A triple threat

Photo credit: Isthmus // Getty Images

When the CARES Act expired July 25, so did protections for many renters. While state regulators have extended a moratorium on utility shut-offs until September, eviction notices can now be filed and evictions can begin starting Aug. 24.

According to analysis by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, Congress’ failure to extend a pandemic-related eviction moratorium places more than 29 million Americans at risk of homelessness by the end of the year. Once evicted, future housing options become tenuous, compounding the stress from financial instability. One must also consider the potential lethal environmental health challenges as well.

Consider the recent “heat dome” that just engulfed much of the contiguous United States, with most of Wisconsin experiencing temps well into the 90s. According to an analysis by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of climate change impacts on large U.S. cities east of the Mississippi River, by 2050 nearly all cities will see a tripling of summer days hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit, including Milwaukee and Madison. A new study published last month in the journal Nature Communications shows region-wide heat waves increasing in severity and frequency across all regions of the world.

Heat waves kill more people than all other weather events combined. They pose a high risk to people experiencing homelessness and to those living in poverty who may either have no access to air conditioning, cannot afford to pay the higher electricity bills, or who live in poorly ventilated housing. In the U.S. 48% of renter households are cost-burdened, meaning they spend 30-50% of their income on rent. These rates are similar for Wisconsin renters. Being evicted and having no shelter whatsoever is that much worse.

The COVID-19 pandemic adds a third serious threat compounding both the heat wave and the new added wave of evictions. Cooling centers will need to follow all of the recommended precautions of physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory hygiene, and mandatory masks indoors. Even so, the human behavioral response with COVID-19 on the rise is that people may (understandably) be afraid to congregate in a public space like a cooling center, and some will inevitably die from the heat.

The threats of COVID-19 and climate change share some converging attributes. Communities of color, low-income communities, and non-English speakers suffer higher rates of cardiovascular illnesses, hypertension, diabetes and obesity. Both COVID-19 and extreme weather events disproportionally threaten individuals with these co-morbidities.

Further congruity emerged from a recent Harvard study where results showed a striking relationship between air pollution and the risk of dying from COVID-19. For every 1 microgram of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), death rates from COVID-19 rose by 8%. The pollutant, PM2.5, arises from burning coal and oil, just as combusting these fossil fuels causes climate change. Ironically, the pandemic has shown how a steeply reduced demand for fossil fuels can dramatically clear the air in many of the most polluted cities and regions of the world.

But COVID-19 and climate change diverge when we consider the tradeoffs in solving each of these problems. Until a vaccine is developed, mitigation of COVID-19 has involved shuttering the global economy resulting in financial hardship and, quite likely, now a new wave of evictions. Contrary to the sacrifices being made to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, however, confronting the climate crisis by switching from fossil fuels to cleaner renewable energy provides substantial health and societal benefits — not sacrifices. In 2016, an estimated 64,200 premature deaths in the U.S. were caused by PM2.5 air pollution from coal-fired power plants. In the state of Wisconsin alone, a recent study found that by switching to mostly renewable in-state energy production, improvements in air quality would yield $21 billion in annual savings from reduced respiratory illness, lost work days and mortality, along with creating 162,100 net jobs.

As hot summer temperatures still grip the nation, unique interventions are needed to especially protect those who are homeless and those living in poor housing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, localities will need to arrange mobile cooling centers and fortify the number of outreach workers to reach people who are homeless and elderly individuals who live alone. Citizens must also call for reestablishing the ban on evictions.

As for COVID-19, we inevitably will develop a vaccine to thwart this novel coronavirus, yet the threats of climate change, eviction and unsafe housing will remain. COVID-19 has shown us that we can take decisive science-based action to protect health and well-being. We need to remember we can harness that same level of effort to take on the climate crisis, and in so doing, reap the health benefits that will arise from striding forward to a clean and equitable energy future.

Professor Jonathan Patz is director of the Global Health Institute at UW-Madison. He holds degrees in medicine and public health and has faculty appointments in the Nelson Institute and Department of Population  Health Sciences.

This story first appeared at isthmus.com. 

Jonathan Patz // Aug. 3, 2020