Michael Méndez, UCI assistant professor of urban planning & public policy
The pandemic “has given us the opportunity to imagine what a more sustainable lifestyle could mean for the planet and, more importantly, for the health of communities – such as people living next to polluting factories, power plants and oil refineries,” says Michael Méndez, UCI assistant professor of urban planning & public policy. Patricia DeVoe / UCI

The pandemic has exposed the fragility of our social institutions, as the threat of COVID-19 has seeped into and dominated almost every aspect of daily life. However, an even bigger threat – climate change – looms on the horizon, making us question our readiness for the cultural transformations it will require.

One thing the coronavirus has taught us is that not all people are affected equally. Aside from the elderly, it has had a disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color – specifically, Black and Hispanic communities. Possible reasons include densely inhabited neighborhoods, multigenerational housing and the need to work essential jobs that put individuals in contact with the public. In the past several months, a powerful social movement has arisen, highlighting how systemic racism influences various sectors of our society – including public health.

Just as poor people of color have borne the brunt of the pandemic, they have also been the most affected by environmental issues, which will only be exacerbated by climate change. But Michael Méndez, UCI assistant professor of urban planning & public policy, whose research focuses on environmental justice and policy, is hopeful about the future. In his most recent book, Climate Change From the Streets, he argues that the most effective environmental solutions will come from the communities suffering the most – and that policymakers should listen to them. In this Q&A, Méndez discusses the interconnection of the pandemic, environmental issues and inequality, as well as the steps needed to address it.

How has the pandemic changed how people think about climate change? In the beginning, there was hope that greenhouse gas levels would fall because of decreased car and plane travel and less overall consumption.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to imagine a world where we can live with less and consume less and be able to reduce our impact on the environment. It has given us the opportunity to imagine what a more sustainable lifestyle could mean for the planet and, more importantly, for the health of communities – such as people living next to polluting factories, power plants and oil refineries, who every day are directly exposed to toxic emissions.

Do you think those polluting facilities might be making certain populations more vulnerable to COVID-19?

There are a couple of factors making some people more vulnerable to complications from the coronavirus. One of them is respiratory issues. Several academic institutions, such as Harvard University, have shown that people living near polluting facilities tend to have significant respiratory problems. Being exposed to that pollution makes them more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 because it targets the respiratory system.

Significant lifestyle changes will be necessary in the next couple of years if we want to change our course. We’ve seen how many Americans have resisted wearing face coverings and quarantining. Do you expect this pattern of refusing to adapt and sacrifice individual convenience for the public good to continue in the future, as climate change worsens?

My hope is that people will learn to adapt and live a more sustainable lifestyle. Studies out of the University of Minnesota have shown that low-income people of color are consuming less and thereby have a much smaller carbon footprint, as well as toxic emissions footprint, than higher-income white families. There is more responsibility on those demographic groups who are consuming more to learn to adapt and live a more compact, sustainable lifestyle.

Finding ways to individually reduce greenhouse gases is important, but compared to policy changes, how much of an influence does this really have?

Individual lifestyle choices do have a collective impact on society, but individual behavioral changes alone are not going to stop the climate crisis. We need systemic changes, and a lot of them will have to come through governmental mandates on how we use energy, consume food and travel – transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases. It’s going to take a bottom-up and top-down approach. They go hand in hand: having community engagement and community-based solutions along with higher-level governmental solutions.

COVID-19 and climate change have both disproportionately affected low-income communities and people of color. Is there a common thread among inequality, the pandemic and climate change?

What we’re seeing here is that the inequalities of COVID-19 overlay environmental injustice. Those individuals who are experiencing public health impacts from how we consume energy and travel are the same people who are on the front lines of the pandemic as essential workers. Many of them are from lower-income communities of color. As with environmental injustice, we see that the government has not provided resources and funding to properly safeguard these communities.

How can local governments help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage sustainable living, while also addressing these issues of inequality and public health?

Climate change solutions should focus on the individuals who are suffering the most from its impact. This includes targeting renewable energy projects, sustainable transportation projects, and choosing to put communities of color first for funding such projects. Yes, we need to have these sustainable solutions throughout society, but often there are limited resources and money to do this. So it’s imperative to target those communities that are suffering first and foremost. Climate change policy must be implemented with a strong equity lens. Any climate or environmental policy should always ask “Who’s suffering most?”

What are some programs or policies you would put forth in the next couple of months that you think could have a big impact?

One is renewable energy – just making sure that low-income people of color, whether they’re homeowners or renters, have access to more sustainable energy options for their apartments or homes.

Second would be transportation policies – making sure that there are cleaner sources of transportation in these communities, whether it’s buses, light rail or ensuring that low-income individuals can purchase hybrid and electric vehicles. The California Air Resources Board, which regulates air quality and also manages California climate change programs, passed a landmark bill recently requiring that 40 percent of heavy-duty trucks be electric by 2032. Many of these heavy-duty trucks often travel through low-income communities of color, so this mandate is going to have a major impact.

Since we’re already seeing some of these changes, are you optimistic about the future? We still have a long way to go, but can we be hopeful?

I’m a hopeful person. In my book, I highlight how low-income communities of color are organizing and demanding systemic changes to improve both racial and environmental justice. They’re linking the two together, so I’m hopeful that this momentum that’s been growing over the years, particularly here in California, continues to build – and that the people on the front line of impacts maintain a strong voice and influence in our policymaking process and governing around climate change.

Do you think the recent protests calling for social change, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, will affect environmental policy?

Absolutely. The environmental justice movement came out of the 1960s civil rights movement, and the original organizers of the environmental justice movement were also involved in the civil rights movement. They spoke about environmental racism – that environmental impacts are not by chance or accident. They’re often intentional, and disproportionate environmental impacts come from racist environmental policies. The recent BLM protests are raising awareness of police brutality and are opening discussions about how there’s systemic racism within the criminal justice arena, but it’s not limited to just there. It’s pervasive in other segments of our society: education, healthcare and, in this case, environmental issues. People have been talking about systemic racism and environmental issues for a long time. But I think we need additional support to make the movement even stronger.