Burning Questions Part II: COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis
When Aman Sharma was a child, one of his favorite things to do was go up to his rooftop in New Delhi, India, and count the stars with his father – or so he’s told. “It was always just a black, plain, dark, smoggy and foggy sky for me, as far as I can remember,” says Sharma, now 17. He remembers the sweet moments shared with his dad, how they would even sleep on their roof to enjoy the evening air. But he could never recall the stars. Their luminosity, their brilliance, their hope – all was obscured for Sharma as the years ticked by and the sky turned more opaque. That is, until the world seemed to stop turning. Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sharma found a single moment of solace. He returned to his roof, surprised to see the friends he’d forgotten: the stars.
I spoke to Sharma during the early morning hours on a day in late April. I hoped he wouldn’t hear the sleep working its way out of my voice. As soon as he began to describe his sky, I knew he’d never know mine was still dark. We shared a sense of rare calmness in the world around us, “finally,” as he put it.
But Sharma is well-aware his newfound view is made possible by a nationwide halt in all activity, and beyond his oasis, the world is in a state of crisis. In March and April, India underwent a 21-day lockdown due to COVID-19, a decision that would impact the livelihood of millions. Although India reached new extremes with its response to the coronavirus pandemic, Sharma says the concept of quarantine itself is not new to him or his peers: “For me, it happens two or three times every year because of pollution, because of heat waves.” Each time, Sharma is sent home from school for a stretch of weeks simply because the air is not safe enough to breathe. “It’s said that [the pollution] is going to affect our lungs,” Sharma says, “that five to six years of my life are going to be cut out because of the amount of pollution in Delhi.”
But as Sharma guessed, the new reality of quarantine is hitting everyone differently. Each day, the global death toll rises, and the economy sinks further into unrecognizable territory. Some hide from the deluge of news and updates, while others have no choice but to face the illness and death of family members and friends. And still many put themselves at risk as they head into work each day, providing essential services from sanitation work to healthcare.
No matter the experience, coronavirus is top of mind. For climate activists, there is nothing more important than this pandemic and its fallout. To this group, the two crises are inseparable.
In April, The Tylt asked its audience: “Which is your greater concern: the climate or COVID-19?” So far, 78 percent of respondents in the U.S. voted in favor of the climate crisis over COVID-19. Overall, voters are more concerned about the battle waiting on the other side of the current pandemic, but sentiment differs within each region of the United States. In Portland, Oregon, an area susceptible to rising temperatures, rising sea levels and more severe wildfires, voters are over 13 times more concerned for the climate crisis than they are about COVID-19. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, voters’ concern for the climate is only 2.4 times their concern for COVID-19. Although Atlanta residents see the impacts of rising temperatures, their increased worry for coronavirus might reflect Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to be the first state to reopen certain businesses – against the advice of health experts.
Some regions felt tepid about both crises. Houston, Texas is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., but it ranked 18th in this poll’s respondents. Houston has been ravaged by severe hurricanes, flooding and rising temperatures, and, like Georgia, Texas is beginning the process of reopening businesses in the midst of the pandemic.
For decades, activists have been sounding the warning bell when it comes to climate change. The movement celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, an occasion that would have been marked with a week’s worth of actions: strikes, non-violent demonstrations and more were planned across the globe. New York groups hoped to march from the East River to the Hudson, the length of Manhattan, while activists in the Philippines planned to conduct climate justice-themed flash mobs in their schools. But before any of these plans took place, in-person gatherings became impossible, changing the very foundation of the youth-led climate movement.
Shiv Soin, 19, a climate activist based in New York City and founder of Treeage, one of six organizations within the New York City Climate Coalition, was one of the many young people working towards a historic “Earth Week.” A student at New York University, Soin called me from his home in New Jersey, where he has been quarantined since NYU canceled in-person classes. Soin says the Coalition reached the conclusion to recreate a “digital” strike for Earth Day fairly quickly: “It sounds silly to say but we just care about people’s safety. We’re not going to put anyone at risk.” Although the question of “how” remained, for many in the climate community, the decision to cancel all in-person Earth Week events was obvious.
