Living through a pandemic apocalypse sure changes your perspective on the upcoming climate apocalypse.
The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into an existential crisis. As of early June 2021, almost 4 million people have died from the virus globally, according to the World Health Organization. And although the United States has seen some relief due to widespread rollouts of vaccines, countries like Brazil and India are still in the throes of the pandemic. The overwhelming anxiety fueled by the pandemic is compounded by another existential crisis raging on simultaneously — the climate emergency.
It’s no accident there’s clear overlap between the two crises: Along with worsening natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, one of the increasing risks of climate change is more frequent, and deadlier, pandemics. The extreme danger that ecological collapse poses has caused a great deal of depression and anxiety, especially among young people and marginalized groups: About 57% of U.S. teens report climate change makes them afraid, per a 2020 Washington Post poll, and 43% say it makes them feel hopeless. Surveys also show Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have higher rates of climate anxiety than white people.
Government inaction during the coronavirus pandemic — like encouraging people not to wear masks, delaying lockdown measures, and not supporting health care officials — has made climate activists even more keenly aware of how governments have, and will, respond as the climate crisis worsens. For marginalized communities, including disabled people, the working class, and Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, the COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted existing inequities that are likely to be exacerbated as the climate crisis worsens. The dynamics — medical racism, unsafe workplaces and home environments, and lack of wealth — that lead to Black and brown people disproportionately dying during the pandemic are the same dynamics that lead those same communities and people to be at higher risk from the climate crisis.
While the world has seen so much inequality, it has also seen a great amount of mobilization, especially around mutual aid, anti-racism, and disability justice. Perhaps, some climate activists feel, the political and organizing strategies people have learned during the pandemic will be used in the fight against ecological destruction. There is so much destruction, grief, and anxiety. But there is also hope.
Elite Daily spoke to climate activists and advocates from around the world about how the coronavirus pandemic impacted their climate grief, from existential anxieties to anger over systemic inequalities to hope for the future.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Zoe Yu, 16, researcher on textile recycling and Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair finalist
On the global impact of COVID, widespread inequities, and vaccine access:
We’re seeing the effects of climate change primarily affect countries [in the Global South]. Because of climate issues, periods of drought, flooding, soil erosion, and other forms of environmental degradation mean that these countries can fall further into poverty. It’s a cruel cycle.
Most of the time, these countries aren’t starting out with resilient economies, infrastructure, or high levels of preparedness for facing COVID and getting access to COVID-related resources (especially vaccines) in the way that countries like America are.
From personal experience, my family is from Taiwan. At the start of the pandemic, Taiwan was the gold standard of dealing with the virus. Now, cases are starting to rise and Taiwan is going through its first major outbreak. From a climate perspective, Taiwan is already dealing with harsh droughts and high temperatures. Farmers are being hit the hardest. So, in a way, there is a sort of intensified anxiety.
On COVID’s opportunity for reflection on climate issues:
I think, for many of us, as our lives are put on pause, COVID has freed up the space and time to really consider climate issues and the magnitude of these issues. So how is climate going to continue to shape inequality, especially with the added stressor of the pandemic? It’s a hard question to answer.
Jamie Margolin, 19, founder of Zero Hour and host of ‘Lavender You’ podcast, New York City
On personal loss and government culpability:
COVID-19 has deeply impacted my climate anxiety. It is another crisis that could have been lessened by urgent and proper action by leaders. But instead, leaders procrastinated and put profits over people, and now so many preventable deaths have taken place, including the death of my grandpa, who died from COVID at the beginning of the pandemic. Seeing all of the preventable death and suffering happening all around me due to the virus reminds me of the preventable death and suffering caused by the climate crisis.
The same way leaders could have put the lives of their communities over profits and saved countless lives from COVID, they are putting profits over communities and causing preventable suffering due to the climate crisis.
On lost youth and existential anxiety:
The world just feels darker now. Maybe it’s just because I’m growing up. I came of age during COVID. I graduated high school at the height of the pandemic, and started university and moved away from home at the height of the pandemic as well. Childhood is over, and as I am viewing the world through a slightly more cynical and existential lens, the COVID pandemic and the climate crisis are raging. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around being 19, coming out of childhood, and trying to find some hope in the midst of such a horrible pandemic and climate catastrophe. It’s a difficult time.
Nicki Becker, 20, co-founder of the Argentinian Fridays For Future (FFF) chapter and a student of human rights and environmental law at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina
On the pressures of being a climate activist:
For me, climate anxiety is not just about fear of the future we will inherit but about the need to take action all the time because there is still time to avoid disaster. Sometimes, that pressure is too much. But doing other things like playing football with my friends, doing yoga, and going cycling helps. However, all these activities were impossible for the first few months of the pandemic, so I had to learn to disconnect without them. It was hard, I overwhelmed myself a lot.
It is also a complex thing to limit yourself to the virtual when your country is on fire. For those of us living in the Global South, climate anxiety is not just about the future but about the present. Last year, 1 million hectares burned down in Argentina, where I live. And although we were able to collect 600,000 signatures for the congress to pass the Wetlands Law and we did a very strong campaign, I felt the need to be able to do something strong in person.
