In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, a scenario came to pass straight from a science fiction writing prompt. The air above the industrial city of Wuhan, China, the first epicenter of the global outbreak, emptied of pollution. The citywide lockdown stopped daily life, including driving and manufacturing, and people could literally breathe easier. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK found that a 63 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide concentrations “may have prevented up to 496 deaths in Wuhan, 3,368 in Hubei province and 10,822 in China as a whole.”
For a fleeting moment, a population ravaged by a deadly virus caught a glimpse of a climate-changed world—for the better.
Similar clearings happened in other major cities, such as Delhi, the capital of India, where one disbelieving resident called the air “alpine”, referring to the clean, crisp atmosphere of snow-capped mountains. In my own lockdown city of Seattle, you could see the difference in how the Olympic Mountains to the west and the Cascade Mountains to the east jumped out at you with their clarity.
If I had suggested this as a writing prompt a year ago—Imagine a global pandemic that stops everything and clears the air of pollution—you would’ve laughed at the idea as implausible.
Unfortunately, the reality of climate change and pollution returned to Wuhan. As the outbreak subsided, air pollution reached pre-COVID-19 levels. We can expect something similar in Europe, America, everywhere as life begins to resemble the old normal.
Imagine a global pandemic that stops everything and clears the air of pollution
And while we don home-made masks and consume billions of gallons of hand sanitizer, climate change gets worse. In May 2020, researchers recorded the highest-ever monthly atmospheric CO2 value of 414.7 parts per million.
New writing prompt: What does “normal” mean in a virus-damaged world further disrupted by climate change?
Add another tragic twist: A black man is gruesomely murdered by a police officer. The killing encapsulates the fear and anger suffered daily by tens of millions of Americans. In a paroxysm of national outrage, a thirst for justice and change supersedes all thoughts about the dangers of a deadly new virus and the long-term threat to human civilization. Has fear of the virus, and worry for a warming planet, contributed to the protests?
What does climate change have to do with the death of an innocent African-American, George Floyd, who also tested positive for coronavirus weeks before his death? If you believe that all things are connected in some way, you can find those links in your writing. Life is full of unexpected connections and unintended consequences.
Even as we acknowledge the pain of 400 years of injustice against African-Americans, and the anxiety of a terrible new disease, we have to continue addressing the challenge of a warming planet. Fiction writers contribute by imagining possible futures, and illuminating how a changing climate will affect the human heart.
What are your thoughts today about the climate change threat?