By Elise Gout
As 2020 comes to a close, the usual mandate for end-of-year reflections carries a particular weight. Since March, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken more than 300,000 lives and infected over 17 million people in the United States. Record-breaking wildfires burned the West, and record-breaking hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast. Businesses shuttered. Schools closed. And in May, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police set off an ongoing movement to dismantle structural racism.
In many ways, the events of 2020 have exposed the brokenness of 2019’s status quo – institutions riddled with injustice and systems ill-equipped to handle compounding disasters. Perhaps true to the New Year’s tradition, though, they also offer a blueprint for what can and should come next.
Learning from broken systems
For Steve Cohen, senior advisor for the Earth Institute, the work of building from 2020 starts with acknowledging that public health, climate change, and racial justice are interconnected.
For example, people with pre-existing health conditions like asthma have been found to be more likely to suffer severe cases of COVID-19. Such health conditions are especially prevalent among minority populations, in part because of their disproportionate exposure to toxins and air pollution.
“These are integrated systems,” said Cohen. “When you look at how air pollution causes respiratory problems, it’s not just about the objective environmental conditions. It’s about why one four-year-old can’t get the inhaler that a richer four-year-old gets.”
The pandemic has put in stark relief just how unequal the access to public services is for low-income communities and communities of color. “What’s clear to me and many others studying these topics in 2020 is the importance of investing in social safety nets,” said economics professor Belinda Archibong. She explained the history of racial discrimination in everything from loan approvals to housing policies has made Black businesses and households particularly vulnerable. The typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family, and following the pandemic-induced lockdown in March, the unemployment rate has been twice as high for Black workers as for white workers.
The public health and economic impacts of COVID-19 were also exacerbated by the lack of a centralized federal response. Irwin Redlener is the director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He has been working on the COVID-19 pandemic since it first began. “The fact of the matter is a lot has gone wrong that we could have avoided,” he said. “We have learned the bitter lesson of how important credible leadership and messaging is.”
The politicization of science is one of the most evident things that the fight against COVID-19 and fight against climate change have in common. “The real question,” said Cohen, “is how do we raise up the scientific literacy of people, so they better understand and accept the expertise?”
The emergence of new leaders
In the absence of clear direction and support from the federal government, 2020 became a year of individuals leading by example.
“There are a lot of brilliant and dedicated experts throughout the country — not just at the top — who, when left to their own devices, did what they could to make a difference,” said Redlener.
Perhaps one of the most recognized sources of leadership came from city officials. Across the country, mayors instituted mask mandates, issued rent abatements, and opened streets to local businesses. Others affirmed the importance of Black lives and fought for funding to provide essential public services. “I think [this year] provides a model for city leaders to hear constituent concerns and develop policy that responds to them,” said Amy Turner, a senior fellow with the Cities Climate Law Initiative at the Sabin Center. “Going forward, we need to provide more opportunity for process and public engagement.”
Young people also took the reins by spearheading initiatives and galvanizing nationwide movements for racial justice, climate action, and voting rights. “I am inspired by the tremendous mobilization and solidarity I have seen, particularly regarding social justice rallies and protests,” said environmental activist and Columbia undergraduate Lauren Ritchie.
Ritchie herself worked with Columbia PhD students Kailani Acosta and Benjamin Keisling this year to launch the Columbia Climate Conversations Initiative. The first event on intersectional environmentalism featured youth activists Tori Tsui, Aditi Mayer, and Kristi Drutman. The second event, scheduled for January 21, 2021, will focus on the activism by young women of color in the environmental movement.
Shifting public awareness
The new leaders who stepped up — whether by participating in COVID-19 press conferences, organizing protests, or coordinating intersectional climate panels — reinforced the idea that productive action begins with public awareness. Many people, some for the first time, began to grapple with their own privilege and the consequences of racism, police brutality, inequality, and climate change. While much of 2020 will be defined by its hardships, so too could it be defined by the nationwide conversations they started.
“It’s important that we reckon publicly with the facts,” said Archibong. “When we know and acknowledge the problems that face us, we can think more carefully about potential solutions.”
An informed and empowered public has meaningful implications for governance as well, including how officials approach stakeholder engagement. “To craft sound, equitable, and effective policy, you have to work with those who are being most affected,” said Turner. “It’s what environmental justice groups have been telling us for decades.”
The same could be said about institutions like Columbia. “The geoscience community is beginning to realize that it’s no longer enough to add BIPOC activists to environmental organizations,” said Acosta. “Commitments to diversity must be demonstrated through a continuous effort to prioritize the voices and stories of those who have been historically underrepresented.”
Reasons for optimism
Redlener will be the first to acknowledge that the end of this year in no way guarantees the start of a better one. Just last week, a record number of COVID-related deaths were reported in the United States, and the increase of travel and gatherings for the holidays is expected to cause another surge in cases.
Redlener is encouraged, though, by several public health developments. An increasing number of more efficient and effective COVID-19 tests will make it easier to manage the response to the virus. New medications will allow doctors to treat patients with mild symptoms before they become dangerously sick. With a COVID-19 vaccine being approved for distribution this month, there is also the promise of future immunity. “It will be more difficult to roll out the vaccine than people realize,” said Redlener. “But it’s a fantastic reality that it will be available.”
Cohen echoed this sentiment. “When things are really bad, human beings get together and try to solve the problem,” he said. “And [with COVID-19], it looks like we might do it again.”
The transition to a new presidential administration also presents a significant opportunity for change, as noted by Redlener, Cohen, and Turner. In addition to a revamped approach to the pandemic, the Biden administration could do a lot to advance climate action, including at the city level.
Policies like reparations, job guarantees, universal health care, universal childcare, and carbon pricing have gained renewed attention as well, said Archibong. “Of course, it remains to be seen if there will be follow through on any of this post 2020,” she said, “but there is some reason to be hopeful that the needle is shifting towards acceptance and support for institutional transformation.”
Going into 2021, Ritchie finds her reason to be hopeful in the actions of her peers. “I feel a sense of pride and optimism in knowing that there are individuals willing to fight for what they believe in,” she said, “including the rights of others.”