On COVID bringing hope for widespread and collective climate action:
Although we are still in a pandemic, I think it has proved what we have been saying for a long time: With political will and cooperation, the climate crisis can be stopped. Because if there is one thing I have no doubt about, it is that the way out of the climate crisis is collective.
Sabina Maniak, 24, international youth climate activist, Boulder, Colorado
On COVID’s impact on the environment:
Early on, before we knew what the true impacts of the pandemic would become, I started accumulating physical trash in ways I hadn’t in many years: Coffee shops weren’t accepting reusable mugs; grocery stores weren't allowing reusable bags. I thought about all of the (extremely necessary) PPE that was being used and thrown away each day, and all of the single-use masks I saw littering the streets.
Then, stories started leaking about fossil fuel companies aggressively latching on to the early COVID relief bills, leaving stranded the struggling businesses who actually needed help and aid. The Trump administration, rather than focusing on creating streamlined messaging and relief that would help Americans, focused on deregulating every climate and resource protection act they could get their hands on, while resource extraction companies took advantage of local governments’ distraction to flout rules on their worksites. I very quickly realized that despite the smog decline in Los Angeles and the canals clearing in Venice, COVID would definitely not be a net-positive for the climate crisis.
On the historic 2020 Colorado wildfires:
A few months into the pandemic, I came as physically close to the climate crisis as I ever had. Living in the foothills of Colorado, I had a front row seat to the state’s most devastating wildfire season in history, including a rapidly growing 10,000-acre fire just a few miles from where I lived. We spent weeks trapped in our houses with no air flow, our primary COVID respite of hikes and walks taken away by air quality alerts and fire closures and our usual strategy of opening windows at night for cool mountain air foiled by the lingering ash and smoke particles that could cause serious lung damage. So we sat inside for weeks, coughing from smoke and slowly suffocating in the summer heat, while the world burned around us. It seemed like hell would never end.
On COVID’s potential for instigating climate action:
Unlike COVID-19 containment, climate change cannot be tackled on a country-by-country basis; extreme weather, crop destruction, and mass flooding do not honor boundaries or controlled checkpoints. I hope that rebuilding from the devastation of the past year will bring about the political will to take care of our planet not only for our own sakes but for the health and prosperity of others across the planet and for generations to come.
COVID-19 will always be a horrific tragedy, a generation-defining trauma that we will likely never fully heal from. But with hard work and some luck, it can also be the launch point for a just recovery and a global pivot in our strategy to prevent climate catastrophe.
Sofía Gómez, 17, Fridays For Future, Bogotá, Colombia
On youth climate anxiety and feeling unheard:
Being a climate activist gives the sense of carrying the weight of a generational damage, for which us young people are the least responsible. There has been great skepticism toward climate change, mostly from companies and governments in power. This turns the climate fight to something harder, in which us kids and youth are either innocents fighting for the Earth or just some rebels. It feels, under this stigma, like we’re a wall of concrete while the whole world is falling around us.
On COVID-19 overshadowing other issues or bringing those issues into the forefront:
Now with COVID, attention has turned to the pandemic and left out many other ground issues (climate crisis, social inequities, and institution failure, among others). Don’t get me wrong, the pandemic is a priority and has caused the loss of many lives.
But the reality we knew was never OK. It wasn’t until the pandemic, when the world stopped, that our eyes finally perceived issues that had been raging for ages, among them, police brutality and the climate crisis.
On COVID’s impact on mental health:.
To be isolated — for many alone or for others in difficult household situations — brought many emotional and mental problems, and for some people even made them worse. There is a feeling of overwhelming anxiety of not being able to do something for our lives because of the physical and mental restrictions.
Noe Rueschemeyer-Bailey, 18, volunteer for Renew Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, and legislative aide for Rhode Island state House Rep. Brianna Henries
On COVID inspiring activism work:
I began my activist work around the beginning of the pandemic, when I started working for the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. In the midst of all the uncertainty of COVID and the extreme failures of both the federal and local governments, I felt compelled to do something to catalyze meaningful electoral change. If COVID had not happened, I seriously doubt I would ever have become so involved, and I think that’s true for many people. The movement building I’ve witnessed is unparalleled. I am continually shocked by how many people show up on Zooms to phonebank for candidates or policies, make volunteer calls, or learn how to testify.
On losing faith during the pandemic:
When I think of the extreme failures of federal and local governments during COVID, and our weak coordinated global response, I have even less faith in our world’s ability to combat climate change at the scale we must. Rhode Island is one of the bluest states in the United States, and the state Legislature’s leadership effectively shuts down almost all climate legislation. The Rhode Island Rescue Act, which would combat carbon emissions, housing and food insecurity, and the presence of dangerous pollutants — especially in Black and brown neighborhoods — was “held for further study” in March 2021 before committee members had even heard the hundreds of testimonies pleading for action.
These past 15 months, movement building across the country and world has been some of the most active it’s ever been. If we can manage that during a deadly global pandemic, I do feel hope for what we can build together to stop the worst of the climate crisis. And I hope that the presence of the COVID crisis in people’s everyday lives will catalyze them to participate in electoral organizing for progressive policy. For me, at least, it already has.