Not only did the next global climate strike need to change its infrastructure, it also needed to shift its focus. For many activists, the pandemic put the climate crisis in a new light. Some have rearranged their priorities to concentrate on the fallout from COVID-19, while others continue to fight for green solutions to the ongoing economic crisis. “Earth Week” became “Earth Day Live 2020,” a 72-hour live stream taking place on April 22-24. The new message revolved around highlighting the connections between COVID-19 and the climate crisis.
For one, Soin tells me, they both have a disproportionate impact on lower-income communities, people of color and indigenous communities. Soin uses New York City as an example: “The people who are impacted the most by the climate crisis are the ones in Queens and south Bronx.” These neighborhoods have the highest asthma rates in the city, and, unsurprisingly, experience a level of poor air quality not seen in other boroughs. “These are also the places with the most people of color and the most low-income people in all of New York City,” Soin adds. And according to a map released by The New York Times, neighborhoods in Queens and the south Bronx remain the hardest hit by the coronavirus.
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and climate change on marginalized groups is not unique to the United States. According to Mitzi Tan, 22, the relationship between the two crises and the communities they touch the most is universal. A native of Manila, Philippines, Tan is on the frontlines of climate change, but even she admits the farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous communities in the Filipino provinces see the consequences of the climate crisis before anyone else, as they contend with deadly typhoons and rising sea levels. Climate change will have a direct impact on the livelihood of these communities, just as COVID-19 is having right now. According to Tan, the urban poor in the provincial communities, unable to work, are more afraid of starving than they are of the pandemic, a decision, Tan says, they should never have to make.
In the Philippines, Tan believes the situation has been made worse by the government’s response. In late April, the United Nations flagged fifteen countries where emergency powers were being abused under the guise of urgent pandemic response; the Philippines was among them. “Instead of mass tests, we have had mass arrests,” Tan tells me. According to Reuters, Philippines President Rodrigo Duerte threatened martial law on April 24 against what he called “communist rebels,” claiming these groups interfered in aid to other Filipinos.
Tan, who founded an organization called Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, says these threats from the president have halted her group’s attempts to share relief packages with fishing communities in need. The weekend prior to our conversation, Tan’s organization passed out rice and vegetables to a local group of fishermen, while one of their partner organizations attempted to do the same in a different fishing and farming community. “They were arrested and tagged as terrorists,” Tan says, “They were telling the community how the government is responding [to the coronavirus] is not the right response – that it’s not enough.” Tan says YACAP has paused passing out its own relief packages as a result.
Again and again, the people in need of the most assistance amidst these two crises are left to fend for themselves. When it comes to the climate crisis, young people’s patience for worldwide leaders to respond has nearly run out. According to one poll from The Tylt, nearly 84 percent of voters say they do not trust leaders to combat the climate crisis. For Tan and Soin, their governments’ responses to COVID-19 is, tragically, just as disappointing.
But strategies to support those most impacted by these crises do exist, and these activists are working around the clock to help the public understand how they might be implemented. “The actions that we should be taking in the COVID-19 pandemic are the actions we should be taking with the climate crisis,” Soin says. “If we want to solve this pandemic, we give people human rights.” Affordable healthcare, access to food and access to shelter: Soin points out that each of these remedies are essential when responding to the pandemic and to the climate crisis.
The CARES Act was the United States’ first stimulus package aimed at supporting parties directly impacted by the coronavirus, including local governments, companies and individuals. However, the package has been largely criticized as a corporate bailout first, and one that leaves the bulk of American citizens behind. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a hero to many climate activists and representative of New York’s 14th Congressional District in the Bronx and Queens, has called the bill a “$4 trillion corporate slush fund,” arguing that it hardly helps everyday people pay their rent, their bills or cover their groceries.
