— NaomiOreskes (@NaomiOreskes) June 17, 2020
By CRAIG S ALTEMOSE (Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project, the home of 350 Massachusetts, Divest Ed, and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW).
Two key lessons are immediately apparent. First, we ignore expert guidance at our peril. For decades, public health experts had been warning about society’s potential exposure to a pandemic, and the need to build in appropriate safeguards, procedures, and supply chains.
The second major lesson Covid-19 is teaching us is that while natural threats — be they pandemics or climate crises — are not racist, when these threats encounter racist systems, they produce racist results.
This has been proven tragically, though not surprisingly to anyone paying attention to racial dynamics in society, as African-Americans, indigenous groups, and other traditionally marginalized groups continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of Covid-19 impacts. Nationally, Navajo Nation has surpassed New York as the most directly affected (per-capita) state/territory in the nation. In Boston, for instance, African American residents make up 22 percent of the population, but as of late April they accounted for 42 percent of Boston’s COVID-19 cases.
Again, the virus is not racist, but when African-Americans live in a racist society, their risks of exposure are much greater. The jobs that have been easiest to transition to working remotely during the pandemic are professional, or “white collar” professions; they could just as easily be categorized by the color of the skins as the color of the collars of the majority of people in this grouping.
So what is the lesson here for the climate movement? All parts of our work, from fossil fuel pollution to the clean energy economy to preparing for climate impacts, all of these things exist and will continue to exist in a racist society. So when we apply a race-neutral lens to a racist society, we will continue to produce racist outcomes.
In short, we need to reduce pollution much more quickly than most care to admit, and we must do it in with a strong, anti-racist lens that centers the voices, experiences, and needs of black, indigenous, Latinx, and other traditionally marginalized groups. This will not be easy. In fact, it will be incredibly hard. But climate change, like the coronavirus, does not care for the difficulty of the task before us. It simply asks the question: will we rise to the occasion, and be our best selves? Or will we ignore experts, dither and delay, and then express surprise and remorse when disaster strikes and hits black and brown communities first and worst?