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A New ‘Normal’


By Michelle Romero, National Director, Green For All
Originally appeared in Newsweek

From Alaska to Florida, governors across the country are facing mounting pressure from the White House to start planning a “return to normal.” But for too many people in America, going back to “normal” isn’t good enough. As Congress pushes through additional economic recovery packages, leaders from both parties must ensure that the people hit first and worst by the crisis aren’t last in line and least likely to benefit from solutions.

Poverty, pollution, and climate change are responsible for putting far too many people in harm’s way each day and now this deadly combination has also exacerbated the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. These challenges will still be present, or made worse, when we reopen our economies.

Throughout America, African American people are disproportionately dying from the virus. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color breathe in the dirtiest sources of pollution, causing higher rates of asthma, cancer and respiratory issues. Many of the pre-existing conditions that put these communities at greater risk are linked to things we can combat, like pollution exposure caused by diesel trucks, power plants, and other industrial sources of air pollution, which are disproportionately placed in communities of color. It’s no wonder people of color are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19 if infected.

And yet, the conversation about when, and how, to open our economy has both disregarded the underlying causes of high mortality rates among people of color and fails to generate any solutions to address them.

People of color are overrepresented in frontline and essential workforces. They have jobs that prohibit them from practicing social distancing or working from home, and many still lack adequate access to personal protective equipment, paid sick leave, and hazard pay. They show up every day to put their lives on the line for us, yet we don’t even provide them with the bare minimum to keep them safe.

To make matters even worse, people of color have experienced higher rates of job and income loss during this crisis.

It’s clear that we may be weathering the same storm as a country, but we are definitely not all in the same boat. Reopening the economy is an urgent task, but should be done with careful consideration for our most impacted and vulnerable. If there’s one thing this crisis clearly demonstrates, it is that no one is safe if our most vulnerable are not safe.

Instead of taking jumper cables to the soot-ridden old economy, we should be nurturing the budding seeds of a new green economy—an economy where the people hit first and worst by crisis do not benefit last and least from solutions. We could put millions of people to work in good, green jobs building a more sustainable future, healthier neighborhoods, and resilient communities if only we set our sights on becoming better than ever.

Putting trillions of recovery dollars to work building a green economy is exactly what we need to pull us out of the current economic crisis, and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. No one wants to be in this situation again, in the middle of the worst climate crisis we’ve ever seen, wishing we acted differently in this moment.

Mass unemployment or mass death are not the only two options. Now is the time to act, and we need to use our limited government resources wisely.

Let’s start with clean transportation from Los Angeles to Appalachia to enhance mobility while reducing pollution that damages our lungs and hearts. Let’s build energy systems and homes that are more efficient, harness renewable energy, and improve reliability and self-reliance. All of this can be done with green infrastructure investments tied to fair labor and workforce agreements, opportunities for contracting with women, minority, and veteran-owned businesses, and public-partnerships that engage impacted workers and communities in solution-making. We can reduce costs of living while improving quality of life with clean technology solutions.

Building a more sustainable future also means investing in skills training, literacy and job certification programs that provide economic opportunity for people facing economic uncertainty or those who recently lost their income. The high-tech jobs of the future—from building green infrastructure to designing the digital tools that allow us to connect and create—are starved for talent. We could give millions of out-of-work people the opportunity to enroll in high quality, remote, not-for-profit or public, literacy or skills programs. Even more people could participate if we expand access to technology and high-speed internet.

The old economy was already collapsing under its own weight. There’s nothing sustainable about over-dependence on unhealthy fossil fuels and deeply unfair inequalities. Restarting that economy would be like restarting a car that is heading for a cliff. All you will do is get there faster, when what you need is to change direction.

We shouldn’t settle for “going back to normal.” Not when normal means kids continue to breathe polluted air and drink unsafe water. Not when people who work hard keeping our economy going cannot achieve the basic dignities of healthcare or good pay. We shouldn’t go back when there is the opportunity of going forward and realizing energy independence, healthier communities, cost-savings and job creation. This is the time to dream bigger and do better. It’s time for American ingenuity to be put to the test and build a new economy that creates a better future for all.

Michelle Romero is the national director of Green for All, a program of Dream Corps, that aims to build a green economy that lifts people out of poverty and secures a sustainable future for all.

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