What We Build From the Ashes

Untitled (Walnut Tree), Walnut Cove, North Carolina, USA, 2018.

 

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

PHOTOGRAPH BY WILL WARASILA

We can’t let the never-ending flames of 2020 be the end. From their ashes, we can rebuild a new world. That’s what many advocates and experts are now demanding. This week’s final edition of The Frontline dives into the rare opportunity this year offers.

WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES

PHOTOGRAPH BY WILL WARASILA

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For most of human history, fire was an essential part of a forest’s lifecycle. Indigenous people have long burned lands across the globe to aid in an ecosystem’s replenishment. What’s more, nutrients flourish in a fire’s aftermath while also preventing the build-up of leaves as fuel that is often behind the gigantic blazes we now see.

 

This feels like the perfect metaphor for what needs to happen in the new year after all the burning we saw in 2020. After all, we’ve already established forests weren’t the only places to burn this year; entire societal structures did, too. Injustice has reigned for far too long. What we decide to sculpt out of the ashes will determine the future of frontline communities.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, your daily reminder that the warming of the world is unjust. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. This week’s final newsletter explores the rare opportunity a year from hell has given us. At this point, we should all see how our economic and societal systems are failing us. In their economic response to COVID-19, leaders can shift the current trajectory we’re on. When it comes to moving forward, many experts—from the public health to energy sectors—have outlined exactly what to do: Leaders can pull people out of financial hardship while also paving a path to lower inequality, combat white supremacy, and prevent climate calamity all at once. All they have to do is listen.

 

 

 

 

On Wednesday, the United Nations released a report concluding that a green recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic may be the world’s best way of avoiding a disastrous rise in global temperature. We’re currently on track to see Earth become 3.2 degrees Celsius (5.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by the end of the century if we continue with business as usual. That’s… a lot of heat—more than enough to exacerbate the extinction crisis unraveling around the globe and to make some parts of the world uninhabitable. 

 

Remember, climate change is already killing people. The weekly, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet published its fifth annual report on health and climate change last week (which I hosted a panel on), and the findings were damning: Nearly 300,000 people above the age of 65 died in 2018 due to heat. Now, imagine what’ll happen if the world warms even more? The Lancet report had some pretty clear recommendations to avoid worse outcomes: end fossil fuel subsidies, move to zero-carbon electricity, invest in public health, and more.

“There was already talk of the need for an equitable and just green stimulus package. COVID-19 shined a spotlight on the urgency of that need.”

CATHLEEN KELLY
CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS

“With the loss of life from the pandemic and from climate change measured in the hundreds of thousands, the potential economic costs measured in the trillions, and the broader consequences expected to continue for years to come, the measures taken to address both of these public health crises must be carefully examined and closely linked,” the report reads.

 

Neither the United Nations nor The Lancet is the first to suggest world leaders use their economic response to the pandemic to address the climate crisis and inequality all at once. Advocates have been making these demands for years. In 2018, the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform was born out of a coalition that includes the Center for American Progress; the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy; and local environmental justice organizations such as the Midwest Environmental Justice Network and the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance. Even back then, folks were asking leaders to develop an economy that puts people first—not profits.

 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really pulled back the covers on the reality that systemic racism and economic equality have created disastrous and dangerous conditions in low-income communities and communities of color,” says Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who served on the Obama administration. “There was already talk of the need for an equitable and just green stimulus package. COVID-19 shined a spotlight on the urgency of that need.”

 

That’s why 2020 has seen advocates come out from all fields to demand a just transition away from fossil fuels and an invest-divest model that better prioritizes the health and needs of frontline communities. As early as March, experts—which included marine scientists, professors, electricians, and doctors—wrote a letter to Congress demanding its members take action to invest in clean energy and jobs as part of a joint response to the pandemic, climate, and racism. 

 

But the idea here is pretty simple: The transition away from fossil fuels will directly improve the health of communities who live near the industry’s polluting power plants and refineries. If leaders create new, well-paying jobs in the clean energy sector to replace fossil fuels, they could prioritize training and employment opportunities for those who lost jobs with the downfall of oil and gas. They could also take all the money they spent subsidizing the fossil fuel sector to invest in Black and brown communities that are dealing with other forms of environmental racism—be it water pollution, lack of green space, or toxic soils. If leaders go even further to address racist policing and defund police departments (which, c’mon, they should) that money can go directly toward building out sustainable public transit systems and modernizing public housing developments in those communities. That’s what the Movement for Black Lives’ BREATHE Act is all about. 

 

These are exactly the types of infrastructural changes necessary to decarbonize our world. President-elect Joe Biden, for example, recognizes this need and has centered economic and racial justice into his climate plan. At least this urgency isn’t lost on him.

 

“There has been an awakening, a recognition that we need to end systemic racism and injustice,” Kelly says. “Turning that awakening into real action is still a challenge. It’s going to be an uphill battle, especially if we don’t have a Democratic majority in the Senate, to secure commitments from Congress.”

 

In the U.S., Congress and the incoming president will decide how long we drive our gas-powered cars and cook on gas stoves. We, however, hold the power to hold them accountable. People’s health won’t improve so long as their air or water is contaminated. Poverty will exist until people can find better-paying jobs. And so long as poverty exists, so many other societal issues will, too. Let’s hope 2021 is the year leaders finally set change in motion.

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