I’ve spent a lot of time on Twitch since the pandemic started, most notably in the Pokémon GO Battle League sphere, and the phrase “Who was worried?” is a common refrain. It’s a sarcastic comment, uttered by the streamer or someone in Chat, indicating they were very much worried about the final outcome, but are jokingly playing it off as if it were never in doubt.
As far as the future of the planet and life on it is concerned, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe the long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice and that we will act in our best interest to avert a climate disaster. That said, am I worried? To say “no” would be a lie.
Not merely to pile on outside references, but in accounting, the term “going concern” refers to a business that will be able to meet its financial obligations and, well, survive for the foreseeable future. The presumption of going concern is fundamental to the concept of financial reporting. If a company isn’t expecting to be able to go on after a year’s time, that is, needless to say, important information for current or potential investors to know.
Planet Earth is, of course, not a business, but in terms of our ability to inhabit it for the foreseeable future, there is ample room for concern. Quite simply, we are not meeting our obligations as stewards of this big blue marble we call a home, and unfortunately, we are taking other species along with us.
As I’ve discussed in a post from last year, if our collective response to COVID is any indication, there is ample room for worry. That is, if our handling of the pandemic is to be considered a dry run for heading off a climate catastrophe, one can be forgiven for lacking confidence. Broadly speaking, in a time of great need for people, particularly those members of one or more marginalized groups, the response has been to double down on/accelerate the failed policies and systems which helped fuel our initially dilatory reaction to COVID’s spread. From a pure healthcare perspective, patient outcomes have been markedly worse for lower-class Americans and/or Americans of color.
Since the writing of that piece, the proliferation of various versions of the COVID vaccine is undoubtedly encouraging. Just the same, only about half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. What’s more, with the rise of the Delta variant in this country, nearly every state is reporting increases in the number of cases. For all the talk of “getting back to normal” and the idea of the end of the pandemic, it feels like we are celebrating before we’ve crossed the finish line.
After all, outside of America, the COVID picture can be very different. Look at India. Look at the United Kingdom. Look at Brazil. With news of the spread of a Lambda variant in South America and elsewhere—in other words, another mutation—we’re showing that a lot of work still has to be done in terms of vaccination and of promoting behavior/policies designed to limit the spread of infectious diseases.
The degree to which COVID and climate change are interrelated, like many things surrounding this disease, is still being explored. Regarding how climate change impacts the spread of diseases like COVID, while there may not be direct evidence that climate change affects the spread, as animal habitats get destroyed, there is an increased likelihood that pathogens may be spread by different species coming into close contact. How humans raise livestock and consume meat also can contribute to the spread of infections, not to mention limiting our consumption of meat can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
As for the reverse, according to Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists devoted to researching and reporting climate change information to the general public, forced quarantines and a shift toward remote learning/work initially helped curb CO2 emissions, but an end to restrictions and a push to open things back up have all but negated those gains. While, as it must be emphasized, we would or should not encourage a deadly pandemic just to prove a point about climate change, there is a lesson to be learned about how changing how we live our lives can make a quantifiable impact. By focusing on implementing renewable energy sources and electric transportation systems, we can realize the environmental impact so many of us wish to see.
At this stage in the game, however, how we approach both COVID and climate change is not an issue of what we wish to see, but what we need to do. We’re at a tipping point for being able to ensure future generations will have a habitable planet on which to dwell, and right now, we’re not meeting our end of the bargain. Who’s worried? Me, for one, and I know I’m not alone.
If you’ve watched a nightly news program in recent weeks, you’ve probably seen the effects of accelerating and deleterious climate change. Drought. Extreme heat. Floods. Wildfires. Does climate change cause these disasters? No. We’ve had these phenomena on Earth since before the Industrial Revolution. It does make them more probable and severe, though. And it’s liable to only get worse.
As climate journalist Emily Atkin expresses in a recent post on her newsletter HEATED, it’s time for all of us to become climate activists in some shape or form. Telling the tale of Pakistani teenage climate activist Jaweria Baig, a woman who has seen the devastation of climate change in her home country and has consequently chosen the path of activism over her studies, she identifies this moment in time as an all-hands-on-deck scenario. She writes:
In more than a dozen interviews over the last two weeks, activists from across the climate movement have issued a common call to arms: If you have ever thought of becoming more involved in the fight for climate justice, it’s time to stop thinking, and start doing.
The proverbial writing is on the wall. A leaked report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that we’re reaching environmental tipping reports sooner than expected, on top of those shifts which are beyond the point of no return. We can still meet the climate targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, but only if we significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels. This means fighting the fossil fuel industry, a collective which has lobbied and misdirected against environmental action, head on.
As Atkin stresses, even small actions on the part of individuals is needed in the interest of bigger systemic changes. Whether it’s asking Microsoft to reduce its carbon footprint by eliminating corporate flights through the use of its Teams software for meetings instead; pressuring members of Congress to support infrastructure legislation that insists on dramatic and transformational changes to benefit the environment; petitioning advertising agencies and social media platforms to stop working with fossil fuel companies/ban their ads; supporting indigenous groups opposing pipeline projects; or simply donating to causes that promote climate education rather than fossil fuel propaganda, there are contributions to be made without having to become a full-time climate activist. It’s about mobilizing people power and raising our voices to challenge those with the most power to do their part to act before it’s too late.
Atkin closes her post with these serious considerations:
Some people may read this and believe it is pointless. That we are too late. That none of it matters. The fossil fuel industry knows this is not true. Their fear of a determined, pissed off public is why they promoted campaigns of climate denial and “individual responsibility” in the first place. They knew if people were unsure about the problem, they’d waste time fighting about it instead of mobilizing to fix it. They knew if people were confused about the solution, they’d waste time trying to change themselves and each other instead of the system.
However worse the climate crisis gets now depends on how quickly society transforms. How quickly society transforms depends on how many people demand it. The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.
We all have in a stake in this, especially those of us who will still be around to see the impacts of a worsening global climate. The pandemic is an opportunity to start working together on an international basis and prepare for the bigger threat facing humanity, not to engage in tribalism and “America First” rhetoric, especially when our own human rights record and role in pollution is certainly not above reproach. If we don’t take that opportunity, the planet will survive, but our future very much is in doubt.