Enduring the Climate and Coronavirus Crises: What Will It Take to Get Through Both?

Read time: 9 mins
Sunset through wildfire smoke over Elliott Bay, Seattle

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.

While time feels distorted these days, it was only seven months and a lifetime ago that millions around the globe, led by school children, were marching in the streets, passionately demanding action and investment to match the scale of the climate crisis. Today, we’d instinctively recoil imagining those crowds, fearful of the potential to spread more than the idea that humans deserve a livable climate. But in both cases, pulling away from each other, at least in spirit, may be our collective undoing. 

Simultaneously surviving climate disruption and this pandemic — because they cannot be separated — will require us to grapple with two major challenges.

The first is pursuing an honest reckoning, a deep examination of the systems that got us here and are keeping us sinking up to our soft throats in the mire. Scientists and health experts will be a part of that, of course, but we can’t accomplish this massive task without journalists (whose industry is collapsing despite record readership in the U.S.). In the words of climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, we don’t need a fact-finding mission; we need a truth-telling mission.  

Now, as ever, we need independent journalists dedicated to holding the powerful accountable and to raising up the voices and experiences of the most vulnerable. We can’t arrive at the solutions for limiting these disasters’ tolls without naming and removing the obstacles that stand between us.

Misinformation, racism, inequality, the exchange of influence and money, the manipulation of entrenched power systems, these are obstacles to limiting the impact of the coronavirus on everyone but especially on communities of color, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The same goes for the climate crisis.

In other words, as climate journalist Amy Westervelt of Drilled News has said, accountability journalism is solutions journalism. That accountability will help us reach more sustainable solutions, help us know when and how to do the hard things, to find the path uphill that was made steeper and more treacherous by those who kept us from preparing and acting earlier.

Truck driving past "caution water over road" sign in Oklahoma
A truck drives past a “Caution Water Over Road” sign in El Reno, Oklahoma, in August 2007.
Credit: FEMA/Marvin Nauman, public domain

For many, the uncertainty of this global moment is fueling high levels of anxiety and a reflexive tendency to pull away from all other humans, especially strangers, and to hoard cleaning supplies and canned foods for ourselves. But I can’t stop thinking about last September, when I sat in a packed hall in Seattle, Washington, listening to author and journalist Naomi Klein on her latest book tour.

A key question for society during the upheaval of these times, she said then, is asking ourselves “what kind of humans we're going to be as we enter the age of climate disruption.” That imperative is no less relevant during the pandemic. “We need to hold on to our humanity as the shocks come and we need to build societies that … value solidarity,” Klein said. “We have to weave that into the kinds of societies we build. And this is why something like healthcare is not an add-on to the Green New Deal.”

The second challenge for getting through the climate crisis and COVID pandemic is holding onto our humanity, and therefore, each other, as we endure both disasters. 

A New Normal That Is Not Normal

I’m writing this from my home in Seattle, which was also home to the first COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Roughly six weeks ago, as I saw my city begin to shut down, to lose its semblance of “normal life,” I was losing my 92-year-old grandmother to congestive heart failure. When she finally passed away, I sat trapped in Seattle, watching her tiny funeral gathering in Dayton, Ohio, live-streamed on my computer screen. I’m a middle-class white woman who already works from home. I am not the most vulnerable, or affected, by either coronavirus or climate change. But the world has fundamentally changed in tragic ways because of both and will continue to change in ways we can’t yet fully know.

Climate scientists for years have spoken of a “new normal” for the super-charged flooding, heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes we’ve been seeing due to climate disruption, a “normal” that is only normal in its extremes and inconsistency.

By all accounts, a similar “new normal that is not normal” is coming this summer and well beyond because of this pandemic. A “new normal” with a lot more face masks, uncertainty, and physical distancing. A “new normal” where communities periodically retreat from spikes in infections, where we curb travel and lock ourselves in our homes, where we delay weddings and live-stream funerals, waiting for widespread testing and an effective vaccine. 

People in face masks in line to enter a market in Angono, Philippines
People wear face masks while lining up to enter the Angono Public Market in Angono, Philippines, on March 24, 2020.
Credit: Philippine News Agency/Joey Razon, public domain

Meanwhile, the very real likelihood that the still-barreling climate crisis will compound coronavirus infections is, frankly, terrifying.

