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'I Don’t Want This To Be My Reality': How The Pandemic Is A Preview For Climate Change

Jenny G. Shao
View of nearly empty streets of Oakland from inside BART during morning commuter hours on Mar. 25, 2020.

Life may feel like it’s on pause because of COVID-19. But climate change isn’t paused. How is the pandemic affecting the climate and the people working on solutions? 

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This story is part of a series about the emotional toll of climate change. Click here to listen to full episodes.

There’s a short story by Ray Bradbury I read as a kid that’s haunted me ever since. It takes place on a planet where it rains almost all the time and the sun only comes out once every seven years. In the story, a group of school children are getting ready to go outside for a brief window of sunshine. 

But a bully locks one of his classmates in the closet and she misses getting to the sun.

Whenever I worry about what life will be like with climate change, I think about the girl in that story and her grief. Scientists have warned us that with climate change, the temperatures will become more extreme, the wildfires more severe, the weather more unpredictable. My fear is that we’ll all have to live inside, stuck at home. 

So it was a strange circumstance this spring to find myself confronting that reality, not because of climate change, but because of COVID-19. 

The threat lurking outside wasn’t hurricanes or wildfire smoke, but a new virus. The Bay Area ‘sheltered in place.’ Those that could work from home did. And like most people, I worried. I worried about my loved ones getting sick, about not being able to leave my house. And I worried, would we all be so distracted — understandably — by the COVID-19 crisis that we’d stop doing the work to avoid the climate crisis? It turns out though that the two crises are interconnected. And our response to the pandemic just may teach us something about what’s in store with climate change. 

I want to be clear upfront: a pandemic cannot be “good” for the environment because it’s not good for humans. But while we hide inside, things are looking a little brighter outside. Cities around the world have reported less air pollution from car commuting. With quieter streets, residents started noticing the birds singing more. 

After one too many “Nature is healing, We are the virus” posts, I was skeptical. So I called up Catalina Garzón-Galvis, senior health educator with Tracking California, an organization that collects health and environment data for the state. 

"We may be actually getting more emissions than usual in some places." - Catalina Garzon-Galviz

“There has been a reduction in pollution from ports and freeways due to declines in commuter traffic,” she says. And people are thinking more locally, as indicated by a renewed interest in gardening and supporting Community Supported Agriculture. A spokesperson for Recology, San Francisco’s waste management service, told me that composting in the city has gone way up.

More people are also turning to the outdoors for recreation. Garzón-Galvis points out that cities are prioritizing bikers and pedestrians in some places, by shutting down streets to car traffic.

The outdoors are the new indoors. I don’t know about you but my little backyard has become my new living room. It’s the least risky place to have my mom over for dinner. So in the U.S., ‘sheltering in place’ hasn’t meant we’re stuck indoors like I’d feared. We’re actually encouraged to go outside. 

But it’s not all blue skies. Garzón-Galvis says, even though pollution from car commutes is down, “in communities close to industrial quarters where essential industries like refineries operate, we still see hotspots of pollution.” She says facilities that provide essential services might have actually increased production. Plus people are shopping more online, so there’s an increase in traffic going in and out of warehouses and distribution centers. “We may be actually getting more emissions than usual in some places.”

A Stanford University study showed that methane emissions – from things like cattle farms and oil production, that are significant contributors to global warming – are reaching record levels this year - despite the pandemic. So, crisis not averted.

In fact, the climate crisis is already here. We see it in the Bay Area in the form of more heatwaves and devastating wildfires. In previous years, public health officials set up shelters for people who had to evacuate their homes during a wildfire and cooling centers for people to ride out heatwaves. We might have escaped to our air-conditioned offices, the library, or a movie theater to get some respite from the heat or the bad air. This year, that won’t be possible. 

That has Dr. Linda Rudolph, a physician with the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute, worried.

“People in the public health community are really trying to figure out what it means to respond to a wildfire event or a hurricane or an extreme heat event during the time of COVID,” she says. In preparation for the wildfire season, public health officials have had to come up with new shelter plans so if forced to evacuate, people can still maintain social distance.

