For the past three years, my peers and I at HLS have worked towards earning our law degrees in the hopes of contributing to a more equitable society. As the Class of 2020 graduates this month, I realize that the path toward justice has become more urgent and increasingly challenging. Our class will spend some of our most formative years navigating the enormous human and economic consequences of the pandemic. We must also prepare for a crisis that we already know will be more disruptive, painful, and irrevocable than COVID-19—climate change. Which lessons we take away from this pandemic will determine whether we are able to prevent human suffering of an equivalent—or even larger—scale.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that inequality kills. During COVID-19, low-wage workers have been exposed to disproportionate risk of death without commensurate pay, protections, or status. We can expect the same of those that will work on the frontlines of climate change. These climate essential workers will work in construction, landscaping, delivery, commercial kitchens, bakeries, factories, and manufacturing—under punishing heat waves, lethal air pollution, and increased disease. Others will include incarcerated individuals whose labor is often used to combat extreme weather events for pay as low as $1 an hour plus $2 a day. Scholars fear the rise of “green gig workers”—volunteer laborers who will be tasked with responding to extreme weather events but whose precarious labor would not be acknowledged or as socially protected as those in formal employment.
Just as the pandemic has deepened want around the world, climate-induced poverty will become a new reality. Even the simple act of increased air conditioning will produce higher debt and food poverty: nearly 30 percent of households in the U.S. already struggle to pay their energy bills and about 20 percent reduce or forgo food, medicine, and other necessities to pay those bills. As the price of food and clean water goes up, a clear dividing line will appear between households that can afford to still feed, clean, and hydrate themselves and those who cannot. Many in the agriculture, fishing, and beverage industries will lose their jobs altogether, and millions will be displaced around the world as a direct consequence of climate change.
On the other hand, the pandemic has taught us that public infrastructure, if well-designed, can save lives. As climate change introduces acute shocks and gradual stress on our health, livelihoods, homes, and neighborhoods, robust public infrastructure including healthcare, welfare, transportation, and urban infrastructure will add to, rather than undermine, our resiliency.
Many in our class have observed the succession of previously unimaginable concessions from all levels of government, deployed to catch millions free-falling into poverty: halts to evictions and utility shut-offs, freezes on student loan interest and collection, and expansions in unemployment benefits to gig workers, independent contractors, and part-time workers for the first time. We will remember how, in the span of weeks, the rules that we were deemed too naive to want to change were swiftly relaxed. We understand now that rules are accepted because we have internalized them, not because they are necessarily wise, beneficial, or even truly necessary.
Yet, we have also noticed that underneath those concessions, the most important structures remain unchanged. Contrary to the rhetoric of refusing to make trade-offs among human lives at the beginning of the pandemic, in reality trade-offs were made for low-wage workers until we could be comfortable with putting the professional classes in the trade-off as well. The U.S. Congress made some benefits, such as paid sick and family leave, accessible to more workers, but it shied away from making those extensions a permanent part of the safety net. Public health infrastructure and Unemployment Insurance remain dangerously underfunded, inaccessible, and fragile despite states beginning to reopen. These rules have to be reimagined, and I hope we can play a role.
The Class of 2020 is graduating during unprecedented times, with an unprecedented sense of urgency, purpose, and appreciation of human life and decent living. As we graduate into this world, we owe it to one another to remember these lessons so that we can be better prepared for the next crisis.
Ayoung Kim is a member of the Harvard Law School JD Class of 2020. While at HLS, Ayoung co-founded a group dedicated to advocating for international students on campus and worked with HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the Tenant Advocacy Project, and the Law and International Development Society. She spent multiple semesters in the International Human Rights Clinic.