Consider what would have happened if the worst of the recent Australian wildfires took place this March and April, instead of last December and January. What would we have done — what will we do — with the crush of evacuees huddled on beaches, without basic supplies, under the smoky banner of a sky whose color is best described as “apocalyptic red”?

A World on Fire

On her book tour last September, Klein described what she calls the three fires of our time. The first fire, she said, is the at times literal fire of climate disruption. That fire, Australians and plenty others now know very intimately.

However, Klein’s second fire — the global political fires “spreading hatred [and] supremacist logic” — is working in opposition to efforts to extinguish the first fire. Led by strongmen who dismiss the urgency of addressing the climate crisis (and now, in some cases, the coronavirus) the flood of right-wing nationalism across the U.S. and the world promotes a sense that these countries are under siege by outside threats, such as terrorists or immigrants, Klein said, and that the best response is to close their borders to protect against “invaders.” 

This year, we have seen countries close their borders to keep out the legitimate threat of disease but also have seen spikes in racism and xenophobia. Conservative protesters in the U.S., with the backing of far-right groups, are holding angry rallies to “liberate” their states from stay-at-home orders.

The rise of populism across Europe and elsewhere simultaneously has fueled climate science denial. Today, those groups who have downplayed and opposed strong action on the climate crisis often have extensive overlap with those who have downplayed and opposed strong action against the COVID-19 pandemic, with many pressing to quickly reopen the economy. 

A cruel irony is that research suggests the effects of climate change may be spurring the rise of nationalism by causing societies to feel more threatened, and in turn, hunker down against those perceived as outsiders. “Hunkering down” practically has become the mantra of this year as schools, businesses, and entire countries have shut down to care for the infected and prevent the further spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Last fall, the reason Klein said she wasn’t overwhelmed by despair despite the burden of this time is because of a third fire — “our fire.” She ticked off a number of movements unleashing the power of people against the fires of hate and climate change, from the more than 4 million climate strikers last September to the global movement to divest from fossil fuels. The fire of these movements are what give Klein hope that the world will be up to the task of dampening the first two fires. 

Global Strike for Climate in Melbourne, Australia, September 20, 2019
The Global Strike for Climate in Melbourne, Australia, September 20, 2019.
 Credit: julian meehanCC BY 2.0

We need our fires to burn bright and hot enough to clear away all the debris standing in our way,” she said, the debris of the deniers, the distractors, and the doomers. 

This is where a reckoning and accountability on climate and coronavirus are necessary.

Most of all, it needs to be hot enough to clear away the debris of the dividers, turning us against each other when we need to be more united, more powerful than we ever have been before,” Klein concluded. 

This is where holding onto our humanity and each other comes in.

For the marathon we’re facing, we need solidarity,” infectious disease policy expert Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University recently told The Atlantic.

Mary Annaïse Heglar has written about the parallels between climate and coronavirus grief. “We are suffering through a collective trauma. We’re watching our world change, and it feels like it’s falling apart,” she said. We’re mourning many losses right now: loved ones, health, freedom of movement, economic security, peace of mind, and so many gatherings — graduations, vacations, funerals, weddings, reunions. 

We shouldn’t expect to fully process this all by ourselves, and we shouldn’t try. As psychologist Renee Lertzman has said, communities have found solace from ecological grief by finding safe spaces to talk about their losses together. The added kick these days is that we need to find ways to support each other from at least six feet, and sometimes a world, apart.

So, what kind of humans are we going to be in the months and years to come? Will we drop off groceries for vulnerable neighbors, prioritize medical supplies to those who need them most, invest in a just transition away from polluting energy sources, and expand healthcare to better take care of ourselves and our planet?

Will we support the journalists holding the powerful accountable? We will support each other in holding onto our humanity?

Covering Climate Now logoHere at DeSmog, we’re doing our best to rise to the occasion. Seven months and a lifetime later, we’re once again participating in the global journalistic collaboration known as Covering Climate Now to highlight climate solutions 50 years after the first Earth Day. Our climate solutions reporting will look a lot like the type of climate accountability reporting we do day in and day out.

But, then again, I would argue that we can’t get to a healthier, more livable climate without it.

Read more of DeSmog's Covering Climate Now stories on Climate Solutions.

Main image: Sunset through the smoke from British Columbia wildfires over Elliott Bay, Seattle, August 2017. Credit: Crop of image by chelsealwoodCC BY-SA 2.0

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