“Why should we be studying for the future that soon may be no more? This is more important than school.”
That’s what 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg asserted, and inspired by these words, in March 2019, I co-organized a climate strike at the Bronx High School of Science in accordance with the Global Climate Strike to protest government inaction toward the existential threat that is the climate crisis.
One year later, for many student activists around the globe, there is no school to skip.
In an effort to curb the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, New York City public schools have closed. Many of the youth climate strike organizers were planning a massive strike slated for the 50th annual Earth Day, which — like the school day it intended to skip — has been effectively canceled and forced online.
Regardless, this year’s climate strike already has started. Environmentally conscious citizens urging governments, businesses and individuals to wake up to the reality of the climate crisis and take action, while still necessary, is “so last year.” This year the environment is striking for itself. Mother Earth is forcing governments to comply, the economy to halt, and individuals to suddenly drastically alter their day-to-day lives.
We don’t know whether COVID-19 is a direct product of human interference with the natural world, or if we have merely created ideal conditions for the virus to spread globally. Either way, our planet is sending a very clear message that the imbalance we have caused must be corrected, with or without our cooperation.
Reports from NASA reveal that nitrogen dioxide levels throughout China have drastically plummeted as a result of the lull caused by efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak. One of the largest contributors to climate change, air travel, is at an unprecedented low. Supply chains around the world are rattled, and the high-pollution industries they serve have slowed.
Swans, fish and dolphins have been found in the notoriously polluted canals of Venice, which have begun to clear up. This year’s climate strike is unparalleled in its effect.
As hungry wolves contain deer populations or pioneer species flourish after a wildfire, there are checks and balances that keep the natural world in its 4 billion-year-old, infinitely complex equilibrium. Since the agriculture revolution, the industrial revolution, or the invention of vaccines, humans have become increasingly distanced from the natural world. The fact that we even use the term “natural world” implies that there is a world untouched by laws of nature, a world that we like to think we inhabit.
At this moment in time, we are experiencing a sobering reality check. We are not above the natural world. We are as much a part of it as wolves or trees. But unlike wolves or trees, we have the capacity to research, draw conclusions, and take action. If we fail to heed decades of research and scientific certainty, the environment will force us back into equilibrium the hard way, as it is doing right now.
The global scientific community has been warning us about the dangers of a pandemic, like COVID-19, with the same certainty that it has been warning us of the dangers of climate change. The kind of rapid, unprecedented global mobilization to fight COVID-19 is exactly the response we need to address the climate crisis.
But our shortsightedness, our denial, and our complacency prevents us from dealing with existential threats until they are literally in our communities, and in our homes.
This COVID-19 outbreak has shown that humanity can collectively engage in once unfathomable acts of self-preservation and cooperation in response to existential threats. We have been reminded that our governments do still listen to researchers, professionals and scientists. I want to still believe that this listening is not selective, and that the greatest existential threat to humanity that is the climate crisis will soon get the response it not only deserves, but absolutely necessitates.
When things get better, and our global community emerges from this temporary pause, I hope that we never forget. Never forget the fragility of the global systems in which we have come to rely. Never forget the suffering that global crises can cause. And most importantly, let us never forget the adaptability and cooperative potential of humanity in the face of crisis.
So as I sit in my room, writing this piece in self-quarantine in the spirit of a protest that is no longer possible, I am asking you to recognize the irony, listen to our Mother, and act.