“These are times when we also see increases in the number of people going to the emergency room to address the impacts of heat or wildfire smoke,” she says. “And there's already concerns about the stresses and strains on our healthcare system because of the pandemic.”

Plus if you have underlying conditions like asthma or heart disease, wildfire smoke is particularly dangerous. “That's also one of the contributing factors to the worse outcomes with COVID in black and brown communities,” Rudolph notes, because people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with more air pollution, like near a freeway, heavy industry, or commercial port.

"We're going to have a vaccine for COVID, but we're not going to have a vaccine for air pollution." - Miss Margaret Gordon

“That is the biggest health situation: what’s outdoors is coming indoors,” says Miss Margaret Gordon, co-founder of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. She has been sounding this alarm for years. 

“Communities like West Oakland were already disproportionately impacted by health issues prior to COVID,” she says. "Now it's just one more thing to add to the devastation or the demise of a community. It’s more thing that we have to worry about.” 

Gordon says while the government’s response to COVID-19 hasn’t been a great success, it’s still better than what she’s seen in response to the climate crisis.

“We’re going to have a vaccine for COVID, but we're not gonna have a vaccine for air pollution. We will not have a complete structure for how to deal with climate justice.”

Gordon says her organizing work hasn’t slowed down at all with COVID-19; it’s just a lot more meetings over Zoom. I am curious how the pandemic has impacted other climate justice activists. Do they feel like everyone is too distracted by COVID-19 to think about climate change? 

“The ‘symptoms’ of COVID are very similar to the symptoms of climate change. We're stuck indoors; there's this economic collapse that's happening; it's disproportionately impacting black and brown people and low income folks.” - Isha Clarke

"In the beginning, it sucked,” says Isha Clarke, co-founder of Bay Area’s Youth Vs Apocalypse. Clarke worried her organization would have to completely reimagine activism. 

If you know who Greta Thurnberg is, then you need to know who Isha Clarke is. Or maybe you’ve already seen the viral video of her and a group of activists giving a copy of the Green New Deal to Senator Feinstein. Clarke, a recent graduate of MetWest High School, was born and raised in Oakland, and has been organizing around climate justice issues since she was a freshman. 

Clarke says the tools that she and other activists normally rely on, like the large in-person climate marches they’ve organized in years past, don’t feel possible now. So her group has turned to social media to engage people while sheltering in place. They’re still figuring it out.

But one thing she calls “strangely hopeful” is that she’s seeing the pandemic be a wake-up call for people. She says there’s this “general awareness of insecurity right now.” People are scared and “viscerally experiencing what we've been talking about for a long time.”

For me, I think all the emotions I have right now because of the pandemic — sadness over people dying, rage over the injustice of who gets sick, anxiety because of our uncertain future — these are all emotions I expected to feel with climate change. 

“The ‘symptoms’ of COVID are very similar to the symptoms of climate change,” Clarke says. “We're stuck indoors; there's this economic collapse that's happening; it's disproportionately impacting black and brown people, low-income folks, and indigenous people.” 

Because of that, Clarke says, she sees people connecting the dots from the injustices of COVID-19 to police violence to climate change. She sees these issues as stemming from the same systems of oppression. And because of that, she says, “the real climate justice work is about dismantling those larger systems of oppression in every way that they exist.”

The pandemic has been like a test run for climate change, and the test run isn’t going well. 

“Experts knew for decades that we were likely to have a pandemic,” says Dr. Linda Rudolph. “We didn't prepare adequately and even once it was upon us, we didn't respond with the urgency or the robust response that was required to really prevent catastrophic impacts. We're going down that same path right now, with climate change and health.”

Clarke agrees and she hopes that galvanizes people. “The pandemic is something that is containable. But if we don't take action on climate change right now, this what we're living through will become a new reality for human beings. I don't want this to be my reality.”

Crosscurrents Climate