The mayors of 10 U.S. cities have joined two dozen city leaders from around the world in signing a statement of principles endorsing guidelines for a healthy, equitable and sustainable economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The C40 group of cities, representing more than 750 civic leaders worldwide, warn that recovery from COVID-19 “should not be a return to ‘business as usual,’ because that is a world on track for 3 degrees Celsius or more of over-heating.”
The principles in the statement include an adherence to public health and scientific expertise, a commitment to address issues of equity that have been made evident during the pandemic, and investment in city and community resilience to protect against future threats, including climate change.
Two American cities in particular stand out as being on the frontline of both this pandemic and the climate crisis: Houston and New Orleans. Both cities’ mayors have signed the statement of principles. Both have much experience to share and a long road ahead.
Both Houston and New Orleans (pictured above) have borne the brunt of their states’ pandemic impacts. Both cities also have diverse populations. Houston’s population is about a quarter African American and has the third largest Hispanic population in the U.S. Further, an estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants live in the Texas’s largest city. More than 20 percent of the people in the city live at or below the poverty line. Farther east in Louisiana, the population of New Orleans is about 60 percent African American, and an estimated 35,000 undocumented immigrants live in the city. Further, about 25 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level.
All of this matters, because communities of color and low-income communities have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Significantly more African Americans and Latinx patients are hospitalized or die from the virus than white patients. Many in these communities and in immigrant communities are doing much of the essential work, putting them at further risk. The pandemic adds insult to injury, as these communities have long been on the front lines of the climate crisis due to poor air and water quality and generations of environmental injustice.
New Orleans and Houston are in the climate crosshairs. Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey are the first and second most costly hurricanes in recorded history, each totaling over $100 billion in damages. The 2020 hurricane season starts June 1, and so far evidence suggests that this season will be an above-normal year. Neither city can ever rest on its laurels when hurricanes churn in the Gulf of Mexico. Studies conducted after each storm bore out the evidence of what the news told us: African American communities and low-income communities bore the brunt of the hurricane-induced flooding. In addition to the inequity, this puts added pressure on public health responses when such disasters occur.
Rebuilding from a natural disaster like a hurricane is a complicated business, but it is relatively localized compared to the rebuilding that will be required when this pandemic finally ends. Investments in public health systems are critical, but so are investments in communities. Post-hurricane, resilience must be built into recovery efforts — and pandemic recovery must also include resilience.
The aftermath of COVID-19 will require a close examination of public and private health systems, and part of that will be to address the inequity in our current economic system, from who is considered essential to how to protect the most vulnerable. This pandemic, like past extreme weather events, is not the last public health challenge cities will face. Businesses in both of these cities also face countless challenges as state and local governments give conflicting signals about how and when they will reopen — and for companies to thrive, they’ll need healthy employees who feel safe and secure about a return to work.
Image credit: João Francisco/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.