May 26, 2020

Earth Day Interrupted

Guest Opinion
By Cathye Williams | April 18, 2020

At any other time, I would be using this April column to write about spring, renewal, and hope. But this year, Earth Day, like everything else, will be a virtual event. Our ritual tree plantings and neighborhood cleanups will be sidelined, as we wait for pandemic cases to peak and subside.

In the coming weeks, perhaps months, we’ll emerge from our homes, ready for embraces, in-person happy hours, and conversations untethered to technology. Some will be more able than others to pick up the pieces and move forward. How will we have changed? What will we have learned? What will we do differently?

A lot, I hope. We were woefully unprepared for this pandemic, even though knowledge about a viral threat — and opportunity to prepare for its impacts — dates back years. On the other hand, knowledge about global warming and the opportunity to prepare for its impacts dates back decades. And we are still woefully unready.

This Coronavirus crisis is a tragic lesson in the fact that it’s the job of scientists and experts to provide data and advice, and it’s the job of elected officials to listen and to lead. With that lesson in mind, it’s difficult not to draw connections between the current COVID-19 crisis and the slower moving but ultimately far more deadly climate crisis. They are both global in scope, predictable, and both have prospects and prescriptions for mitigation — actions we all can take.

As different as they are in size and scope, both a tiny germ and an immense climate system are equally capable of bringing human society and enterprise to a grinding halt. They each strain our capacities to protect life. Whether in the face of this pandemic or fires, floods, and storms, our physical, economic, and public health infrastructures have come up short.

Relief is available to many at the top but not enough at the bottom. Our heroic first responders and frontline workers are too few, and they are underfunded and underequipped. Economic recovery is slow, and many never recover. On one coast, hurricane season will soon be here, with predictions for another record-setting year, and wildfires on the opposite coast not far behind. With these added threats on the tails of the pandemic, our response capacity at every level — local, state, and federal — could be stretched to the limit.

Another similarity in these crises is who bears the brunt. Certainly, the virus doesn’t recognize race, gender, or socioeconomic status; anyone can succumb to infection. Likewise, hurricanes and wildfires tear through mansions and bungalows alike. Yet in terms of social justice, disparate outcomes will still occur. Make no mistake: When the stats are in, people of color and those living in the poorest zip codes will have suffered the most — both from climate change impacts and from COVID-19.

Consider this: Who is more likely to have paid leave, adequate healthcare, or home-owners insurance? Who has the resources to relocate, or the ability to work from home if needed — with pay? Who has access to the technology their children need to learn from home? Who can afford to keep a surplus of food, toilet paper, diapers, or medicine on hand? Whose lungs, weakened by living near sources of pollution, will be less able to defend against or recover from disease? Are we prepared to answer these questions now, and for the next disaster? And the one after that?

This pandemic crisis has shown us that we have the ability to mobilize for the greater good — that we can use less, share more, and make better decisions as consumers and as stewards of public trusts. For some, this experience might be their first time really seeing themselves as part of a greater whole, and for understanding the vulnerability of both. Through the historic economic relief package just passed, we see that there is political will for a more just system and public support for expenditures that will strengthen and save us from more costly future damages.

Some worry that the pandemic is distracting us from tackling climate change, that we don’t have the resources and political will to focus on too many crises at once. I don’t believe we have the luxury to tackle our crises one at a time. We need leaders to respond to this pandemic and simultaneously apply both innovations and lessons learned to build our resiliency and fight climate change even more fervently. Building clean energy systems and resilient food systems will both reduce multiple threats and strengthen our response to them.

Climate change isn’t our only problem, but this pandemic illustrates how disruptions of natural systems can make other problems — such as inequity, hunger, disease, and war — worse. Because of this interconnectedness, it simply makes sense to do everything we can to protect each other from the spread of this disease. And to keep doing everything we can to protect each other and the earth from the threat of climate change.

Cathye Williams serves as a volunteer and media liaison for the Grand Traverse area chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, www.citizensclimatelobby.com. She writes from Benzie County.

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