Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Our sick Earth. (Image: Sarah Grice via Flickr)

The Covid-19 pandemic has called on each of us to respond in ways that most of us never anticipated. Similarly, there will be little about our gradual return to our daily lives that will feel normal. Nor should they, since medical experts caution that a return to normal endangers all of us.

We know this about Covid-19.

But do we hear this in the frequent warnings about climate change? Do we understand that a return to our normal ways of burning fossil fuels endangers all of us, too? As we envision our post-pandemic future, I hope we will display the foresight and demonstrate the courage to act in the face of these warnings to ward off the dire consequences of climate change. To do this, we will need to weave into our public and personal actions a Page One awareness of the harm that all of us will encounter if, after our Covid-19 retreat, we revert to our previous consumption of energy powered by fossil fuels.

Just as returning to normal isn’t an option with Covid-19, it can’t be an option with climate change, either.

With virus-like efficiency, the Earth’s temperature is rising as byproducts of the burning of fossil fuels invade and threaten human existence in progressively consequential ways. Covid-19 places in stark relief our racial and class inequities in those most harmed by this virus, as these people, too, are most vulnerable to the damaging, life-changing effects of climate change. Science shows us how exposure to minuscule particles of air pollutants increases the incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and we’ve seen how those illnesses have rendered people who are most economically distressed and people of color more prone to sickness and death from Covid-19.

As this circle of Covid-19 and climate change turns, our need intensifies to insist that our city’s post-Covid-19 transition protect the vulnerable among us while we rapidly accelerate our move off of fossil fuels.

Yes, unemployment is at record highs. Yes, the pandemic has lessened our city’s economic resources. Yes, to the many valid excuses that will be presented to tell us why this is not the time to act decisively and justly to create this sustainable normal for our city.

Yet, if we fail to act now, the tipping point of climate change will descend on us as this pandemic did. Some will ask then, why, if we knew of these dangers, we didn’t act to prevent their destructiveness? In these queries we will hear echoes of today when scientists who saw global pandemics coming – and warned us – ask why we didn’t prepare? Already, children around the globe are asking us this about climate change.

Author Rebecca Solnit, who has tracked human responses to disaster, spoke recently on WBUR’s “On Point” about what constitutes hope in the midst of disaster.

“What I call hope is really just full recognition of the unpredictability of the future … my vision of hope is a sense of radical uncertainty, with the possibility of intervention, to shape the future,” she said. Then, applying the wisdom gained by her studies of past disasters, she spoke about the “radical uncertainty” inherent in our present pandemic:

“Disasters shake things loose. And the things that we regarded as fixed and unchangeable can suddenly be changed. It’s been fascinating seeing people in power suddenly say, ‘Well, actually, we can put all these homeless people up in hotels. Actually, we can change unemployment insurance and sick leave. Actually, we can find $3 trillion to throw at a problem.

“You know, this sense that suddenly everything can be profoundly different because something terrible has happened does remind us that everything can be profoundly different, maybe even not just because something terrible has happened. The powerful are often scrambling to restore a status quo that worked very well for them. The less powerful are often saying, ‘Wow, everything has changed. We’re not ready to change it all back.’”

Here’s hoping that Cambridge residents are ready to say to our elected representatives: “Wow, everything has changed. Now let’s keep going.”

Once they hear us, let’s hope they – and we –will act.

Melissa Ludtke is a journalist and author who is writing her third book, “Locker Room Talk: A Woman’s Struggle to Get Inside,” and a member of Cambridge Mothers Out Front.