There is no problem. There is a problem, but it’s not our fault. There is a problem, but it’s not that big a deal… This is a huge problem, but there is nothing we can do! Let’s just enjoy ourselves…

This seems to be the arc of awareness for some of us on both climate change and the coronavirus. We have gone from denying it to questioning its origins to believing in it, while also absolving ourselves from any responsibility for it. The common factor in all of these is that they eliminate the need for our own responsibility and action.

To me, this is the impact of Barry Rueger’s recent piece, “It’s Too Late For Us To Fight Climate Change”. He describes climate change as “unstoppable”, placing the blame on governments and corporations for their refusal to address and stop climate change. He explains to us that, instead of addressing the issue of climate change, he and his wife are going to move to the country to be insulated from the real challenges that will come. He actually writes, “We’ll grow old gracefully, and will leave it to someone else to try and avoid disaster. At this point we’ve decided that as long as they can postpone the collapse until we’re dead, we’ll be OK.”

This lack of responsibility seems to be the attitude of those people who, on hearing the news about coronavirus and being asked to work from home, went out to the bars this past weekend across Chicago to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. These people must either not believe the seriousness of this crisis, believe that there is nothing they can do about it, or simply be absorbed in their own egos to the extent that they cannot focus on anyone else’s needs.

My first reaction on seeing these bar hoppers in Chicago and reading Mr. Rueger’s statement is to rage at the unbelievable hubris. How could you ignore the vulnerability of the elderly and sick in your community? How could you possibly describe your aging as “graceful” when you assume that others around you will be suffering? How could you absent yourself from the horrible reality you assume others will encounter because of climate change? How could you ignore your ability to pass a deadly disease on to the vulnerable around you? Only someone who has had the advantage of envisioning their life, and who has the money to shape their life to that vision, could come to such conclusions. And frankly, it is usually white men like Mr. Rueger or, to be clear, like myself, who have the experiences of privilege to come to such beliefs and worldviews. It is just such worldviews that have brought us to the precipice of disaster — the view that we must look out only for ourselves and our families, that we must be concerned with our individual rights rather than our collective flourishing.

In addition, Mr. Rueger’s conclusion about climate change is based on a premise that is factually inaccurate. There is no single point when climate change will become “unstoppable”. Climate change is a series of events over a lengthy period of time. There may be some tipping points after which change proceeds faster than normal, but there is no single point after which all is lost. The media and activist focus on a 1.5 or 2 degree limit may be feeding some of this “point of no return” narrative, but as CarbonBrief reports, it is demonstrably true that 1.5 degrees of warming is different than 2 degrees of warming, which is different than 5 degrees of warming. And any point when we stop spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will be a meaningful point, whether it is caused by our own decision or by societal collapse. Fortunately, U.S. society is becoming more and more ripe for us to make the decision. Understanding the reality of climate change has gone from the margins of U.S. society to the mainstream. Two-thirds of Americans believe it is happening. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, more than half of Americans are alarmed or concerned about climate change with the alarmed group growing from 11% of Americans 5 years ago to 31% of Americans today. There is momentum to address climate change. The fact that we have not chosen to act until now does not change the fact that we must act now, and the fact that action is becoming more and more politically feasible.  

There is also no single point at which the coronavirus becomes “unstoppable”. We can always make a choice to be responsible for our community and those who are vulnerable in it. We can’t know for certain what comes next in the spiraling chain of events that makes up this emergency. But we can know that our individual and societal choices to stay apart physically at any point can guard the safety of our elderly and immunocompromised community members.

Although Mr. Rueger’s privileged despair and the seeming carelessness of people going out for St. Patrick’s Day initially drove me to rage, I must acknowledge that despair is caused by fear. I must admit that sometimes bravado and fearlessness are used to mask fear. And I must admit that I am also afraid — afraid of both climate change and the coronavirus. When fear becomes overwhelming, giving up can seem the better option than trying to hold onto hope. But I cannot let myself give into despair. I cannot forget my daughter and any children she may have one day. I cannot forget the students I taught, many of whom could not pick up and relocate to avoid the worst effects of climate change or COVID-19. I cannot forget my elderly community and family members who worked hard their whole lives to give us when we now have. I cannot forget the people marginalized in our country by issues of class, race, gender, immigration status and on and on.

I acknowledge the fear, the despair, the rage. I feel all of those things. And yet, I can’t let them be my only truth. We cannot flee from one another into the wilderness. Even if we save our own lives, that life is itself a kind of death. We cannot choose ourselves. We must choose one another.

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