Daily, Australian news coverage shows how largely ignored segments of society are unjustly impacted by the government's COVID-19 policy responses.
A spotlight has been cast on high-density housing commission residents, casual workers, abattoir employees and people living in nursing homes and prisons. Worldwide, the hardest-hit populations live and work in overcrowded spaces, or places burdened by pollution, poverty, and related diseases that increase their risk of dying from COVID-19.
As lockdown measures amplify the links between social, environmental and health disparities, they also connect us to the substance of environmental justice. We're forced to consider how many hands packed and handled the food we take from supermarket shelves. We're compelled to imagine the labour conditions of the people whose lungs already breathed the air we're inhaling. In Australia and other industrialised nations, blue-collar workers (such as meat packers) and disadvantaged communities disproportionately shoulder the health risks of environmental harm.
These communities don't have the legal, economic or political capacity needed to protect their environments, and consequently their health. In other words, they don't have environmental justice.
Environmental justice is about so much more than preserving the natural world. Environmental lawyers advocate for everyone to have the same protections from health hazards, no matter where we live, work or play.
Even distant landscapes, like the habitats supporting wet markets in Wuhan, affect all of us and need legal safeguards. Successive UN reports have found that healthy forests reduce the risk of pandemics across the world. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are, like COVID-19, zoonotic - originating from pathogens transferred from animals to humans. This typically occurs when natural habitats are cleared for industrial use, reducing landscape buffer zones that prevent pathogen transfer.
Drivers of emerging zoonotic diseases include ecosystem degradation, deforestation, illegal trade in wildlife and climate change, according to a 2020 Stanford University study.
"The combination of major environmental change like deforestation and poverty can spark the fire of a global pandemic," writes lead author Laura Bloomfield.
Justly regulated and protected, the Earth's systems generate global health.
We don't yet understand the full implications of recent studies suggesting links between high pollution levels and increased risks of death from COVID-19. But the evidence clearly joins the dots between differential access to clean environments and disparities in health and resilience. The Dirty Truth, a 2018 report by the Australian Conservation Foundation, analyses data on our most polluted postcodes, finding 90 per cent of the burden of air pollution falls on low- to middle-income households.
These are among the reasons Australia needs to strengthen and enforce environment laws to safeguard the quality of our air, soils, water, landscapes and animals.
The Morrison government's failure to do this is what motivated a class action filed in the Federal Court last week - a landmark case arguing that climate change is harming Australians. Another current landmark case alleges the government failed in its duty to disclose the financial impacts of climate change. Globally, a wave of climate change litigation has emerged at a time when medical studies show climate change increases the risk of COVID-19 infection.
Last week, a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine called for "concrete actions focused on the key intersections between climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic". Other studies show climate change amplifies risks of catastrophic bushfires and reduces the yields and nutrient profile of Australia's crops, affecting our national security, food sovereignty and access to immunity-boosting nutrients that help defend us against viral assault.
Justly regulated and protected, the Earth's systems generate global health. Last week, scientists at Arizona State University found that protecting half of the globe's unprotected lands could "prevent future pandemics" and "sequester carbon and conserve biodiversity as effectively as the 15 per cent of terrestrial areas that are currently protected". The IPCC has found forests reduce around a third of global greenhouse emissions yearly, while other studies show Australia boasts the most carbon-dense forests on the planet.
Yet environmental lawyers were among those compelled last week to seek help from UNESCO to stop our federal government weakening our environment laws.
Weak environment laws are complicit in the impacts of COVID-19. Economies built on environmental degradation ensure that people, as well as endangered species, are paying the price with their very lives, while big polluters cash in.
The Morrison government's planned fossil fuel-led "economic recovery" would thwart any prospect of recovery, as these industries cultivate the very conditions that bring about health and economic crises. Debunked by economists and business leaders, Morrison's plan has been challenged by "green recovery" models based on zero-emissions technologies.
These are important measures, but alone they're merely technocratic "solutions" to structural problems.
For all its devastating impacts, the pandemic has motivated us to reimagine the Earth's systems and understand that recovery must be built on a foundation of justice. In legislation, we can recognise our air, soils, forests and waterways don't serve us well when used as pollution dumping grounds, nor when they're treated as industrial resources to extract or destroy without regard for lethal consequence.
For millennia, First Laws governing this continent understood that safeguarding environmental commons sustains humans. We now understand safeguarding environmental commons also mitigates against health and economic crises.
If we wish to prioritise human health and resilience, we must build this COVID-19 recovery from its fundament, which is environmental justice.
- Nicola Rivers and Elizabeth McKinnon are lawyers and co-chief executives of Environmental Justice Australia.