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How We Will Turn It Around: Rebounding From America’s 2020 Nightmare

The pandemic, shutdown, economic meltdown, police misconduct, and western fires have made this year seem unreal. I keep wondering when I’ll awaken but despite some sleeplessness, I can tell I’m wide awake. This is too weird to be a dream.

During times of crisis, Americans are used to appeals to unity and common values. From the White House, to the Capital, to New York’s City Hall, all we see is an absence of leadership and an effort to shift blame elsewhere. John Markey, a pol running for reelection to the Senate from Massachusetts — who should know better — flipped JFK’s noble appeal for public service on its head to beat a Kennedy in a primary. Markey asked “what your country can do for you” instead of asking what you can do for your country. Shameful. In the White House, we have a serial liar who is willing to say anything to anyone to get re-elected. Trump denies climate science, medical science, and inconvenient facts, while Americans on the West Coast need to figure out how to simultaneously evacuate, socially isolate and breathe smoke-filled air. How did we come to have a president who managed for weeks to ignore an entire coast on fire? After weeks of ignoring the growing coastal inferno, he finally added a quick visit to California at the end of a campaign trip to Nevada and Arizona. As Annie Karni reported in last Saturday’s New York Times:

“The announcement of the visit, which was added to a three-day campaign swing through Nevada and Arizona, came after Mr. Trump tweeted Friday night thanking the firefighters and emergency medical workers. It was the president’s first acknowledgment in almost a month of a wildfire season that so far has claimed 17 lives and destroyed millions of acres of land in California, Oregon and Washington…Notably absent was any mention of residents who have been living under smoke-filled skies, many forced to evacuate their homes in the middle of a pandemic…”

Trump’s lack of leadership of the American community in the face of our cascading catastrophes might be unfavorably compared to President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR). Both were born to wealth and privilege but polio, the Great Depression and militant fascism transformed FDR from a spoiled rich dilettante into a great leader who worked to overcome fear rather than fan its flames. In his inaugural address, FDR observed that:

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Our ability to “convert retreat into advance” requires facts, science and an appeal to the values that unite Americans not constant reminders of our differences. Trump is only interested in helping people and places that support him. John Markey thinks that progressive politics requires government to provide benefits that have been withheld. Bill DeBlasio refuses to mobilize our leaderless city and put New Yorkers to work, instead asks the state for the ability to borrow billions and the federal government for billions of dollars in grants. He just wants the money to avoid layoffs and continue business as usual until his term limits out. He’s willing to let the next mayor figure out how to rebuild New York City. Few of our elected leaders are talking about sacrifice and commitment for the common good. Joe Biden is trying to, and in his remarks accepting the Democratic nomination observed that:

“It’s time for us, for we the people, to come together. For make no mistake. United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege… But while I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did. That’s the job of a president. To represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.”

We may find out next year he is capable of FDR-style transformative leadership. Meanwhile, social media, partisan news channels and foreign manipulation emphasize the differences Americans have, rather than our shared values. Somehow, we need to figure out how to overcome those forces and work together to eliminate this pandemic and those that will follow. We need to work globally on that task and on the task of eliminating global warming. The constant hurricanes and ferocious fires we are enduring are not natural occurrences. Human technology and our unwillingness to regulate that technology has caused global warming. Pandemics are spread by our global economy and if we want the continued benefits of global supply chains and travel, we will need to pay the cost of a more vigilant and sophisticated system of global public health.

The way to turn around the nation is to make our revival a community project. Funds for infrastructure must be invested to decarbonize our energy system and revitalize our transport and communications systems. Federal grants, and tax incentives need to fund a public-private partnership on a mass scale. Health, food, shelter and education must become rights — but rights that carry obligations as well. Reconstruction will require work, and everyone who is able should be trained and provided with the opportunity to contribute in some way. In addition to designing and building infrastructure, our aging society needs more eldercare than ever and we will need even more in the future as people live longer. But reconstruction and revival cannot succeed if Americans simply compete in a zero-sum game for government benefits. It must follow a conscious strategy that evokes commitment, sacrifice and work leading to a sense of ownership of the community and the nation. The greatest obstacle to our comeback is not simply the division that has become so prominent, but the alienation that this division has caused.

This is a capitalist country and so the rebuilding of America requires that the private sector be at the center of any national strategy of revival. But America, like all developed nations has a mixed public-private economy. It always has; From the Erie Canal, to land grant colleges to interstate highways, our government has always played a role in building our economy. The public sector plays a key role in steering private behavior toward the public interest. The Food and Drug Administration’s non-partisan scientists ensure our food and drugs are safe. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulates our places of work. And when it is allowed to do its job, the Environmental Protection Agency ensures that our air, water and soils are free of poison. But our food, clothing, shelter, technology and entertainment come to us through the genius and motivation of private enterprise. The country works best when the public and private sectors work together. Each sector has its unique role. The private sector can deliver wonderful goods and services, but its goals are profit, return on equity and market share — not serving the public interest. The goal of government is to ensure the public interest and its central, irreducible function is to protect the public from harm.

The pandemic and the western fires are examples of a catastrophic failure by America’s government to protect the public. The death and destruction out west and the nearly 200,000 dead from COVID-19 are massive failures of America’s government and evidence of the breakdown of the American community. Our comeback requires a competent federal government and a reconstruction and redefinition of the American community in every community. This will require leadership to overcome divisions and a shared sense of sacrifice to build common purpose. My own view of this community requires that racist, xenophobic and homophobic appeals be delegitimized but many other values are open for discussion. We need to begin that discussion and get to work on building an American community for the 21st century.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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