Healthcare workers push a patient into a less intensive unit from the Covid-19 Unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas.Photo: Mark Felix/AFP (Getty Images)
Back in May, I wrote that the that the worst case response to the coronavirus was accepting the mounting death toll as the only path forward, and that it mirrored the worst possible approach to the climate crisis. I was wrong. There’s something much, much worse, and we are living through it now.
To be sure, the Trump administration has careened down that failed path. The president has staged sparsely attended rallies, yelled on Twitter about re-opening the economy, and claimed gaining back a fraction of the jobs lost due to the pandemic as a pyrrhic victory in an effort to project normalcy even as 133,000 people have died in the U.S. to-date. And in a Washington Post report on Monday, unnamed Trump advisers said that accepting death was essentially the plan, with an unnamed administration official reportedly in touch with the campaign telling the paper, “they’re of the belief that people will get over it or if we stop highlighting it, the base will move on and the public will learn to accept 50,000 to 100,000 new cases a day.”
The real monstrosity isn’t just expecting public numbness to the rising death toll. It’s the racism embedded into the Trump administration’s message—and what it means for the climate crisis. In the wake of my piece in May, two new things have come to light.
The first is the widespread protests against police violence toward Black people in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. These have galvanized the public and sparked calls to defund the police, tear down racist monuments, and generally reckon with an American history of slavery, violence, racism, and inequality. Rather than engage in a dialog, the response from the Trump administration and congressional Republicans has been to go full-on racist uncle who’s had a few too many beers. That’s ranged from dog whistles about protecting statues to full bullhorn retweets of “white power.”
It’s also become increasingly clear that coronavirus is taking an outsize toll on Black and brown communities. The New York Times published a piece on Sunday showing coronavirus rates are more than three times higher for Latinx people and more than two-and-a-half times higher for Black people than they are for white people. Both groups are also twice as likely to die from the virus compared to white people in the U.S. The Times got the story only by suing the Centers for Disease Control for demographic data—itself a damning indictment—and the report only covers data through May, missing out on the new coronavirus surge gripping the South, including some of the cities with the biggest Black and Latinx populations in the country.
And so here is where I was terribly wrong. The Trump administration has had a care-not attitude about the coronavirus from day one. Now, though, that attitude has melded with its full-on racism. Its coronavirus response is essentially asking American to be okay with not just death generally, but death that continues a cycle of suffering in Black and brown communities. Service workers from Amazon distribution centers to grocery stores to meatpacking plants have all been on the frontlines facing the virus and are staffed in large part by people of color working for low wages. The Trump administration has left them out there without protections, in what is basically the most perfect distillation of a putrid philosophy.
This is a horrific approach to a public health crisis increasingly contained elsewhere by decision-making grounded in science and societies invested in each other. To address the climate crisis will require a similar science-based approach and asking society to protect the most vulnerable over a period of time that will far outlast the time it takes to stamp out the pandemic. That’s why what’s happening with the coronavirus is so disturbing.
Republicans have spent years delaying action on the climate crisis and have no real plan; their response to the anti-police violence protests and coronavirus show they have no plan for actually addressing systemic racism. Mapping that deliberate inaction onto the climate crisis is a nightmare.
Ultimately, the consequences of the climate crisis rest most heavily on Black and brown people, whether it’s the polluting infrastructure responsible for the crisis or the impacts the greenhouse gas-laden atmosphere unleashes. In asking Americans (or the world) to accept climate delay, right-wing politicians are asking us to accept violent weather like Hurricane Dorian that savaged the Bahamas or Hurricane Maria’s enormous toll on Puerto Rico following a botched racist response by this very administration.
When Republicans are unable to put off delay any further, the climate policies they implement are all but guaranteed to favor white Americans. The border wall is a racist approach to climate adaptation, keeping out of the U.S. people who have fled parts of Latin America destabilized in part by drought in a misguided effort to protect the homeland. It’s easy to envision a Republican plan to build sea walls that protect wealthy, white neighborhoods while making floods worse in poor, Black neighborhoods. Or perhaps Republicans’ climate priorities and commitment to injustice would manifest itself in bigger investments in predominantly “white” activities like farming rather than cleaning up the toxic legacy of the fossil fuel industry in places like Cancer Alley or foreign aid for drought-stricken farmers in Honduras, India, or Ethiopia. (This is, in some cases, already happening with Trump propping farmers due to the trade war with China while fast-tracking fossil fuel infrastructure.)
If you’ve read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a novel where climate change leads to increasing inequality, racism, and pay-for services like firefighting and policing, then you’ve got the outlines of a Republican climate plan. Even some of the solutions to mitigate climate change favored by Republicans, such as planting a bunch of trees in developing countries, can have dire consequences for Indigenous communities uprooted to make space for new forests.
In my initial warning about the coronavirus and climate response, I focused largely on Republican fetish for the free market and preserving the status quo for the wealthy. But it’s, of course, about much more than that. The reason Republicans laugh off the Green New Deal and the call for justice at its core is precisely the same reason they run to the ramparts to stifle Black-led protests and water down the public health and economic response to the coronavirus. True justice requires reckoning with America’s history of brutal racism and righting that wrong through investment in Black communities, shrinking the carceral system, and cleaning toxic waste sites, among other things. Asking Americans to accept the injustice and consequences of untethered capitalism in the context of the climate crisis is when we truly end up in some dark places.
But of course, asking us to accept this as the only way forward and actually accepting it are two different things. A better world is indeed possible, and quite possibly being born right now. The Movement for Black Lives put out a set of policy demands on Tuesday that center justice, including climate justice. The nascent alignment of environmental and justice movements will require more work than accepting or giving into the status quo. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather put in the work to build something better for everyone than blithely accept the nightmarish right-wing alternative currently being foisted on us.