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In the climate and COVID interregnum, Tucson must be bold

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Guest opinion

In the climate and COVID interregnum, Tucson must be bold

Pandemic recovery & changing planet provide space for meaningful choices

  • Tucson as photographed from the International Space Station, 2004.
    NASATucson as photographed from the International Space Station, 2004.

Tucson is between two ages. We are on both sides of a threshold, where we are at once committing to move away from destructive policies destroying our climate while not yet fully accommodating the interruption of a global health emergency.

In another time, the word 'interregnum' was used for a period between the reigns of two different leaders, a time between dominions or realms, often caused by emergency events like the death of a ruler. Our climate and public health emergencies represent the interregnum of our times.

While global in scale, they expose an opportunity for us to leave behind the old dominion responsible for those emergencies, even in Tucson. The City and County have taken strides in the face of both threats. We're better for it now than yesterday, but we're not yet to the end of the beginning for either.

The reign of fossil fuels ("King Coal") is giving way to green energy, though not as quickly as it must. Meanwhile, the most lucid of us are acting to halt rather than promote the onslaught of a deadly intruder virus. Still, it is difficult to feel confident about any timeline for the end of the pandemic.

Until the emergencies are declared over, sustained public and private sector leadership, community discipline, and some damned good science will be needed for us to reach safer realms. Only then will we know the interregnum has ended.

However we look at it, just the idea of being in an interregnum represents a clear threat to business as usual. Witness the powerful tripping over themselves to have us see a return to normalcy as critical to our well-being. Their well-being perhaps, but not necessarily ours.

As the city moves out with its climate emergency declaration, and the county continues to strengthen our pandemic health services, it might be tempting to pick one over the other as a priority. Yet there is nothing in the human condition that says its impossible to take bold actions on more than one front.

Tucson has the opportunity to redesign more than one broken system at the same time. Fractured political and health care systems set us up to fail at the outset of the pandemic. And understanding backwards, we now see that for nearly a half-century we should have been acting on the threat of climate disruption with much greater conviction.

History will sort out the blame, but we cannot let future generations wish we had taken bolder action today.

That's our obligation at the local level and wherever else we take the fight. In so doing, two common-sense principles must guide us.

First, we must be about lasting economic recovery in our own backyard versus merely propping up whatever happens to fail this week. The U.S. invests by far the least in modernizing its aging, dangerous infrastructure. Instead we rush out the fiscal paddles and spend hundreds of billions defibrillating a status quo that may never return.

We must recognize this interregnum and capture the opportunity it offers or we could easily succumb to what Atlantic writer Ed Yong refers to as the 'death spiral,' where we remain imprisoned by a wall of our own instincts.

Rather than concentrate our grief on vulnerable sectors and sclerotic business models, we need to direct significant support to those enterprises which have been less hard hit, those job-creating sectors which have already demonstrated growth potential.

Investment is needed in clean energy, green infrastructure, expanded public health services, and rethinking mobility in an era where access often counts for more than transit. Local First Arizona and its 3,000 member businesses make it easy for us to spend every job-creating dollar possible in our local economies.

Jobs in sectors with powerful network effects such as digital infrastructure, building out energy storage for a new electric economy, and reshaping public and private services for a low-touch world are all jobs that can't easily be outsourced.

Second, resources we invest in fighting one emergency must not make the other one more of an emergency. Every dollar spent to fight the climate emergency should, in as many ways as possible, build community resilience in the face of COVID-19.

As we decarbonize our economy we must do so using the wealth of our human resource potential now laid low by COVID closures. There is much work ahead and too many Tucsonans looking for employment security. Let's match them up.

This liminal space we occupy is allowing us to cross over to a future that we have redesigned and not merely patched over. Where we choose less, not more, of what no longer works. Our empty malls, overextended food banks, shuttered businesses, homeless shelters, and vacant lots tell us there is much that is not working in Southern Arizona.

Let's give ourselves permission to leave behind what is damaged from these times even though we cannot fully script the outcome.

The longer it takes to return to whatever was before, the more powerful the open space of an interregnum becomes for us and the better our chance to turn away and leave the broken dominion behind.

David Schaller is a retired EPA environmental scientist and Tucson native. He currently writes on regional energy, water, and climate security. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg and a member of the Hurricane Katrina response effort. He has published a sustainability best practices newsletter weekly since 2000.

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