Faith Tanikawa has made a lot of sacrifices to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Tanikawa’s daughter is a nurse and her own mother is at high risk, so Tanikawa has been isolating away from family and friends. She missed the birth of her second grandson and didn’t see any of her grandchildren for four months.

But a focus on COVID-19 hasn’t taken away from her anxiety about climate change. In fact, it’s heightened her fears because the response to the pandemic hasn’t given her confidence that we’ll be able to take necessary action on climate change.

“What I’m seeing is just a lack of response. What we basically need is for government and companies and just each individual to work together to create a plan on how we’re going to make all this work,” she said. “I just don’t see that.”

Portrait of Faith Tanikawa.
Faith Tanikawa was born and raised on Oahu. She’s worried that her grandchildren won’t be able to enjoy Hawaii’s beauty if climate change continues unchecked. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A year ago Tanikawa sat down with Civil Beat’s environmental podcast “Are We Doomed?” to discuss her eco-anxiety. The latest episode checks back with climate experts and organizers for their views on what the response to the pandemic has taught us about how to respond to climate change.

Personal Responsibility

When the pandemic forced so much of the world to stay at home, climate researcher Victoria Keener was eager to look at carbon emission data.

Daily global CO2 emissions decreased by about 17% during the height of the global shutdown, according to research in the journal Nature.

Keener said that this is a relatively small drop, especially considering just how many millions of people were avoiding driving and flying.

“As all personal use of carbon really shut down quite a bit … it showed how ineffective that really is in combating the problem of climate change as a whole,” she said.

For decades fossil fuel companies have pushed the idea of a personal carbon footprint, a metric that ignores the fact that more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from energy production.

Switching to energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs might help lower your power bill, but it won’t solve climate change if the energy used to generate your house is emitting greenhouse gasses.

Keener draws the comparison between the personal decision to wear a mask and large-scale government actions like contact tracing and providing monetary relief so as many people as possible can safely stay at home.

“We need both individual and collective, national and global action to be able to address this,” Keener said of climate change and COVID-19.

Keener hopes the emissions data will convince people to focus on large-scale carbon reduction, and she said a silver lining of the pandemic may be that more people understand the importance of listening to scientific experts when making public policy.

Scientific Cooperation

Lisa Marten, founder of Kailua nonprofit Healthy Climate Communities and a candidate for state legislature, has also found reasons to hope amid the chaos of the pandemic. While COVID-19 has barred students from visiting her wetlands restoration site and complicated her campaign strategy, Marten has been impressed by the scientific community’s response.

Before the pandemic, students helped Lisa Marten restore wetlands by planting native trees. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Marten has a doctorate in public health and before focusing on climate change, she worked on the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

“This is totally different,” she said of the response to COVID-19.

Marten has been impressed by how doctors and researchers from across the world have shared data, treatment methods and successes and failures in real time.

“This is a response to a truly urgent threat and so people did things differently and out of the box,” she said. “If that energy was put towards transitioning to renewable energy … it could totally happen.”

Scientists have been studying the best forms of clean energy and carbon sequestration for decades; Marten said leaders just need to start acting on it.

And for people like Tanikawa who are having a hard time looking beyond the failures of individual states or countries, Marten recommends focusing on the international response to the pandemic.

“We’ve actually made some amazing strides for a disease that we didn’t even know existed six months ago,” she said.

Civic Engagement

This time last year Kawika Pegram was busy organizing Hawaii’s youth climate strike, applying for colleges and balancing the many responsibilities of a high school senior.

Now the 18-year-old’s life looks very different.

“I just started my freshman year of college at American University, which … was supposed to be in Washington, D.C. but is now in my bedroom,” he said.

Tips for civic engagement

Pegram said before the pandemic, conventional knowledge was that governments, corporations and the public generally resist changes to the status quo. But most people have upended their lives and businesses significantly to stop the spread of the virus.

He sees this as a sign that people, corporations and governments have the ability to make significant changes to keep their communities safe.

“It made me really hopeful for the future, saying, if we can do this for a pandemic we can do this for climate change,” he said.

Left to right, Amelia White, Kawika Pegram, Desiree Burton and Samantha Carleton.
Kawika Pegram, center left, connected with other teenagers online to organize Honolulu’s Black Lives Matter protest in June. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Pegram is still busy organizing, he just relies heavily on text messaging and Zoom calls to reach interested citizens and potential voters.

In some ways, he said getting involved in government and politics is easier in the pandemic, because public meetings are held online and people are used to communicating over video calls.

It’s good news for Tanikawa, who doesn’t feel safe attending protests but is excited to start letter-writing campaigns and talking to her grandchildren, nephews and nieces about the importance of voting.

“I can’t just sit here and hope that the future is going to be better for my grandsons without me doing something,” she said. “I can’t talk about it and just expect for it to miraculously happen.”

This podcast is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

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