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How racism, COVID-19 and air pollution reveal striking patterns of inequality

June 11, 2020, 12:43 PM UTC

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Hello from London. This is Katherine, taking over today from Eamon.

Today we’re asking: What do the environment and the protests over the killing of George Floyd have in common?

It may seem difficult to draw a direct link between police brutality and pollution. But add the impact of COVID-19 to the mix, and we can map out how all of these crises exist in the same universe, where health, safety, and access to clean air collectively reveal striking patterns of inequality.

Protests over police brutality and structural racism in the U.S. aren’t necessarily new, but the current wave has exploded with a force many attribute to the trauma of the pandemic and the accompanying swan-dive into economic crisis on a scale not seen since at least the Great Depression. In the U.S. alone, at least 115,000 people have died due to COVID-19, and at least 42.6 million people have lost their jobs. Both the deaths, and the job losses, have been disproportionately borne by black Americans.

In the U.S., a recent pre-print from Harvard reinforced previous studies that have emerged during the pandemic that show black Americans are much more likely to die from COVID-19—as the percentage of black residents in a neighborhood goes up, so does the death rate.

In the U.S., those deaths are largely explained by socio-economic factors—as they are here in the U.K., where government research has confirmed that black Britons, and some other communities of color, are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 due to factors including overcrowded housing, living in deprived neighborhoods, over-representation in essential but badly paid jobs, insufficient access to the health system, and underlying conditions heavily linked to stress and poor quality of life.

Meanwhile, exposure to high levels of air pollution has been repeatedly linked to vulnerability to COVID-19. The pattern emerged even when the hotspots were Wuhan, a manufacturing hub, and northern Italy, another manufacturing hub with high levels of air pollution.

In the U.S., black people are more likely to be exposed to air pollution than white people, largely due to where they live, with the accompanying risk of asthma and other respiratory conditions. In fact, a frequently cited paper from researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency published in April 2018 found that the exposure to air pollution was more closely linked to race than to poverty. I worry, too, that cities and regions that were already struggling financially, and that are disproportionately black, will increasingly lack the resources to adapt their infrastructure to climate change or recover from ever-more-frequent disasters, like flooding and hurricanes.

It’s clear that poor environmental conditions and protections can’t be separated from racial inequality or the COVID-19 epidemic. In fact, we wrote a lengthy story on how virologists say environmental degradation is responsible for the pandemic. Poor air quality contributes to both, helping to reinforce a punishing feedback loop of poor health, economic inequality, housing segregation, and over-policing for black Americans.

None of this is new. But by connecting the dots, perhaps we can explore holistic solutions.

More news below.

Katherine Dunn



Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has drawn outrage after decimating a 46,000-year old Aboriginal heritage site in explosions used to expand the site of its iron ore mine. Traditional owners of the land had objected to the expansion. Weeks later, fellow mine operator BHP Billiton is set to destroy as many as 86 Aboriginal sites in an expansion of one of its mines. The Guardian

Patagonia CEO steps down

Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario has stepped down after six years in the company’s top position. Marcario is credited with bringing Patagonia’s environmental activism to the fore—streamlining supply lines, cutting plastic and developing recyclable materials. Marcario’s departure has been in the works since last year but a successor has yet to be announced. The 12-year veteran says she's stepping down now to allow a new leadership to navigate through the post-pandemic change. Fast Company


BP is set to cut 10,000 jobs, or 14% of its workforce, as the pandemic accelerates efforts to slim down ahead of the energy transition. In a memo to staff, CEO Bernard Looney said the cuts were in line with plans set out in February to downsize staff as the company reduces carbon emissions. Bloomberg


Mark McCollum, CEO of Weatherford International—a leader in oilfield services—has stepped down ahead of possible restructuring. Analysts suspect the departure signals the company’s second bankruptcy in less than a year. Financial Times


In its latest global financial stability report, the IMF said companies should be forced to disclose their exposure to climate risk because relying on them to do so voluntarily does not go far enough. "In the short term, mandatory climate change risk disclosure could be based on globally agreed principles. In the longer term, climate change risk disclosure standards could be incorporated into financial statements compliant with international financial reporting standards,” it said. The Guardian


Members of OPEC agreed Saturday to extend production cuts through to the end of July. In April, the group agreed to cut output by 9.7 million barrels a day; the new deal calls for further cuts of 9.6 million barrels a day. Some OPEC allies, however, refused to make cuts, throwing the deal into jeopardy. Wall Street Journal

Winds of change

French oil refiner Total bought a 51% stake in a North Sea wind farm, marking the company’s first major move into offshore wind. The $3.8 billion farm will be Scotland’s largest offshore facility. The move comes a month after Total pledged net-zero emissions across its products and operations in Europe by 2050. Financial Times


4 ways companies can thrive in the COVID-19 economy, according to philanthropy strategists by Jen Butte-Dahl and Denielle Sachs

Why this analyst says the future of cars is electric—and Chinese by Grady McGregor 

From beekeepers to giant pension funds, activist shareholders are being silenced by the coronavirus by Bernhard Warner and Katherine Dunn

Net zero by 2050: Diageo, H&M, and Rolls-Royce join drive to avert climate catastrophe by David Meyer


2 months

As of Wednesday, that’s how long Britain (that is, the U.K. minus Northern Ireland) has gone without generating electricity from coal. No coal has been burned in Britain since April 9, when the last of four remaining coal plants was taken offline by the National Grid, pre-empting a demand drop as the nation entered pandemic lockdown. But coal use was already in decline. Last year, Britain went 18 days without coal while 10 years ago, coal provided 40% of the island’s electricity.