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The Interstates 481 and 690 exchange in DeWitt seems nearly empty at morning rush hour as stay-home orders keep most people at home, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. The pandemic has made evident the environmental impact of our fossil-fuel based transportation sector, says the commentator. Photo by Scott Trimble | 

Oped by Katelyn Kriesel, a Town Councilor in the Town of Manlius | Special to Syracuse.com

Over 14,000 people have died from COVID-19 in New York State. That is a staggering number, and beyond heartbreaking. It is nearly incomprehensible how so many lives have been lost in such a short time, and to an enemy we cannot see. As we try to come to terms with this catastrophic event, we are only beginning to understand the serious threat that pandemics represent to mankind.

My professional career has focused on the risk that climate change poses to our society, but only now am I as focused on how it will affect pandemics like the coronavirus. The CDC has warned that as climate change worsens, so will rates of infectious disease. Pandemics like this one would occur more frequently and more severely.

But there is a solution to this threat.

We can combat climate change, and stop the trajectory that we’re on, by transitioning to clean, renewable energy. It is the only option that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. A clean energy economy is the only path forward.

This is why I signed a letter with over 100 other Elected Officials to Protect New York (EOPNY) urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make more investment funding available to help grow our clean energy economy.

Viewing satellite photographs of different cities around the world before the outbreak and comparing them to during the pandemic, it is clearly evident how significant the impact of our fossil-fuel based transportation sector has been on our climate. Yet, scientists warn as soon as we gear up the economy, the damage to our environment will only worsen. We cannot go back without endangering ourselves and inviting other pandemics to overwhelm us. We need to change course.

As a town councilor in Manlius, I am championing environmental sustainability. Right now we are working to develop a community solar array on the town’s old landfill, passing legislation to improve our solar code, and engaging with residents to expand walkability and trails in our community. This week, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, with numerous activities that residents can safely do from home, and voting to adopt the Climate Smart Communities pledge. Sustainable Manlius, our new committee, is energized and excited to do this important work.

But we need to do more statewide.

While New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) puts us on a path to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn’t guarantee the funds to do so. While some of those funds passed the latest budget, they aren’t enough. For CLCPA to become a reality, we need large-scale investments in renewable energy and energy-efficient systems. This infrastructure is the next critical step.

CLCPA mandates, wind, solar, geothermal and energy efficiency must be prioritized, incentivized and expanded. We need state investment funds for green energy job training, like solar installation and weatherization. Too many businesses heat with oil, seeing their profits burn up over the winter. This is an opportunity to create jobs, help businesses save money, and become more environmentally sustainable.

Environmental and economic sustainability go hand in hand. If we want to reduce the risk of pandemics like this in the future, and become more economically resilient, we must transition to clean energy. It is simply the only way forward.

Cuomo has been a leader throughout this pandemic, and a leader in the climate justice movement, and we need that leadership now more than ever. Our future depends on it.