On a sunny morning last month, my husband and I took our dog for a walk in Harpswell’s Mitchell Field. When we came to the highest portion of trail along the field running down to Middle Bay, the view stopped my breath and feet. Beyond the bay, Mt. Washington, formerly a vague hump on the horizon, now looked like it had leapt forward seventy miles through the sky to set down just beyond the distant tree line. Its peak was a craggy white point spreading long wings of snowfields down to lower slopes of gray granite, a rugged mountain shape against the deep blue sky.

“I’ve never seen it so clear!” I said. Yes, we’d heard reports that the decrease in driving from COVID-19 had dramatically reduced air pollution, but this was rare firsthand evidence. It’s hard to see clean air with our own eyes, because it depends on a before/after comparison. We just happened to be in a place where before was always the same monochromatic snowy peak in wisps of cloud, so that suddenly seeing a whole mountain was as startling as a leap into technicolor. Gawking at it, I inhaled the fresh, sunny air, thinking, “Ahh, the way life should be.”

That image of the mountain has stuck in my mind ever since, carrying with it a pressing question: How can we keep this precious gain in air-quality, once we’re open for business and people are commuting and travelling again? Perhaps what COVID-19 is teaching us will give us the political will to take action.

Emerging research about Covid-19 strengthens the case for clean air. Biostatisticians at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health compared death rates from COVID-19 with air quality in 3,000 counties, and found that in areas with just a small increase in long-term rates of air-pollution, 15% more people are likely to be killed by the virus. This is seconded by researchers at Northern Italy’s University of Siena, who suggest a link between the region’s long history of high air pollution and its high pandemic death rates.

 “We know that (particles of air-pollution) cause heart attacks and strokes, we know that they cause lung cancer,” says pediatrician Aaron Bernstein, interim director of Harvard’s Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. “There’s now strong evidence that these particles can also promote the development of type II diabetes, mental health problems, and affect the developing fetus.”

So if we can consolidate the gains in clean air we’ve made in the past month, we’ll be protecting our health moving forward. It’s a win-win, something we must act on especially now that the Trump administration has relaxed enforcement of some key environmental regulations, including air pollution standards. And oil, mining, and coal companies are currently receiving millions of dollars in aid from the administration and the payroll protection plan, according to NPR’s “Living on Earth.”


Climate action seems more complex and abstract than the more immediate, hands-on action we take each day against Covid-19. But here’s something specific and immediate we all can do now to help hold on to gains we’ve made in clean air. We can call or e-mail our members of Congress urging them to support passage of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act currently in the House of Representatives. This bill, HR 763, would discourage the use of fossil fuels by putting a gradually rising fee on carbon, making it more expensive to use gas, oil, and coal that foul our air. This would encourage a transition to renewable energy. All collected fees, minus administrative costs, would be returned to U.S. households equally in monthly dividend checks, thereby cushioning low- and middle-income households from any economic fallout.

More than 3,500 economists have endorsed a carbon-pricing policy as the most cost-effective way to lower carbon emissions. HR 763 will reduce America’s emissions by at least 40% in the first 12 years. It will substantially reduce air pollution and catastrophic weather, saving lives. And it’s bipartisan: Republicans and Democrats are cosponsoring this bill.

Call Sens. Susan Collins (202) 224-2523, and Angus King (202) 224-5344, to sponsor this or a similar bill in the Senate. You could also call Rep. Chellie Pingree (202) 225-6116, and thank her for co-sponsoring the bill. If the aides that take your message tell you that congresspeople are concentrating only on Covid-19 issues now, you might tell them that how we fare from Covid-19 depends on air-quality: that they are inextricably tied together. And that the racial inequities that this linkage reveals makes this Carbon-reducing bill even more important.

Mary Lee Fowler lives in Harpswell.

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