with Paulina Firozi

Joe Biden is honing his campaign message on the environment in the age of the coronavirus.

The former vice president and his team are saying air pollution being left unchecked by President Trump’s administration is making the covid-19 pandemic more deadly  and that the impact is falling disproportionately on African Americans, who are a pillar of Biden’s support in the presidential contest.

In a rhetorical shift, Biden is linking what he sees as one of Trump’s biggest weaknesses — his environmental record — to the viral outbreak.

“Covid is shining a bright light on the structural racism that plagues our laws, our institutions and our culture,” Biden told donors at an online fundraiser last week on Earth Day. “And it's a wake-up call, a wake-up call to action to climate change overall and to climate justice.”

More broadly, Biden said, meeting the challenges of both climate change and covid-19, which has already killed more than 60,000 in the United States, requires following the sort of expert advice Trump often ignores.

“This is a non science president,” Biden said of Trump, who often dismisses the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet. “He doesn't believe in science. Sadly, our recent response to climate change has been a lot like our response to the pandemic.”

To make its case, the Biden campaign is pointing to early research linking air pollution with a higher risk of dying from covid-19.

Fine soot particles — emitted by everything from the large factory smokestacks to home chimneys — can embed in the lungs and have been linked with asthma and other breathing problems. 

Now preliminary data from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health is showing that even a small increase in soot — 1 microgram per cubic meter — is associated with an 8 percent increase in the covid-19 death rate.

The news is especially troubling for poor and minority communities, which tend to be exposed to greater levels of soot and other air pollutants.

Those higher pollution levels, said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), a physician and Biden backer, “provide for a toxic environment that puts people's health at a disadvantage to confront the covid-19.”

Citing the Harvard study, which has not been peer reviewed, Ruiz told reporters Wednesday in a call set up by the Biden campaign he was especially troubled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reject stricter national standards for soot levels and to overhaul a mercury pollution rule for power plants.

“That will only lead to more pollution in communities that already have vulnerabilities to covid-19,” Ruiz said.

Surrogates for Biden, whose candidacy was boosted by a surge of African American support in the South Carolina primary, say the Trump administration is not doing enough to address the disease's racial disparity. The disease is infecting and killing black Americans, who often live near highways and industrial facilities, at an alarmingly high rate, according to a Washington Post analysis of early covid-19 data.

“We need the leadership in the White House that leads with science to address the underlying causes of the covid-19 crisis, and to prioritize the needs of all communities disproportionately impacted,” Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), another Biden supporter on the call, told reporters.

The Biden camp is tweaking his anti-pollution talking points as the candidate tries to remain visible and court environmentalists.

Though Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) exit from the race, Trump is still sucking up much of the media oxygen with his frequent media briefings on the federal government’s coronavirus response. 

At the same time, Biden is also trying to shore up support among the young, left-leaning voters that went for Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the primary.

Though Biden racked up endorsements from former vice president Al Gore and the League of Conservation Voters during Earth Day week, other green groups, such as the youth-led Sunrise Movement, still want to see Biden promise to take stronger steps to reduce climate-warming emissions.

“There's a lot of political upside” for Biden on climate, said Evan Weber, political director and co-founder of Sunrise. The activist group, which had backed Sanders, has been talking to the Biden campaign since Super Tuesday about “what they could do to be aligned with the movement,” Weber added.

The Biden campaign said it is working on building out its environmental agenda, including ideas for addressing “environmental justice,” which posits that poor and minority communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. 

“We are in the midst of that process now and look forward to announcing at a later date some additional policies,” said Stef Feldman, Biden's policy director.

Meanwhile, Trump officials say too much is being made of the connection between pollution and the virus.

Trump’s EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, told my colleague Jacqueline Alemany last week it is “premature to put too much weight on a study that hasn't been finalized or peer reviewed yet.”

And the Trump campaign sees Biden’s efforts to link covid-19 to his environmental agenda as a chance to paint Biden as out-of-touch with voters who both candidates are courting.

“This is the kind of nonsense you hear in the halls of Berkeley, not the grocery stores of Scranton,” the Trump campaign wrote in a news release last week. “Only a Washington politician would view a deadly global pandemic and millions of Americans artificially out of work as a ‘wake up call’ for climate change justice.” 

Coronavirus latest

The stay-at-home orders are driving down global carbon dioxide emissions to levels last seen a decade ago.

That's according to the International Energy Agency, which found in a new report that the “world’s CO2 emissions will plunge 8 percent this year, a reduction six times as large as the previous global record set in 2009 when the financial crisis rocked the world economy,” Steven Mufson reports.

But the agency warned such declines during past economic downturns were not permanent. 

“After previous crises, the rebounds in emissions were larger than the declines,” Mufson writes. “The agency said the world needed a wave of investment to restart the economy with ‘cleaner and more resilient energy infrastructure.’ ”

California air regulators want to understand how pollution affects those with covid-19.

Coronavirus-fueled lockdowns mean reduced traffic from shipping and freight transportation. And now the California Air Resources Board wants to assess the impact of air pollution on public health, and especially on the vulnerability to the disease caused by the virus.

“Researchers are comparing vehicle miles traveled, air pollution, traffic counts, and freight traffic to days before the spike in Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. They also plan to do a California-focused study similar to one conducted by Harvard University that looked at how air pollution affects susceptibility to the disease that is spreading across the globe,” Bloomberg News reports.

Elon Musk is overpromising on ventilators again. 

