We are a nation in turmoil. COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, sickened some two million around the country, and overturned the daily reality of millions more. The social and economic impacts of the virus have sent shockwaves of grief and fear through communities and shaken many of us to the core. Against this backdrop, the ugly specter of racial injustice has reared its head once again, adding more anger, fear, and pain to a world already reeling.
In a misguided bid to address the economic impacts of COVID-19, yesterday President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) that can only intensify the problems that brought us to our current, untenable situation. The order fast-tracks major fossil fuel and infrastructure projects including coal export hubs, highways, mines, and pipelines by waiving environmental protections during the coronavirus “economic emergency”. At first glance, this may seem unrelated to global pandemics and racial equality, but if we dig a little deeper, the connections are plain to see.
Two of the longstanding protections the EO would waive for large development projects are the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), bedrock laws that protect human health, wildlife, and the environment. While both laws provide a critical protective framework that benefits all Americans, NEPA, in particular, is especially important to ensuring environmental justice. It requires the federal government to seek input from communities that will be affected by a project and to consider their perspectives.
Low-income, minority, and rural communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution and toxins on the job, at school, and in their homes. For these communities, the public comment periods afforded by NEPA are often the only way they can speak out and express concerns with a proposed project. If major projects are allowed to go ahead without the NEPA public comment period, communities of color will be at the forefront of the damaging impacts. Black communities have already been unspeakably damaged by overt and hidden policies; now is not the time to silence those voices, but to encourage a full-throated discourse that leads to equal treatment and healing.
The implications of waiving NEPA, the ESA, and other environmental protections extend far beyond individual communities. Scientists warn that habitat destruction is a top cause of zoonotic spillover – the jump of animal illnesses into humans. Biodiversity loss is another driver. And COVID-19 is an object lesson in what happens when we ignore the environment and animal welfare. The novel coronavirus that causes the disease was likely caused by trade in wildlife for consumption, a chilling, ongoing example of zoonotic spillover. NEPA and the ESA help to protect species and their habitats, and are an integral part of our defense system against future pandemics. This is reinforced by a recent warning from leading scientists around the world that relaxing environmental protections like NEPA and the ESA in a response to COVID-19 could increase the likelihood of future pandemics.
The EO signed yesterday takes exactly the wrong approach. It is an extremely short-sighted move that will undermine environmental justice, and ironically, lay us open to future pandemics just like the one that triggered the emergency this EO purports to address.
This is a pivotal moment in history – out of chaos and upheaval there is also an opportunity for positive change. We must focus on policies that provide inclusive benefits for all communities, effectively protect against future pandemics, and safeguard biodiversity and our precious natural world – a world upon which we all depend for survival. IFAW calls on President Trump to rescind this misguided EO and to work within our important environmental protections to forge a response to COVID-19 that is respectful of all Americans and the planet we share. Failing that, we urge Congress to act quickly to stop this harmful Executive Order.
-Kate Wall, Senior Legislative Manager