Irene Panke Hopkins
Irene Panke Hopkins

When I was a little girl, I often came home from school having been bullied by my classmates. I was an easy target for mean kids with my frizzy hair, crooked teeth and unusual name. Strict teachers and rigid nuns with old-fashioned methods of discipline added to my distress, causing my reservoir of tears to burst its dam as soon as I walked through my front door.

My father sat me on his knee on those evenings. Holding me in his safe, strong arms while I cried, he promised that everything would be OK. “Behind every gray cloud, is a silver lining,” I remember him saying. Without the life experience to understand that cliché, my third-grade self was satisfied just to be held and loved.

I have been looking for the silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not easy. The panic hoarding at grocery stores causes others to leave empty-handed. People who carelessly continued to congregate in bars, restaurants and other gathering places until the directive to close down, confounded me.

But there are beautiful pieces of writing circulating and demonstrated acts of kindness and concern for the elderly and isolated. We are sharing resources and information. Many are focusing on what is most important in terms of our connection to one another. Our state representative, Pramila Jayapal, reminded us in her video briefing recently to stay calm and tell the people we love that we love them.

And then there is this: Pollution in the countries hardest hit by the virus is plummeting. In China, the shutting down of factories, coal plants, refineries and domestic flights has lowered emissions by 25 percent compared with the same period last year, according to a March 6 article in The New York Times.

In Italy, as businesses and roads have fallen silent, a noticeable decline in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions has occurred according to a March 13 Washington Post article. The same article posits the expectation for pollution to drop even further. Emanuele Massetti, an expert on the economics of climate change, is certain of this.

“In a few days, they will enjoy the cleanest air ever in northern Italy,” he said.

Neither of these scenarios is exactly a silver lining. It does not comfort those who are losing loved ones or becoming ill themselves or being laid off from work and thrust into financial distress. But it does substantiate the impact humans have on the environment and how quickly it can be turned around when we reduce burning of fossil fuels.

Ricardo Valentini, professor at Italy’s University of Tuscia and a climate change impact expert said, “This is not the way to reduce emissions!”

Other climate change advocates agree, saying that this is not the way a reasonable person would envision lowering the world’s carbon footprint.

But reasonable people, who have had the information on the climate crisis for many years, have done little to nothing to address the problem. Even those who have acknowledged humans’ role in the crisis and our ability to stop it, have not acted effectively on this knowledge. Because of COVID-19’s impact on the environment, we have irrefutable proof that our actions as humans are destroying our climate. And that it is within our power to stop it.

Martina Moneke wrote in a recent Truthdig article that this reality has shown us that “…it is possible for nations to significantly reduce vehicular and power plant emissions, which would result in better air quality and a lessening of other global warming gasses…”

Moneke acknowledges that a reduction in productivity would impact the economy negatively. But she also suggests the belief that economic growth is inextricably tied to growth in production has created a far more dangerous existential crisis than the coronavirus pandemic: climate change. We have not and do not treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as the coronavirus pandemic. Why? Moneke suggests that it is because mainstream media doesn’t give it enough attention. The virus gets round the clock coverage. By comparison, the climate crisis is rarely mentioned in the alarming terms it deserves and barely makes the political debate stages.

Many government failures have been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, including the United States’ lack of preparedness. China’s failure to control its illegal wildlife trade, the source of the virus, was wrong. In February, China responded by shutting down its wildlife farming industry permanently. It is likely that public healthcare in the United States will institute improvements in the virus’s aftermath, turning that “wrong” into a “right” for the future.

I hope that world leaders will realize, in the light of the clear evidence, that we have failed in our lack of response to the climate crisis, that we have failed in trying to minimize the effects of human actions. And that we can and must make changes to save our lives.

Course Correction for the week: Walk! If you are able bodied, stay out of your car. Get fresh air and sunshine and smile at people as you pass them. Help those who cannot get out.

And when this is over, keep walking. Calculate how far it is to walk (vs. drive) and how much time it will take. If it is within reason, walk! Even if it’s raining. Even if it’s cold. And while you are walking, think about writing to and petitioning those who have the power to reduce emissions caused by industry.

In noisy, polluted cities like Wuhan, China, people are reporting blue skies and birdsong not heard for a very long time.

It can be done.