bridge for workers and businesses and they already know that isn’t enough to make it through the economic recession we’re settling into. Federal, state, and municipal governments will need to enact a series of stimulus and economic recovery packages to get us through the economic inactivity caused by the crisis and then get everyone back to work. But it’s clear we can’t just restart what we were doing pre-pandemic for the reasons described above. The Commonwealth’s economy was already on unsettled ground and throwing more money at unsustainable fossil fuel businesses puts our communities back in the same fear of boom-and-bust industries and fear of pollution impacts. Policymakers needs to get this right and invest in sustainable, shovel-ready projects that provide family-sustaining wages as well as invest in industries that create jobs without harming our air, water, land, and climate. This crisis should be a wake-up call to get moving on a stronger, better, more sustainable economy.

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