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George Floyd protests becoming an unlikely source of hope for climate activists

The coronavirus shut down most of the United States this spring, but climate change kept working. In fact, NASA says that last month was the hottest May that Earth has ever recorded, and there’s a good chance that 2020 — in addition to all of the other 2020 things — will be the planet’s warmest year since humans began keeping track.

So while hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets in all 50 states to march against police violence and racial injustice, global warming was also on the move, and not just on U.S. soil. Siberia experienced a bizarre spring heat wave that made it 40 degrees warmer than Washington, D.C., while here at home an epic flood in Michigan caused aging dams to burst.

Climate change doesn’t get enough news coverage in normal times — and these are definitely not normal times. While the COVID-19 crisis, its devastating economic fallout and now the coast-to-coast George Floyd protests have sucked up all the oxygen, 2020′s epic events have also shown that the world can change a lot, and more quickly than we ever dreamed. Surely there’s a lesson here for taking on climate change — but which one?

After all, there are real reasons to be pessimistic. First, the distrust of science and expertise from Team Trump and the Republicans who run the Senate didn’t yield to 115,000 (and counting) coronavirus deaths, so how will they ever accept sound climate science? Second, while the 17% drop in carbon emissions at the peak of the shutdown was quite a thing, that still wasn’t enough to undo global warming, and those improvements have nearly been reversed anyway.

And yet the mood among the climatologists I connected with and others quoted in the media lately is one of rising optimism, and here’s why. The George Floyd protests, which have resonated all over the world, have shown that the under-35 generation, more multicultural and more progressive than anything we’ve seen, is flexing its muscles and taking charge. Defund the police today. Pay for the Green New Deal tomorrow. Or we’ll be back in the streets.

Michael Mann, the leading climatologist and Penn State professor, told me the current protest “demonstrates that social change often takes place abruptly, in tipping points. We saw one on marriage equality some years back, and I believe we’re going through a tipping point right now on social and racial justice. Climate action is next.”

Rob Jackson, Stanford University earth scientist and chair of the Global Carbon Project, told me — unprompted — something quite similar. “In rare cases in our country, public opinion transforms," he said. “Recent examples include the death penalty, homosexuality, and, now I believe, Black Lives Matter. Global equity and climate solutions are tightly linked; perhaps we’ll ride a wave of broader support for climate solutions, too.”

And it doesn’t hurt that the protesters see a growing connection between racial injustice and pollution, which disproportionately falls on black and brown neighborhoods and thus has created problems like asthma, which put non-whites at a higher risk for coronavirus death.

The Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., an environmental justice activist, told the New Yorker that “climate change and police brutality are directly linked together, because the communities who are most impacted and vulnerable to police brutality are also the same communities that are most vulnerable to climate change.” He noted that Eric Garner, whose 2014 chokehold killing by police on Staten Island was the first to be punctuated by the cry “I can’t breathe,also suffered from asthma.

The current moment is dangerous but also electrifying, because the spark of change caused by the injustice of one man’s death is spreading like wildfire, and because a new generation is grasping how America’s original sin of racism touches everything — including the environment. People coming to this from the old politics — yes, we’re looking at you, Joe Biden — can lead, follow or get out of the way.