Op-Ed: A different kind of Earth Day

Photo courtesy of Costa Constantinides’ office.


When the City Council passed the Climate Mobilization Act for last Earth Week, we knew this would be a historic event for New York — especially for places like Asthma Alley here in western Queens.

This Earthy Week, however, is starkly different. There is no coming together to celebrate our planet, let alone to take part in events to clean our parks, streets, or waterways.

New York City is the epicenter of this pandemic for many reasons. And, we’ve quickly learned that those who are suffering the most are the communities systemically impacted by inequality and racism. It’s the generations worth of pollution in black, brown, and immigrant neighborhoods that has made COVID-19 more lethal to the poor. Constant exposure to toxic air wears down the respiratory system and has made more people susceptible to this virus, creating a public health nightmare and the loss of far too many neighbors and loved ones. And it’s why, this Earth Week, we must forge a cleaner path forward to make our communities stronger.

Because the status quo of dirty power plants, aging wastewater treatment facilities, and other fossil fuel infrastructure cannot continue. A Harvard University study issued earlier this month made that abundantly clear. It found fewer people would have gotten sick if we lowered the amount of toxins in the air. It is no surprise then to see parts of western and southeast Queens and the Bronx hit particularly hard by this crisis. Statistically, they have higher rates of asthma and other pre-existing conditions the coronavirus preys upon.

As lawmakers we owe it to these communities to not repeat the sins of the past. It means we must take a deep look at the environmental injustices that got us to this point, assess where we need to go, and create a better future. The Renewable Rikers Act can be our starting point. It allows us to achieve many goals in tandem. We can close dirty power plants next to public housing, power our homes more affordably with green energy, and create tens of thousands of skilled trades jobs that should be filled by members of our environmental justice neighborhoods.

Because this is more than just about hitting target ambitious goals. Fighting pollution and the effects of climate change are about public health. It’s the morally right thing to do when we see our neighbors with asthma or other illnesses struggle in their battle with this disease — and sometimes lose. Committing ourselves to an innovative economy that moves forward with new jobs is the exact same thing our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents did when the Great Depression threatened to bring down our country.

We should take this Earth Week at home to rethink what we can do to make New York City better and more resilient against the next crisis. I know I am.