As I write this, I am trapped in Central Washington with my family in a historic snowstorm in Washington state. For the first time in nearly 20 years, all four of Washington’s passes are closed, making cross-state travel impossible. Two days ago, before the roads closed, my little brother tested positive for COVID-19.
After his rapid test showed a tiny pink line, he donned a KN95 mask, waved goodbye and drove off into the snow to isolate across the state. We have no more tests. We can’t go anywhere. And for the fourth time in my experience since March 2020 (including the Pacific Northwest heat wave and fires and flooding in New York City caused by remnants of Hurricane Ida,) the viral pandemic has overlapped with a weather emergency. I can’t help feeling that this is the way of the future.
I thought about these converging emergencies as my dad and I drove on a back road, the car plowing through several feet of snow. We drove to a larger town in search of Wi-Fi so I could take a medical school exam proctored on Zoom. I’m enrolled in an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Columbia University, but we delayed restarting school in light of the omicron wave. As a 2020 college graduate, I’m all too familiar with virtual school. This wave feels different to me — deflating, defeating.
To be in your early 20s, already a time of unmoored self-discovery, in the time of COVID has been agonizing. The calculus of risk seems impossible, even though I have access to professors and doctors. I don’t agree with the pundits that think our generation is selfish. Instead, we are struggling to understand the amorphous recommendations from our government. I have been shamed and prudified, often in the same week. To my parents I was careless for meeting up with friends. To my peers I was overcautious. The whole time, I was panicked. Maybe my stores of resolve dissolved somewhere last November, when I cooked and ate Thanksgiving dinner alone for the first time. Or maybe it was when I heard my professors explain what it was like to care for an entire hospital of COVID patients, with a refrigerated truck waiting in the street.
The problems of isolation are amplified by extreme weather. Emergency shelters have to pick between keeping people safe from freezing temperatures and appropriately distancing them. The heat wave forced people into crowded cooling centers. The wildfire smoke made exercising outside impossible. Even though my snowy predicament will end, it just seems like a glance of what’s to come.
Climate anxiety, a phenomenon first described by Glenn Albrecht’s “eco-anxiety,” refers to a sense of dread around the progressive, rapid decline of the climate. I believe that overwhelmingly, it is experienced by people in my generation. My parents, while ambitious in their recycling projects, will not experience the catastrophic effects of global warming on our current course. But my generation will face the rising oceans, the extreme weather and the frequent natural disasters. We will have to choose if we have children, with the knowledge that we will not be able to load them onto a “Don’t Look Up” style spaceship and shuttle away from Earth.
The effects of climate change will likely not affect my children first. In medical school, we are taught about the role of systemic racism in health disparities. We looked at the redlined maps of New York City, and the highly disparate rates of environmental asthma across the boroughs. The inequities in COVID mortality rates showed this most clearly, and it made me lose hope most. It showed me how powerless, or how unbothered, our government is in the face of widespread death. Sometimes I lose focus in class thinking about what it will be like to treat patients for diseases of climate: heatstroke and smoke exposure and cancer from carbon emissions or radiation. To hold people’s hands, as we have been taught to do, as they die from a preventable cause.