By Cate Kelly
Cate Kelly works as the Sisters of Mercy justice intern in Omaha, Nebraska, as she finishes her senior year at Mercy High School.
Watching the world flip upside down with the steady spread of the coronavirus has been disconcerting for everyone. Life has quickly turned into a one-lane existence, filled with lots of time at home, outside if you are lucky, and the grocery store if you are cautious. In a span of days and now weeks, the world has rallied to combat this crisis. Humanity has collectively accepted the reality of quarantine, put the right people on the front lines, followed rules and used tools to flatten the curve. We have adapted and pushed forward resolutely, united in this global fight. As a young person, my life has changed drastically, as well.
My senior year of high school was cut short, my memories to be made now turned to wisps of imagination. I fear that graduation will not go forward, that my diploma will be mailed to me and proper goodbyes will never be spoken. But my peers and I are enthusiastic about sacrificing for the greater good, putting our lives and experiences on hold like everyone else to save others, particularly those most at risk.
During a recent group zoom call with some of my friends, the topic of climate change came up, how we weren’t able to organize our planned Earth Day rally and how we thought the coronavirus was aﬀecting the climate and planet. The more we talked about everything we’ve given up, the more I thought about the irony of the situation. We young people are acting for older generations because of the coronavirus, when they have never taken up the same mantle and enthusiasm in acting against the climate crisis, something that is currently affecting and will continue to aﬀect everyone on Earth. So, why the disconnect? Why has the world so rapidly and seemingly with such ease agreed on the emergency of the coronavirus, when the climate crisis has been rapping at our door for decades, demanding a response? The biggest reasons, I’ve come to conclude, are mental disconnect, generational diﬀerences and a lack of a sense of urgency.
According to psychologists, it is diﬃcult for the human mind to comprehend and understand a situation as huge and overwhelming as the climate crisis. The magnitude of the problem and its wide-reaching eﬀects actually cause the human brain to downplay sense of urgency or panic, as it simply cannot grasp it. Climate change is not usually right in our faces but comes in waves and changes that are occasionally reported. The droughts, floods, hurricanes, wildfires and other intensified natural disasters that result from climate change are not often immediately connected to the idea of climate change in the mind, and thus our response time is delayed. Young people look to the future and feel anxiety about the oncoming crisis, whereas older generations don’t seem to be as forward thinking even as climate change impacts their day-to-day lives.
In my observation, these generational diﬀerences are present in many other political debates and discussions of this era—from gun control to healthcare and yes, to the climate, the chasm seems to be widening. Many young people believe that older generations don’t care about the planet they are leaving us, while many among the older generations feel that young people are naive, disrespectful and deaf to what they have to say. Obviously, neither of these stereotypes is entirely accurate, but the simmering tension is undeniable.
The sense of urgency that the coronavirus elicits is just not found with the climate crisis. Coronavirus is traceable, touchable and felt upon impact. Its eﬀects are likewise far reaching and undeniable. As terrifying and pressing as the issue of the climate is, it simply does not hold the same weight to many people and countries, particularly those in privileged or wealthy positions who will never feel the direct eﬀects of climate change. The reality of the two crises, however, is intrinsically tied.
Despite the past actions of generations, their current attitudes and the ongoing global pandemic, the lessons from the global response to it can and must also be applied to the climate crisis. Diseases similar to coronavirus are inherently connected to rising global temperatures, deforestation, urbanization and population growth, and the health of all people will be impacted by the eﬀects of climate change. As young people, we are asking older generations to begin to step up as we are now stepping up for you. Take the initiative, spare lives and act for the wellbeing of our shared planet. In order to fight coronavirus, we all have to be as healthy as possible. In order to fight the climate crisis, our Earth must be similarly healthy, and its inhabitants prepared to cultivate a united front against environmental injustice and exploitation.