An invisible killer, COVID-19 attacks the most fundamental function that sustains life - our ability to breathe. To breathe we need healthy lungs and clean air. If lungs are compromised, there’s an even greater need for clean air.
The pandemic shutdown has resulted in a 6 percent decrease in global carbon emissions. For those in its epicenter, downstate New York, especially those afflicted, (nearly 7,000 people in Orange County) the oxygen provided by earth’s natural ventilator is desperately needed.
But, this won’t last long. New York is just days away from the foolish plan to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Once that switch is turned off fracked gas from CPV here in Orange and Cricket Valley in Dutchess will turn on and up. Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s promise that its closure will not create more carbon emissions, NY’s carbon emissions will skyrocket 10-15 million tons annually, losing 80 percent of downstate’s carbon-free energy provided reliably by the plant for nearly 50 years. Air pollution will increase substantially ensuring more people will unnecessarily die.
Cuomo has demonstrated his prowess for data-driven decision-making in handling the pandemic. He recently stated we must “make decisions on facts not on political pressure...this is no time to act stupidly.”
Replacing Indian Point’s 2000 MW of power with gas (methane) will increase the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 27-29 percent of the power sector, rendering newly enacted climate goals impossible to achieve. Methane has 86 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a 20-year time frame. Last year saw the single biggest increase in two decades: methane levels hit an all-time high at 1875 parts per billion. This alarming accelerating rise in greenhouse gases is a fact now keeping climate scientists up at night
Burning gas also emits pernicious fine particles, PM 2.5, invisible killers, like COVID-19. Long-term exposure to even a slight increase in pollution (by as little as 1 ug/m3-PM2.5) increases COVID-19 mortality by 15 percent; not surprising as comorbidities for COVID-19, such as hypertension, heart disease, and respiratory illness, are also associated with exposure to air pollution. (around CPV spikes of 180 ug/m3-PM2.5 have been measured).
Communities near CPV are already vulnerable demographics. Environmental justice communities are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19, while our many first responders are also disproportionately impacted.
The inconvenient truth is that NY plans to shut down Indian Point before renewable replacements have been built, ensuring carbon lock-in for decades. It’s a catastrophic case of putting the cart before the horse.
Facts are the best antidote to irrational fear. While Indian Point provides safe, reliable carbon-free (pollution-free) baseload power, irrational fear peddled by fossil fuel and special interests such as CPV and Riverkeeper, has prejudiced public perception. If “job one is saving lives,” if no one will be sacrificed, if public health is the priority then Indian Point must remain open until renewable replacements are built.
As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day we should be forewarned that the climate crisis will surpass COVID by orders of magnitude.
COVID-19 cautions us all that the laws of nature supersede the laws of human beings; that we exist ultimately at their mercy. We cannot bend math and physics to our will.
Pramilla Malick chairs Protect Orange County. Jim Hansen is director, Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program Columbia University Earth Institute