As the COVID crisis began to bite in Central Illinois this past spring, my Introduction to Cultural Geography students packed up their belongings, left campus, and settled into whatever housing they could, where, among myriad other tasks, they completed their current events papers for my course. Several of them centered those papers on a developing media narrative: perhaps Covid-19 held a silver lining for the environment, including the climate, as humans’ greenhouse gas emissions plummeted around the globe. Satellite images and photographs attested to the impact of those reduced emissions, including lower smog levels and new, stunningly clear sightlines. These stories were among the few hopeful early takes on the pandemic gripping the globe.
Unfortunately, as the students who stuck diligently with these projects realized by the end of the semester, the virus-related reprieve in emissions, while locally meaningful in many places, would barely affect the progression of human-induced climate change through the rough summer of 2020. Before they returned to classes in the fall, in many cases remotely, the same news media they had followed carried stories of a major new ice loss in Canada and record temperatures in Siberia and Death Valley – perhaps a new high globally in recorded history.
And yet, in other ways the COVID crisis does have connections with the climate crisis - connections that are worth contemplating.
- For one, researchers have long predicted the rise of new diseases and changing disease vectors as a byproduct of climate change and related human encroachment on once-wild lands and nonhuman populations. Arguably more saliently for many Americans, however, the uneven impacts of Covid-19 and the difficulty its containment has posed lay bare two crucial sets of pre-existing conditions – pertaining at the societal rather than the individual level – which have fueled and shaped the tragedy of the pandemic. The first, of course, are the massive social inequalities, so deeply seated in the US, which have led to disproportionately high rates of illness, death, and economic loss for people of color in connection with the virus.
- The second is the legacy of decades during which both major political parties, albeit one arguably rather more than the other, have participated in the shearing away of public sector capacities and the “safety nets” that once protected many more privileged American workers from periodic, inevitable crises. It has become increasingly clear over the last decade that these two societal disease factors also lie at the core of our longstanding difficulties responding to climate change in an effective and inclusive manner. How are we to transition to a clean energy future, for instance, when we struggle to provide pathways for worker re-training?
The world-engulfing spread of Covid-19 and my students’ search for hope in its wake this spring happened to coincide with the rather quieter release of my new book “Struggles For Climate Justice.” That book examines the underpinnings of the climate crisis and its starkly uneven geographies of responsibility and impact, through case studies centered on efforts to achieve “climate justice” led largely by NGOs and social movement groups (many, in turn, led by members of the same marginalized groups disproportionately affected by COVID). The story of climate injustice is another deeply troubling one: while undeniably global in its reach and mechanisms, those impacted first and worst by climate change are also those least responsible for its human origins in rising greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, those emissions have been correlated, across human history, with the accrual and exercise of social power, along numerous axes of difference.
At the same time, however, mobilizations for climate justice teach and inspire, in ways we deeply need. Check out the climate justice work of The NAACP, for instance, which shows how climate change is a civil rights issue – and leverages that organization’s storied legacy in legal and social advocacy to broaden understanding of, and more fairly address the climate crisis. Or take a look at It Takes Roots and Our Children’s Trust, two organizations with their own different but arguably equally inspired and inspiring visions for achieving climate justice. In their analyses and proposals, these and other CJ organizations show the depth of the moral case to act on climate change, and the fecundity that the human imagination – when we include its wide variety – can offer for charting pathways forward.
The COVID crisis has torn the scales from many American eyes: making clear the dire need for public institutions that can act effectively and equitably in the face of calamities against which private enterprises lack any incentive to respond similarly. The ongoing round of Black Lives Matter protests and allied efforts sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, show that most Americans value social justice, and remind us of the impact broad-based and sustained public pressure can achieve. Finally, climate justice work shows that – like COVID and racial inequality – environmental problems are inextricably bound up with social relations, and that we must understand and address the connections between them, or resign ourselves to a dangerous and deeply unjust world.
COVID won’t save us from climate change, but the crises it has unleashed can help us understand those surrounding the climate, and perhaps help provide the impetus we need to meet them. That is, we can learn from Covid-19 and the concurrent reckoning with racial injustice, even as we struggle through them, in ways we can use to finally directly address climate change, recognizing and helping to redress our underlying inequalities and neglected collective capacities. Indeed, we must lean these tough lessons, so that we can move forward together.
Dr. Brandon Derman, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, received his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Washington in 2015. His scholarly and teaching interests center on the production, regulation, and contestation of environmental marginality at scales from the globe to the neighborhood. His current research examines the framing of nature-society relations in climate change law, governance, and social mobilization, and the political opportunities that situate participation by historically-marginalized groups in climate and sustainable development policy making.
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