Atkin: Pandemic Shows Responsibility of Elites, and Power of Individuals Acting Together
The coronavirus pandemic has veteran U.S. climate journalist Emily Atkin rethinking some of her approach to the issue. Speaking for everyone at The Mix…we can identify! Excerpted with permission. You can subscribe to Atkin’s amazing HEATED newsletter here (and if you haven’t yet, you definitely want to.)
Last week was supposed to be a mental break. Instead, it was mental chaos—and not just because I was attempting to fly home from Spain after Trump’s European flight restrictions.
Indeed, the pandemic’s toll on my personal life has been trivial compared to its effect on my professional identity. I have always felt confident about how I approach the climate crisis as a reporter and commentator. But now, as I watch the COVID-19 pandemic unfold with no clear end in sight, my viewpoint is starting to shift.
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Every week, I come to you with a clear and unwavering message: that solving the climate crisis requires laser-focus on the powerful. That we all have a responsibility to reduce our personal carbon emissions, but that our responsibility pales in comparison to the bosses, the billionaires, the politicians, and corporate executives. These are the people who got us into this mess, and they should be the ones getting us out.
I still believe that. But COVID-19 is teaching me that global crises don’t give a shit about fairness.
When it comes to halting this pandemic, those with the most money and power in America should be making major sacrifices and compromises to ensure the safety of society’s most vulnerable. Instead, U.S. politicians are stuffing their own pockets and swimming in literal cesspools of their own making. If we sat around and waited for them to play fair, we would be signing the death warrants of millions.
So we are not waiting. In lieu of the shelter-in-place orders and aggressive travel restrictions recommended by scientists, individuals across the country are choosing to aggressively peer pressure friends and family to socially isolate. In lieu of economic stimulus from either the federal government or society’s most wealthy, individuals across the country are choosing to pour our savings into supporting friends, family, and local businesses. Indeed, individual citizens are doing far more to stop the coronavirus crisis than what should be expected of them in a representative democracy.
Of course, individual actions alone won’t be not enough to halt the spread of coronavirus. But experts tell the New York Times they will make a difference. “Containment becomes realistic only when Americans realize that working together is the only way to protect themselves and their loved ones,” the Times concludes. That’s because when we act collectively as individuals, we set examples for others—including governments—to do the same.
I think I’ve always known this, in theory. But coronavirus is the first time I’m seeing how powerful peer pressure and individual action can truly be. It is a hopeful realization, though perhaps a premature one, given how early on we are in this crisis.
But it’s also disconcerting for me, because for the last six months, I’ve downplayed the importance of individual action to solve the climate crisis. I’ve confidently told myself, and others, that I’m doing enough—even though as a public figure, I have the power to do much more. I literally just went on a flight to Spain for no reason other than to have a good time. I told myself I needed it; that I deserved it; that it was my right. But what kind of example does that set? Is that really so different than telling myself I need to go to Miami for spring break during a pandemic?
I still believe strongly that the climate crisis is not the fault of individuals. It is, first and foremost, a failure of systems—political, business, media—and the powerful people within them who chose to spread disinformation and delay action. I will keep doing everything in my power as a climate reporter to make sure those responsible for this mess are held accountable for cleaning it up.
But in the meantime, especially in this time of pandemic, I would like to find more ways to highlight how individuals are shouldering (and not shouldering) the burden of solving the climate crisis. So consider this my pledge to start focusing on that subject more as a pillar of HEATED’s coverage. You can also consider this my pledge to start walking a bit more of my talk…