Tesla’s chief executive pledged that the electric automaker would send more than 1,000 ventilators to hospitals across the nation last month and would start producing its own ventilators.

But what Musk sent were continuous or bilevel positive airway pressure machines, Faiz Siddiqui reports, not the advanced machines needed for the sickest coronavirus patients. Still, those machines can help in coronavirus treatment. 

“Although hospital executives said they were grateful for the mechanical reinforcements bought by Tesla, the shipments continued a pattern by Musk of brash proclamations on Twitter with mixed results on follow-through,” Siddiqui adds. 

Musk also launched into an expletive-laden rant during a Tesla’s earnings call. 

He called orders to stay home “fascist.” “To say that they cannot leave their house and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist,” he said. “This is not democratic — this is not freedom.”

“The comments followed Tesla posting a slight profit Wednesday, a lukewarm signal as worries mounted about the electric-car maker’s trajectory amid the global pandemic.” 

These groups are questioning the EPA’s move to suspend enforcement of pollution monitoring.

More than 150 groups, including environmental, health and worker organizations, penned a letter to the EPA to oppose a move to temporarily halt penalties against companies for not self-monitoring their pollution levels. 

“While we understand that worker shortages may be a reality at the moment, EPA’s policy goes far beyond reasonable and appropriate accommodation to the current situation,” the letter reads. “By providing for waiver of enforcement actions and penalties for violations of critical worker and public protections, with no submission of evidence required and no time limit, the policy invites facilities to shirk essential responsibilities to protect health and safety without consequence.” 

In a statement to the Hill, an EPA official said the agency “continues to enforce environmental laws and protect human health and the environment nationwide during these unprecedented times.” 

Oil check

Another energy company is eyeing bankruptcy. 

Chesapeake Energy, a major producer of natural gas from shale, is preparing a potential file for bankruptcy, Reuters reports.

The Oklahoma City-based company has spoken with creditors about a possible loan as it goes through bankruptcy proceedings, per the report. The size of the loan could be about $1 billion but it is not finalized, and the discussions about bankruptcy financing are in early stages. 

The Trump administration is poised to unveil bridge loans to struggling oil companies.

“The Trump administration may announce as soon as Thursday a plan to offer loans to the ailing oil industry possibly in exchange for a financial stake, according to two people familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg News reports

“Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette have already briefed President Donald Trump on a plan to provide financial aid to oil drillers beset by a historic crash in prices, the people said,” per the report.

Texas oil regulators revealed a proposal for cutting oil production. 

“The proposal, which exempts small companies, would fine producers $1,000 for every barrel pumped in excess of the limit,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

The public can submit comments on the order, which would cut Texas’s oil production by 20 percent, via email through Monday.

Global warming watch

In fast-warming Minnesota, scientists are trying to plant the forests of the future.

Scientists are worried about what the state’s warming trend means for forests critical for soaking up planet-warming carbon dioxide. In a worst-case scenario, Lee Frelich, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Forest Ecology, warns that “prairie land could expand across much of Minnesota by 2100, upending everything from the timber industry to tourism to the state’s very identity,” Brady Dennis writes.

In the latest installment of The Post’s series on places that have warmed more than 2 degrees over preindustrial levels around the globe, Dennis reports seven counties in Minnesota have warmed more than 2 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, which is about twice the global average. 

A small army of scientists are running experiments that simulate rising temperatures in an effort to understand what changes are ahead. The “boldest part of the experiment is known as ‘assisted migration’ — planting of trees that once would not have been found here, but that are expected to flourish in the future that scientists foresee in Minnesota’s North Woods.” 

A troubled Arctic research expedition sails on. 

A record strong Arctic weather pattern that contributed to the East Coast’s mild winter is also helping keep the largest-ever Arctic research expedition on course during a global pandemic, Maddie Stone reports for The Post.

“In May, the expedition’s flagship research vessel, the R/V Polarstern, will temporarily leave its icebound perch in the central Arctic Ocean, where it has been drifting along with the sea ice since October, and rendezvous with two German research vessels off the north coast of Svalbard, Norway. These ships will allow it to pick up additional supplies and conduct its third crew swap.”

“According to expedition leader Markus Rex, an atmospheric scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, the Polarstern is well-positioned to make this unanticipated detour in part because of weather associated with an unusually strong polar vortex this winter.” 

In other news

Environmental groups sue administration over the rollback of clean water protections. 

A lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations challenges the EPA’s move to remove federal protections from many wetlands and streams that feed into the nation’s largest rivers. 

“Our nation’s majestic waterways depend for their health on the smaller streams and wetlands that filter pollution and protect against flooding, but the Trump administration wants to ignore the science demonstrating that,” Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the NRDC, said in a statement calling the regulation “plainly unlawful.” 

Extra mileage

Good boys and girls are using their noses for good. 

A University of Pennsylvania research project has enlisted the help of eight Labrador retrievers to determine whether the dogs can detect an odor linked with the coronavirus. The research could help as experts point to the need to ramp up testing and to determine asymptomatic carriers. 

If the research finds dogs can sniff out the virus, canines could be eventually “used in a sort of ‘canine surveillance’ corps, the university said — offering a noninvasive, four-legged method to screen people in airports, businesses or hospitals,” Karin Brulliard reports.

Cynthia M. Otto, director of the Working Dog Center at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, who is leading the project, said that “dogs don’t care what the odor is. … What they learn is that there’s something different about this sample than there is about that sample.”