The two stories started the same: An onslaught of warnings were ignored — surely the media was drastically blowing a problem out of proportion. Worries were minimized. Fears were ignored.
Some experts were scorned by those in disbelief. Think what their fear-mongering recommendations would do to our beautiful, burgeoning economy! So, when the prognosticators cried “wolf!,” the sheep, happily lacking in imagination, cried “hoax!
Some sought out scapegoats. China, massive factories, immigrants, lack of policy — all because they were unable to resist looking outwards to point the finger of blame.
This is the story of our global climate emergency. For decades, scientists warned that the earth is overheating because of human behavior and if it continued, our habitat will be dangerously altered. Yet despite these disturbing premonitions, as our planet becomes more febrile and fatigued, life for many goes on as usual.
This is also the story of COVID-19. For months before the virus came to the U.S., doctors warned that the virus was spreading and if it continued, our lives and livelihoods would be dangerously altered. Still, as humans around the planet became febrile and fatigued, skepticism persisted where change should have occurred.
In both cases — climate change and the coronavirus — stubborn behaviors took too long to change. Political divisiveness halted ideas and encouraged negligence. And before knowledge about these crises spread like wildfire, denial, ignorance and realization were uniquely felt in varying intensities and lengths of time.
There was no reason to stop gathering for cookout dinners of factory-farmed beef or flying across the country for conferences or Spring Break. Then it was too late, as we all watched in horror when our hospitals had no empty beds, our morgues were full. And again, when it is too late, we will watch in horror as our sky loses its blue and our cities sink into rising seas.
These shocking parallels between the response to climate change and the outbreak of COVID-19 reveal that the sickness of the globe cannot be ignored the way global sickness has been. Still, the global pandemic is inherently connected to the treatment of the earth. Our pollution has made us more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, such as the coronavirus. Now we suffer the consequences of our contamination, our own fouled nest, our failure to adapt or evolve.
Maybe if everything just stopped and the world was quiet for a moment, we would hear the earth’s call for help. Maybe in one crisis, there is a lesson for the other.
COVID-19 caused universities to shut down one week and shut down entire states the next. For the first time in modern history, people attempted to pause life. In March 2020, the entire planet paused for a moment.
When the initial quarantine began, people slowed down and so did the virus. Without germs flying in and out of every major city and teenagers swapping saliva in dorm rooms, the virus took longer to spread. Following the initial chaos and the panic, the privileged among us were gifted time to breathe.
Some of us spent this time sleeping in, without setting an alarm. Others gathered around a table to assemble a five hundred-piece puzzle. Colleagues cared about the answer to the question, “How are you doing?” which was once just small talk. There was finally the freedom to create and paint and bake homemade chocolate chip cookies. Time was something to spare. The pause was a break from shoving in as many activities as possible around nine-to-five jobs, an opportunity to think about something other than what was next on the to-do list — an opportunity to devise a new normal.
Marginalized communities were hit hardest, often not gifted the same space for reflection. The initial inequality in these communities causes disproportionate impacts from climate change risks and hazards. In the U.S., 34% of COVID-19 deaths were among Black people, though this group accounts for only 12% of the population. And while some assuaged self-pity with pandemic baking and puzzles, school closures threatened for 30 million children to go hungry. In addition, nearly 100,000 local businesses had to shut down.
Though many suffered at disproportionate rates, the earth was gifted time to heal. Gas-powered cars were not found crammed on the road and mass coal production was largely halted. NASA reported air pollution levels to be cut by roughly a quarter in a month. Columbia University found emissions of carbon monoxide in New York City to drop by over 50% in just one week. The same happened in China: sapphire returned to the skies that were once stained with grey. And in Italy, locals could see the bottom of their canals and swans, dolphins and fish returned. The earth ceased coughing — she could finally breathe again.
When the pause ended and the world rebooted, traditional systems were altered. Health workers slept in their garages to avoid infecting their families, businesses reinvented themselves, car companies produced respirators, clothing manufacturers stitched masks, children went to school in their living room. The date when there would be no more uncharted territory was romanticized; dreams of sticky, crowded bars, hugging grandparents and touching knees with a stranger on a four-hour flight filled countless minds. But the return to “normal” slipped farther away each day, and as time ticked on, the virus claimed more lives.
The dozens of individual choices people make every day can partially explain why the earth is heaving. Before, stores people supported printed their ‘thank you’ notes in plastic and wrapped our fast fashion in it. Many heated their homes and powered our cars with fossil fuels, rolling their eyes at the thought of paying more for a clean energy source that would pollute less. A man who was voted into the most powerful position in the world referred to the greatest pressing global issue as “mythical,” among numerous other instances of disparaging rhetoric.
In the middle of the rising COVID-19 cases and deaths, people continued fighting. Combat may look like the loneliness of staying inside for a handful of weeks, restocking shelves of produce while risking infection or spending countless hours in a makeshift vaccine center administering shots. While selfish and divided on many issues, many people made sacrifices for the good of others. The world became largely small and single-minded, in the most beautiful way possible. Never before have we been so focused on one problem.
The virus has taught us that we can’t turn from responsibility any longer. Health and wellbeing — human and environmental — can be prioritized alongside our economies, industries can be retooled and habits reprogrammed.
The coronavirus was once isolated in Wuhan, China. By the time Wuhan locked down, the virus had spread beyond the city, beyond China. Only when it was too late to prevent a global pandemic, with thousands of lives lost and millions of livelihoods upended, was the validity and magnitude of the problem recognized. If ignorance and complacency continue to be practiced, the pandemic will only be the beginning of a new normal.
This cannot be how the climate crisis is addressed: waiting until there is no other alternative but surrender and suffering.
There is a future that begins with everyone retiring ignorance and listening to experts’ warnings. We must all approach the escalating climate crisis with urgency instead of hesitation. Even our small individual choices on a collective scale can produce an immense effect we so desperately need. We can eat less meat, shop sustainably, appreciate the beauty of our world and vote for leaders and lawmakers who can enact systemic changes. We can support marginalized communities and dismantle systems that work against those who are disproportionately impacted. We can safeguard our habitat for the future, and for everyone, not just the people who can afford to inoculate themselves against the worst consequences of our collective irresponsibility.
The earth is just as fragile as many of us are right now. While its proportions of losses are massive, there still remains hope for the same small and single-minded energy to be devoted to its problem. The earth used its brief respite to remember how to breathe again, and it’s begging us to use ours to write an ending of accountability to its story.
Statement Contributor Kathryn Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.