Aspen climate office encourages holistic strategy in stimulus spending
Climate crisis is an underlying factor in both the worldwide coronavirus outbreak and America’s racial inequities, according to an updated report from Aspen’s Climate Action Office.
“We’ve had a climate crisis for a long time. We obviously have had a crisis of equity and racism in this country for a long time, and now we have a public health crisis. We are in this horrible trifecta of all these things,” said Ashley Perl, Climate Action Manager.
Perl said in the months since public health orders have been initiated to curb the local spread of COVID-19, she has been approached by city leadership and community members wondering where climate action can play a role in Aspen’s response and recovery initiatives meant to stimulate the economy and maintain public health.
“Even though the human health crisis is first and foremost in our minds, unfortunately the climate crisis is still very much there,” she said.
And it’s all interrelated. The worst hit communities are those with poor air quality, and minorities.
“COVID is the immediate threat, but climate change is more of a threat than COVID. Way more than COVID, frankly. And it’s going to hit our vulnerable population just like COVID has hit them as well,” Perl said.
While the simultaneous threats of the disease and injustice are dominating headlines currently, she does not want climate activism to get lost in the fray.
“It’s all really coming together in a bad way. But the narrative makes a lot of sense now to almost anyone who is paying attention. And the narrative is, we care most about public health, and we should, and climate change is a huge threat to that,” she said.
Aspen has long been a champion of climate action and reducing greenhouse gases. And while some of that sentiment is to protect the surrounding natural lands, Perl said ultimately talking about saving the planet is essentially talking about saving humans.
“Now we do really need to focus on the human health component of climate action which has always been there but hasn’t been a huge part of the narrative,” she said. “The devastating effects of the planet are one thing, but the devastating effects on human health and human livelihood, that’s why we really care about solving this.”
In a June 5 memo to Aspen City Council, Perl provides a link to a Harvard University study that shows air quality is a predictor of vulnerability to COVID-19, which is primarily a respiratory disease.
“People who live in places with (poor) air quality are more likely to die from COVID-19 even when accounting for other factors that may influence risk of death such as pre-existing medical conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to healthcare,” the report states.
The mutation of viruses, which can be caused when species are intermixed that typically are not exposed to each other, could become more prevalent as global temperatures change and ecosystems are affected.
“We also need to take climate action to prevent the next pandemic. For example, preventing deforestation—a root cause of climate change—can help stem biodiversity loss as well as slow animal migrations that can increase risk of infectious disease spread. The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa probably occurred in part because bats, which carried the disease, had been forced to move into new habitats because the forests they used to live in had been cut down to grow palm oil trees,” the study shows.
The report recommended rethinking mass livestock production due to the disease that can spread when animals are in close quarters, and states that the country is ill equipped to deal with climate-based disasters, like tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires, on top of the public health crisis.
The Harvard paper also connects climate with the racial inequities that COVID-19 spotlighted.
“Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollutants and are more likely to face a ‘pollution burden.’ The findings are particularly important for hospitals in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, which tend to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution than affluent, white communities,” the report states.
The city of Aspen has sent a letter to the statehouse, along with 34 other local governments that make up the Colorado Communities for Climate Action group. The letter requests that as the state creates a strategy for economic recovery, that it bear in mind the long term benefits to investing in climate action. The letter also links to a campaign tagged “the people’s bailout” that encourages government spending to prioritize direct financial stimulus to vulnerable citizens, while also acknowledging that investments in climate action can stimulate the economy.
“This stimulus should create millions of good, family-sustaining jobs with high-road labor standards; counter systemic inequities by directing investments to the working families, communities of color, and Indigenous communities who face the most economic insecurity; and tackle the climate crisis that is compounding threats to our economy and health,” the campaign website reads.
“All three goals can be achieved simultaneously with public investments to rebuild our infrastructure, replace lead pipes, expand wind and solar power, build clean and affordable public transit, weatherize our buildings, build and repair public housing, manufacture more clean energy goods, restore our wetlands and forests, expand public services that support climate resilience, and support regenerative agriculture led by family farmers… the response to one existential crisis must not fuel another.”
Habits went the wrong direction
On the local level, Perl has listed initiatives from the Climate Action Office that can serve to address inequities, economic stimulus, and climate change as the city moves forward in reopening the economy and doling out $6 million in stimulus programs.
“Don’t make investments with stimulus funding that are short term investments, or that aren’t supporting human health in the long haul,” Perl said. “Let’s just make sure that any stimulus funding or any small amounts of fund that we do have left are going into solving this long term and not just putting a Band-Aid on it.”
Perl said that the efforts to rebuild Aspen’s economy could be seen as an opportunity to not just fix but improve public health through keeping a climate eye on new projects.
“A return to business as usual when the COVID-19 pandemic is over guarantees that the long-term impacts of climate change will persist and continue to negatively impact the health and well-being of the global community. Considering this, Aspen’s leadership and ongoing commitment to bold climate action is as important as ever,” she wrote to council.
The city is currently upgrading affordable housing at Truscott including energy upgrades. Other energy audits will be directed toward the low income community. Perl said rather than a one-time financial assistance payment to go toward utility bills, helping residents weatherize their home and transition to lower impact appliances could have a longer financial impact that also helps reduce overall generation of greenhouse gases.
“We are seeing a number of community members really struggling to pay rent and utilities,” she said.
Within her office, staff are undergoing training to ensure racial equity is also factored in during recovery efforts.
“This group will explore the dynamics of racial and socioeconomic equity and will work to embed equity in the regional COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery,” the memo states.
Amidst the immediate aftermath of public health stay at home orders, residents habits toward improving the environment took a back seat. Perl said mainstays like public transportation will take a while to rebuild, as social distancing continues to be recommended. She said it will take a holistic view that includes climate action, to rebuild, and then improve, in order to be more resilient for the next crisis.
“Before COVID it’s not like we were solving the climate crisis but we were seeing movement in the right direction. What has been hard about this time is that we have definitely seen a slide back,” Perl said. “A lot of the gains that we made, pre-COVID in the climate space, we are going to have to make those up.”