I began working on this book in January 2020 amid great global concerns about the Australian bushfires that had been burning for months across much of the country. I live in Southern California, but I am an Australian and was very anxious about the news. At the top of my street, near the local school, I saw some kids selling lemonade to support kangaroos and koalas recovering from burns caused by the massive bushfires. I had just heard that three visiting firefighters from the United States had died in a plane crash while battling the flames. The lemonade stand and fate of the unlucky firemen brought the Australian disaster closer to home. What was happening on the other side of the world was making people jumpy. In California preparing for fire evacuations has become standard procedure, even among Hollywood’s rich and famous. Like most people, I know to move fast when given the signal, and bottles of water and snacks are squirreled away in my car. But news of the Australian fires was capturing people’s imaginations in a new way. Ever-watchful meteorologists were telling us that smoke from the Australian fires could be detected over much of South America, including parts of Argentina, Uruguay, and Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. Bizarrely, this smoke was merging with thick haze produced by tens of thousands of fires still burning across the Amazon jungle that had displaced many villagers and Indigenous communities, and devastated huge swaths of rainforest throughout 2019. Untold numbers of people, animals, birds, and plants had died in the flames, and unique ecosystems had been destroyed forever. From outer space, satellites confirmed what millions of people were experiencing on the ground in places as distant as Australia, California, and Brazil: our planet is on fire.
However, as the month of January progressed, the news cycle changed, shifting from stories about out-of-control wildfires to an emerging health crisis in China with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. Within weeks, the world’s focus had entirely turned to the spreading disease. The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, as the number of deaths steadily rose in Italy and Spain. The initially skeptical leaders of Britain and the United States were forced to acknowledge that their countries were facing a serious public health crisis. Many governments declared a national state of emergency. Around the world many people returned to their place of residence, and entire labor, business, and educational sectors began preparing to work remotely. As tens of millions of people learned how to shelter in place, the global economy slowly ground to a halt. Fears of economic recession dominated corporate-owned news media. More pressingly, people around the world contemplated how to secure food and shelter in times of mass layoffs, rising unemployment, and underfunded health systems. It seemed the whole world was going mad as visions of apocalyptic doom saturated social media and people engaged with the proximity of death.
As I put the finishing touches to this book in August 2021, the pandemic still rules, with Brazil and particularly India devastated by surging cases and lack of adequate oxygen and hospital beds. It is impossible to accurately predict how many hundreds of thousands of people will die of COVID-19. Even with the rolling out of numerous vaccines in the first half of 2021, how quickly the global population will receive medicine to stop the mutating virus remains a big question. Vaccine nationalism is a new concept that is dominating the global political economy and recalibrating asymmetrical power relations between rich and poor nations. The United States, for instance, has been hoarding vaccines and offers third booster shots while most of the countries in Africa have not vaccinated even 10 percent of their populations. No one knows how the pandemic’s impact will play out over the coming months and possibly years, but everyone knows it will harm marginalized communities of color and poorer countries disproportionately.
What is certain is that climate change—which both contributes to the pandemic and exacerbates its unequal impacts—looms more starkly than ever before as a coming crisis. In August 2021, the United Nations issued a very significant scientific report—what has been called “a code red for humanity”—arguing for an immediate global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to stall inevitable planetary warming.1 However, firefighters remain periodically in lockdown under quarantine, temperatures continue to rise, and out-of-control fires continue to burn. More insidiously, in countries such as the United States, Brazil, and Australia, environmental protections have been rolled back as societies focus on getting their economy back on track. Even with the ousting of Donald Trump in late 2020, and emerging hope with the US rejoining the Paris Agreement and making climate change a central political issue, grave concern about the planet’s future prevails. Reinstating environmental laws will not be easy, with Trump loyalists continuing to deny climate science and Congress opposing reforms through legislative gridlock. Meanwhile, around the world, radical ultranationalist governments are seizing sweeping powers under the guise of dealing with a public health crisis. Clamping down on the freedom of assembly and expression, installing invasive surveillance systems, postponing elections and militarizing the police—these measures indicate antidemocratic governance is escalating. As noted by a United Nations spokesperson, “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarianism and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.”2 How one fights climate change amid a global rise of authoritarianism becomes a central question explored in this book.
It is important to understand how we arrived at the current moment. Many of the issues dramatically revealed by the pandemic have been determining the climate crisis that has been steadily unfolding for more than forty years. These include the denial of scientific evidence, government inertia, and the mass exploitation by corporations of cheap human labor and natural resources. But the pandemic has also brought global attention through the Black Lives Matter movement to systemic racism, disproportionate impacts on people of color and the poor and marginalized, and explicit indifference by a global economic elite to human life. As noted by one commentator, “We have to consider COVID-19 a test case for the climate crisis that is on the horizon, and it pales in comparison to the latter.”3 Adds another, “Our world cannot be in denial of the climate crisis any longer. COVID-19 is devastating thousands of lives and threatening millions, but the impacts of climate change are endangering the lives and livelihoods of billions of people.”4
In many ways the world’s response to COVID-19 and its aftermath is a harbinger of our collective futures as well as a reminder of how we got to the environmental crisis in the first place. Amid the unfolding short- and long-term challenges of the pandemic, this book is a call not to lose sight of the much bigger catastrophe before us: climate change and its imminent threat to all species, including human beings. We must constantly remind ourselves that there is no vaccine for water shortages, toxic air pollution, and flames licking at the front door.
Southern California, 2021
1. “Secretary-General Calls Latest IPCC Climate Report ‘Code Red for Humanity,’ Stressing ‘Irrefutable’ Evidence of Human Influence,” United Nations, https://www.un.org/press/ en/2021/sgsm20847.doc.htm.
2. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, cited in New York Times, March 30, 2020.
3. Raza Saeed, “COVID-19 and the Continuity of the Familiar,” Critical Legal Thinking, March 21, 2020, https://criticallegalthinking.com/ 2020/03/21/covid-19-and-the-continuity-of-the-familiar/.
4. Osagyefo Amoatia Ofori Panin Okyenhene, “The Consequential Effects of COVID-19 on the Climate Crisis,” IPS News, June 1, 2020, http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/06/ consequential-effects-covid-19-climate-crisis/.