IIt is undeniable that it is horrible that more than 2.8 million people have died from Covid-19 in the last 15 months. However, in roughly the same period, more than three times more likely died from air pollution. This should disturb us for two reasons. One is the large number of deaths from air pollution (8.7 million a year, according to a recent study) and another is how invisible those deaths are, how accepted, how unquestionable. The coronavirus was a terrifying and novel threat, turning its dangers into something that much of the world came together to try to limit. It was unacceptable, though by nuances and degrees, many places came to accept it, deciding to let the poor and marginalized bear the brunt of illness, death and displacement and letting medical workers be crushed by the burden of job.
We have learned to ignore other forms of death and destruction, by which I mean that we have normalized them as a kind of moral background noise. This is, more than anything, the obstacle to tackling chronic problems, from gender-based violence to climate change. What if we treated those 8.7 million annual deaths from air pollution as an emergency and a crisis, and recognized that the respiratory impact of particulate matter is only a small part of the devastating impact of burning fossil fuels? For the pandemic, we managed to immobilize large populations, radically reduce air traffic and change the way many of us live, as well as free up large sums of money to help people economically devastated by the crisis. We could do that for climate change, and we must, but the first hurdle is a lack of a sense of urgency, the second make people understand that things could be different.
I have devoted much of my writing over the past 15 years to trying to bring to the fore two normalized phenomena, violence against women and climate change. For all of us who work to draw public attention to these crises, an important part of the problem is trying to get people involved in something that is part of the status quo. We are designed to respond with alarm to something that just happened, that breaks the rules, but not to things that have been happening for decades or centuries. The first task of most environmental and human rights movements is to make the invisible visible and to make unacceptable what has been accepted for a long time. Of course, this has been done to some extent, with coal-fired power plants and with fracking in some places, but not with the general causes of climate chaos.
Climate change is invisible, in everyday political consciousness, because it occurs on a scale too large in time and space to be seen with the naked eye and because it affects imperceptible phenomena such as atmospheric composition. We can only see its effects, such as cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan, peaking before this year than at any time since records began in AD 812, and even there the beauty of the flowers is gloriously visible, while the alteration of seasonal patterns is dry data that is easy to miss. Other effects are often overlooked or denied: There were wildfires in California before climate change, but they’re bigger, stronger, faster, in a longer fire season now, and recognizing that it also requires paying attention to the data.
Among the most striking phenomena in the first weeks of the pandemic are air quality and birdsong. In the silence as human activity came to a halt, many people reported hearing birdsong, and air pollution levels around the world dropped dramatically. In some places in India, the Himalayas were once again visible, as they had not been for decades, meaning that one of the subtle losses from pollution was the views. According to CNBC, at the beginning of the pandemic, “New Delhi recorded a 60% drop in PM2.5 from 2019 levels, Seoul recorded a 54% drop, while the drop in Wuhan in China was 44%.” Getting back to normal means drowning the birds and blurring the mountains and accepting 8.7 million deaths from air pollution a year.
Those deaths have normalized; they need to be denormalized. One way to do this is by drawing attention to the cumulative effect and the quantifiable results. Another is to draw a map of how things could be different; In the case of climate change, this means reminding people that there is no status quo, but a world that is dramatically transforming, and that only bold action will limit the extremes of this change. The energy landscape is also undergoing a dramatic change: the coal industry has collapsed in many parts of the world, the oil and gas industry is in decline. Renewable energies are proliferating because they are becoming increasingly effective, efficient, and increasingly cheaper than energy generated from fossil fuels. Much attention was paid to actions that could have caused Covid-19 to pass from animals to humans, but to actions that remove fossil fuel from the soil to produce that pollution that kills 8.7 million annually, along with ocean acidification and climate chaos. , it should be considered much more egregious as a violation of public health and safety.
My hope for a post-pandemic world is that the old excuses for doing nothing about the climate – that it is impossible to change the status quo and too expensive to do so – have been scrapped. In response to the pandemic, we in the US have spent trillions of dollars and changed the way we live and work. We need the will to do the same with the climate crisis. The Biden administration has taken some encouraging steps, but more are needed, both here and internationally. With a reduction in carbon emissions and a move towards cleaner energy, we could have a world with more birdsong and mountain views and fewer deaths from pollution. But first we have to recognize both the problem and the possibilities.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism