On the morning of March 10th, I sat in lecture and promised myself that if I could power through these two classes and a work meeting, I would let myself grab a bowl from the vegan place down the street for dinner. Hours later, the university president sent out an email instructing all of the undergraduate students to move out of the dorms within the next few days. I had certainly known about COVID-19, but I was unsettled by how quickly life changed for thousands of students. I had failed to make the connection from the information on my screen to its real-world implications.
As a systems engineering student, I feel fortunate to be surrounded by academics who care deeply about the environment. I spend much of my time cringing at flow diagrams of energy consumption and graphs of skyrocketing emissions. Despite this cerebral knowledge, I have often walked past the sun shining on the Charles River and allowed myself to be filled with unfounded optimism. Somehow, someday, everything was going to be alright. Besides, what would a global disaster even look like?
My self-imposed oblivion has dissipated with the coronavirus. COVID-19 has been a grim demonstration that the inklings of an impending danger will not remain benign forever. What once felt far away is now reality.
In the face of a crisis so demanding, the public has adapted. Because there is a consensus on the direness of the situation, cooperation on a global scale is possible. Widespread understanding and urgency facilitate drastic lifestyle changes, which are formalized by state and local officials. Climate change reform will likely require similar public education and governmental support. I have gotten the sense during this pandemic that while scientific issues should not be politicized, organization on a larger scale is necessary.
Economic instabilities and gaping social divides exacerbate the current myriad of health concerns. Mending these underlying issues may create a system that can withstand possible periods of decreased activity to alleviate global warming. And conceptually, unity and equality are more congruous with the spirit of environmentalism.
As I have these thoughts, I am unsure of how to act on them. I would love to attribute this uncertainty to the fact that I am a student without a career in place, but I am suspicious that I will not be considerably more confident in thirteen months’ time. In the short term, I am less reluctant to do schoolwork, because I am reminded of how much I care about science and engineering. I promise myself to never use two-day shipping on unnecessary items, and to arbitrarily reduce my private vehicle usage. But all of this feels moot when I don’t know how it fits into the bigger picture. By self-organizing and voting environmentally-minded leaders into office, I hope that climate action becomes a concerted, focused effort— which we can evidently achieve.
Adelynn Paik is a systems engineering student and stand-up comedian.