Green Cities

State and cities’ coronavirus response parallels climate change response

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread rapidly around the world, governments took drastic action to curb the rate of infection and “flatten the curve,” a mitigation tactic to ease the strain on medical facilities and healthcare workers. 

China, the epicenter of the outbreak, quarantined entire regions and cities. Italy, where cases continue to surge, attempted to quarantine towns and then regions before introducing a full-country lockdown as the situation spiraled tragically out of hand.

In times of crisis, the speed and scale of the response can make all the difference in the world, as made clear by reports of South Korea’s success in mitigating the spread of the virus through rapid resource mobilization and aggressive testing.  

But in the United States, as the pandemic continues to unfold, the response from the federal government has been marred by slow response, limited testing capabilities and initial statements downplaying expert projections on the virus’s impact. 

With COVID-19, every day is critical. Cities with dense populations are uniquely at risk and, therefore, play a critical role in the response. City networks like the National League of Cities quickly put together resources to help local leaders to respond to the outbreak. But without centralized federal guidance, we’ve seen uneven responses and success across the country. 

Despite the lack of federal action, cities and states moved rapidly to address local outbreaks. On the east and west coasts — where the first cases of the virus popped up — many states and cities closed all dine-in restaurants and bars, urged all residents in non-essential jobs to stay home and developed policies to ease the negative economic impacts on people within days of the first cases being discovered.

In many ways, the situation is a reflection of the country’s response to climate change. The current administration has downplayed or outright ignored the warnings from scientists about the dire effects climate change will have on the planet. To fill the void, local governments have stepped up. 

When the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Agreement, all cities — more than four hundred — in the Climate Mayors group committed to honoring the goals of the agreement anyway. More than 20 states, representing over half of the country’s population, came together to create the U.S. Climate Alliance.  

While the federal government lags behind, cities are on the front lines of responding to the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Take Washington, D.C., for example. In early 2019, D.C. passed the most ambitious clean energy plan in the country, committing to 100% renewable energy and cutting emissions at least 50% by 2032. Several months later, the federal government rolled back the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan, weakening environmental regulations aimed at curbing emissions. 

In response to COVID-19, Washington, D.C., declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, March 11, allowing the city to enforce quarantines and restrict large gatherings of people, including canceling major events. Two days later, President Trump declared a national state of emergency, although specific regulations on travel and public gatherings remained up to event organizers or local governments.

Whether they’re responding to an immediate crisis like a pandemic or long-term climate action, state and local governments have risen to the occasion to fill gaps in leadership. Cities carefully weigh scientific reports and expert recommendations to guide the scale of their response. However, though these local efforts are vital, South Korea’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrates that nothing compares to a massive, coordinated response from the federal government.