Even the youth demands during Earth Day Live were adjusted to include “A People’s Bailout,” making clear that people are at the heart of the climate movement; they are its driving force. The demand reads, “In the short term, we need a People’s Bailout prioritizing and funding those who have been hit first and worst by COVID-19 and the current recession including, but not limited to, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income communities.”
Climate activists desperately want leaders to see the need for green solutions to the economic disparity caused by COVID-19. Soin decries bailouts for the fossil fuel industry, while Sharma fears increased deforestation in order to jumpstart the economy. As Tan puts it, “oil companies are already telling their leaders they have to be there [when the economy is rebuilt]....Since they’re not going away...the youth and the Filipino youth have no choice but to keep going and to keep calling for climate justice,” a sentiment shared by Soin and Sharma.
But for some activists, addressing the “people’s bailout” has become the priority. As Jansikwe Medina-Tayac, 18, the Zero Hour chapter lead in Washington D.C., told me over the phone, some activists feel their efforts would be better spent supporting the immediate needs of their communities. Medina-Tayac says a few of her peers in Zero Hour will focus on ways they can help their own neighborhoods in the near-term, while letting “National take all the climate justice stuff for now.” The way she sees it, recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic will be an arduous process, yet the climate crisis still looms in the immediate future.
In Oregon, Asukulu Songolo, 17, also chooses to focus his efforts on his own community. Based in Portland, Songolo is the son of Congolese refugees. In 2019 he founded The Congo Peace Project in order to promote education and menstrual equity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But COVID-19 and the climate crisis have put an unexpected wrinkle in his work: On April 16, a flood in the eastern region of the Congo, where Songolo’s family still lives, killed at least 25 people and displaced thousands.
“That sort of flooding has never happened within that region,” Songolo tells me, calling the event a “climate disaster.” As a result, Songolo’s family is one of many taking in dozens of displaced neighbors at a time. In a three-bedroom home, this makes social distancing impossible. Songolo says his organization is mobilizing rapidly to raise money for families experiencing “the very dramatic loss that is natural disasters, while also coping with a global pandemic.”
It is a false notion that the halt in activity worldwide caused by the coronavirus will resolve the climate crisis. According to NPR, the International Energy Agency predicts carbon emissions will fall by nearly 8 percent this year, a record accomplishment. But the world would need to cut emissions by this much every year for the next decade in order to limit global warming to pre-industrial temperatures.
“We have until 2030 to prevent massive destruction, massive economic loss, job losses,” Soin tells me, the desperation rising in his voice. “We want people to be as sustainable as possible, we want a better planet, but we also want a better future.”
Soin, Sharma, Tan, Medina-Tayac and Songolo each come from different places and backgrounds, but they all share the same concern: The issues they see today have been happening since before they were born. The novel coronavirus exposes problems of old, from centuries of inequality to decades-long wars. But the world’s solutions to the current pandemic and its consequences will determine the future for decades more, shaping the lives of generations well after Gen Z.
This so-called “uncertain time” acknowledges what the climate movement has known to be true for decades: The future, without action, is blank – an emptiness shaped by the global response today. The “uncertainty” euphemism so frequently used to express empathy for a world in peril is an insult to the very systems overwhelmed and collapsing around us – today to COVID-19, but tomorrow to the climate crisis.
As made clear by these conversations, youth around the world are quite familiar with crisis and the momentary reprieve that eventually follows. In the United States, young people have been shaped by at least one national crisis per decade, from the September 11 attacks to the Great Recession, and now COVID-19. The next historic event always comes – different but no less devastating than the last. Younger generations’ action reflects a common sentiment: There is no time to wait. The moment of inflection has arrived.
“Activism needs to transition from just environmental justice to social justice,” Sharma tells me, acknowledging that the families broken apart by the coronavirus pandemic must be protected. “[The pandemic] has shown us that if we want, we have the ability to come together to make a difference, to unite in solidarity for the people across the world.” The climate movement is uniting in that very interest: to bring relief to people in the present and to protect them in the future.