Accountability in the time of coronavirus

The reasons we’re fighting haven’t changed. They’ve grown all the more pressing.

Dear EXXONKNEWS readers,

It’s been a week since I wrote to you last, and what a year it has been (or was it a decade?). You don’t need us to tell you that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot about our lives in a very short period of time. 

Credit: Giphy

In all seriousness, our thoughts are with everyone during this unprecedented time. Please stay safe, follow the CDC’s recommendations, and make sure to check in with friends, loved ones, and neighbors. 

In a period of so many uncertainties, at least one thing is clear: whether it’s our relationship with the climate, our environment, or with each other, there is no decision we can make, individually or societally, that doesn’t ripple outwards and back. We are inextricably connected, and community matters — especially now.

But I want to talk about a different connection, too, one whose destructive consequences coronavirus has put on full display. That’s the connection between people in leadership roles (elected officials, government agencies, the presidency) and powerful actors with money to make and strings to pull. 

The fact is, big businesses, industries, and profit-driven institutions have controlled government decision-making (and lack thereof) in America for so long that it is hard to remember that another way is even possible. Be honest, when the Trump administration floated a bailout for the fossil fuel industry in response to coronavirus, how many of us said “of course!” and considered that normal? 

When our leaders prioritize powerful interests over public safety, everyone suffers (some more than most). In Science magazine last week, H. Holden Thorp railed against the hypocrisy of our current administration demanding a coronavirus vaccine after years of draining funding for scientific research and promoting denialist statements on climate change: “you can't insult science when you don't like it and then suddenly insist on something that science can't give on demand,” he writes. President Trump denied the severity of coronavirus until the very last minute, confusing the public and endangering lives for the sake of his own political goals. We are seeing in real time that science denial kills. 

As recently as last week, people were left scrambling for provisions and medical advice in the absence of accurate information, action and preparedness from the federal government. The same has long been true for the climate crisis: individuals are expected to come up with solutions to a problem that simply can’t be addressed on an individual scale. While we might want to shame other people for going to bars and brunch (really though, stay home if you can) or in the case of the climate crisis, driving SUVs and eating meat, in most cases only widespread and coordinated action is effective. Simply asking people to avoid bars and restaurants, for instance, was not. 

When it comes to climate change, the damage has been staggered over longer periods of time; negligence is therefore less visible, and easier to commit. But the outcome of denying science is essentially the same. The bigger difference is that in the case of climate change, we have an industry behind the curtain (fossil fuels, that is) that has been pouring money into denial and working to delay action at all costs. As Somini Sengupta of the New York Times put it last week, “change is hard when there’s a powerful industry blocking it.” That is for sure.

If nothing else, the swift nature of the coronavirus pandemic will highlight some essential truths that, if acknowledged, could allow us to confront climate change in a way that is effective, just, and fair. 

We need our leaders to let science, not industry and special interests, tell us what the appropriate or “realistic” response to disaster actually is. We need to act quickly and decisively, and refuse to let those interested in prolonging or politicizing disaster determine our pace. We need plans and provisions in place for those who will be hit hardest financially and otherwise, to make sure they won’t bear the burden of prior inaction on their own. We need those in power to equip society with the real solutions and yes, factual information needed to act when disasters do occur. We need them to serve workers and the public, not industries and their lobbyists. We need better than a free for all, better than every person for themselves, and much, much better than denial and delay.

We need accountability now more than ever. So yes, a lot has changed — but the reasons we’re fighting this fight are stronger than ever. 

Stay safe out there. 

In solidarity, 


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