The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t stopped the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back key environmental protections in the US, alarming both environmental and public health experts. Since the pandemic took hold in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has relaxed fuel economy standards — a decision that will lead to more emissions from tailpipes. It also weakened a rule meant to keep mercury pollution in check, which could make it harder to regulate other toxins, too. And in direct response to the coronavirus pandemic unfolding, the EPA announced in March that it “does not expect” to penalize polluters for a broad range of violations related to routine monitoring and reporting requirements.
“They just seem to have no, I don’t know — no shame. I don’t know how else to put it,” says former EPA administrator during the Obama administration, Gina McCarthy, who now heads the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Verge spoke with McCarthy about what impact the coronavirus crisis is having on people and our environment now and into the future.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What effects do you see the COVID-19 crisis having on the environment?
One of the things that I think people now realize after COVID-19 is just how small the world is, how we can be so immediately devastated worldwide by a public health threat, and how important it is for us to think about that and its application to other worldwide concerns like climate change. Obviously, our reactions to COVID-19 have led to some significant behavioral changes and adaptations that we had to make. And some of those may continue to have an influence into the future. It just shows you that in a moment of crisis, the world can, people can change their behavior.
But certainly, this isn’t the way you want to see pollution to be reduced. A path to a more sustainable future isn’t to react and adapt in these immediate ways that also diminish our ability to have a strong economy and keep people working.
There has been a lot of attention on how air quality has improved as a result of stay-at-home orders. What, if any, takeaways we can gather from that?
Number one is that people begin to see the impact human beings actually have on the environment. When you have a country like India where much of the population are seeing the Himalayas for the first time, that’s pretty shocking. When you’re seeing that kind of reduction, not just in air pollution but in water pollution, like looking at Venice and looking at the canals and they don’t look horrible anymore. The sediment isn’t churning, and they’re not black and brown. And so people are beginning to recognize that we do have an influence on the world in a way that could end up resulting in systemic change.
One of the biggest takeaways for me has been that people are wondering why African Americans are getting hit so much harder by COVID-19 in terms of the number of deaths that are happening compared to the percentage of the population. That’s not at all shocking to anybody who does public health work because it’s always been true that people of color in low-income communities are hit hardest because they always are facing the highest levels of pollution, the lowest levels of services like fresh food and health services. And so, if there’s anything that comes out of this that’s positive, maybe it’s an understanding that the world is unfair right now and climate change is going to make it continually inequitable.
If we look at who’s losing their lives to COVID-19 in larger numbers, it’s the same people that have been facing the air pollution that’s been impacting their lungs that may make them predisposed to being harmed by pollution. And that’s why it’s so unconscionable to me that this administration at this point in time is doing everything they can think of to make pollution standards weakened and to roll back their ability to be able to control pollution from industries that are operating even today. It’s just shocking to me because this just means it’s a callous disregard for the communities that have been left behind. It’s a callous acknowledgment that they care less about people who are in poverty and people who are of communities of color than they do the people that are trying to benefit through stimulus dollars — which is those who are already rich and are already powerful. It just shocks me that it could be so blatant.
The decision the EPA made to relax its oversight of polluters during the pandemic shocked a lot of people who worry that it gives a break to powerful, polluting industries. What are your thoughts on what effect that decision might have on people?
The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy looks sort of reasonable on its face but has no limits. It basically says if COVID-19 is presenting any problem to you, then it gives you an excuse for not monitoring and reporting. And it specifically says that the EPA will not initiate penalties in those circumstances, and it doesn’t require the industries themselves to basically tell them in advance that they’re having problems so that the agency itself can monitor whether it’s legitimate or not. And most importantly, let the communities around them know that there may be opportunities to increase pollution that directly impact their ability to monitor their own health.
So, the very industries that have caused all of these predispositions for human beings who live in the shadows of these facilities to health consequences [and] to having greater impacts from COVID-19, these industries are the ones that could take advantage of this policy. They could be sending more pollution their way that makes them dramatically more unable to cope against the challenge of COVID-19. And so this is an unlimited get-out-of-jail-free card with no end in sight. And they did it with the full understanding that people wouldn’t be able to know what was happening or protect themselves.
I read it, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Nobody has ever done any rule that provided this breadth of leeway to industries in the middle of a crisis that impacts lungs where people die if they don’t have clean air to breathe.
We’re also facing the economic fallout of the pandemic. What could a recession mean for environmental protection in the US?
What it would mean for an administration that has real integrity here and is doing its mission. It would mean that you put people back to work. You use the stimulus dollars as an opportunity to help those most in need. And then you hopefully look at, “So what does the future look like?” If I’m investing trillions of dollars, how do we do that in a way that builds a better future? So it ought to acknowledge that we have air pollution challenges that are keeping communities of color and low-income people at higher risk of all kinds of ailments, including COVID-19. They should put in place economic benefits to those communities so that they can address some of the income inequality we face. They should be looking forward and investing in clean energy jobs. They should be putting people to work in infrastructure that is necessary today for our water, for our sewer, for our adaptation challenges to climate change now.
There are so many ways in which they could look at this as building the next economy that doesn’t continue to rely on fossil fuels as the future. And instead, my fear is they’re going to do exactly the opposite. They’re going to use their “Back to the Future” strategy of investing in fossil fuels over people and polluters over people.
What lessons are we learning from how we responded to the coronavirus crisis that could be applied to how we take action on climate change?
One of the things that it is teaching is the value of science. We have been struggling through this administration with attacks on science, and I don’t think they can continue. So there’s going to be a real demand for people to pay attention to facts, and for science, and to listen to experts.
Nobody wants to hear from politicians about their view of science as opposed to looking at experts. So maybe there’ll be a resurgence like there was 50 years ago with Earth Day, with people standing up and saying, “Okay, enough with this nonsense. Let’s look at real facts, look at science, let’s listen to experts, and let’s find a way forward.” I’m pretty confident that that shift will be enormously important. And people will start getting engaged again because they realize if they don’t, then they’re going to lose — then they’re going to have a democracy that doesn’t work. And if they get engaged, they’ll be able to make demands for a future they care about, one that protects their families and provides their kids with the kind of stability and opportunity that they deserve.