Lessons From Loss: Congress, Our Climate, And This Moment Of Truth

By Mary Anne Hitt, Senior Director of the Climate Imperative project at Energy Innovation.

I’ve spent much of my life working to tackle the climate crisis, so I should have been celebrating on January 27, 2021, when President Biden released a sweeping set of actions to address our “code-red” climate emergency, invest in a sustainable and equitable future, and create hundreds of thousands of good jobs across the country. But I wasn’t. I didn’t even know it had happened.

That’s because I was with my mom and sister at my dad’s bedside as he passed away, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. On that day, I joined the unenviable club of those who’ve suffered a great loss during this pandemic, one we haven’t fully been able to mourn. It’s a grief compounded for me by how I feel working on the climate crisis, unable to mourn all we’ve lost as we fight for a safe future. But on that day, I also began learning something deeper about the support systems that hold us all, and discovered a renewed determination to stitch them back together in new, better ways.

My dad was funny, loving, and mischievous. As chief scientist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he fought against the smog from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plants. That air pollution was creating acid rain, killing forests, erasing the sweeping mountain vistas millions of visitors came to see, and causing hikers who had come to the mountains for fresh air to struggle to breathe instead. When we were just beginning to understand that fossil fuels caused climate change, he was already helping cut the emissions causing it. I didn’t know it at the time, but he lit a spark in me to carry on the fight that still burns brightly today.

Mary Anne Hitt and her father “walking her down the aisle” on her wedding day.

When he died, it felt like a trapdoor opened up beneath me and I started to freefall. An invisible net that had always supported me disappeared in an instant. And as the shock of his passing has begun to fade away, I’ve also realized that this loss is one we’ve all experienced this year, one way or another, even for those who haven’t lost loved ones.

Systems that we counted on or never understood have fallen apart in waves, one after another, opening countless trapdoors beneath us all. Schools closed, and without a place to send kids every day to learn, women left the workforce in droves. Our hospitals buckled under surges of COVID patients, and we couldn’t produce enough life-saving supplies, from ventilators to swabs to masks. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more forced a reckoning with a broken policing system that most White Americans had turned a blind eye to for decades. White nationalists stormed the U.S. Capitol to try and overturn the results of a free and fair election, fraying the fragile threads of our democracy almost to the breaking point. Climate change continued its relentless escalation, fueling a barrage of hurricanes in the East, floods in the Great Plains, and wildfires that turned skies orange across the West.

Now fall is in the air, many of us are vaccinated, kids are headed back to school, and we’ve emerged from our homes and hugged grandparents for the first time in forever. But those seats of our loved ones at the dinner table remain empty and those broken systems still lay around us in shambles. We so desperately want things to go back to normal, but they can’t. We can’t. Instead, we need to build a new reality that heals the wounds, acknowledges what we’ve lost, and addresses the flaws in the systems that have failed us. Just as the rise of Delta and other COVID variants remind us we can’t go back to our old ways, the massive wildfires and worsening droughts spreading across the Western U.S. hammer home the urgency to accelerate climate action.

The science is clear. These upheavals have been a mere warm-up for the truly cataclysmic scenarios that await us if we don’t move away from fossil fuels as fast as we can, this decade. Failed power grids, flooded neighborhoods, deadly record-breaking heat waves, raging wildfires spewing smoke across the country, and climate refugees on our borders — 2021 has already felt like a trailer for the feature film of what is to come if we don’t change course.

In the months since President Biden’s executive orders, he has advanced solutions including the American Jobs Plan, a program to power our nation with clean energy, support for electrifying our cars and homes, and a “Justice40” commitment to invest in under-resourced communities. These policies straddle the immediate need to fix our broken systems and build a more equitable future, while accelerating the long-term fight against climate change and honoring the sacrifices that many of our parents — mine included — have made to protect our environment.

Just as many people denied the threat COVID posed to our loved ones and way of life, many politicians want to go back to denying that the climate crisis demands bold action — the kind of bold action President Biden has proposed. Well we can’t go back to normal, but we can listen hard to what these losses are teaching us, and build something better. I learned something important about that after I lost my dad.

When my dad passed away I found that when one support net fell away, another one appeared and caught me, one that had been underneath me all along. In the weeks following my dad’s death, my mailbox filled with cards and books, friends left prayer shawls and bottles of wine on my doorstep, and my generous colleagues and family gave me the time and space to just be sad and still. An invisible web of love and support that had been there all along was suddenly revealed. It caught me, and it helped me see how connected we all remain to one another, even after this year of isolation.

As we strive to emerge from our season of COVID, may we see anew how we’re all bound together — as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it, “tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” And may we act on that newfound understanding, and take the steps needed to rescue our climate and stitch that support system back together, before it’s too late.

We now have an opportunity to do just that. Building on the American Jobs Plan, President Biden and Senate Democrats are proposing a budget resolution to fund the clean energy transition and combat dangerous climate change. Key provisions include support for utilities to invest in new wind and solar to reach 80 percent clean electricity by 2030 on the way to 100 percent clean by 2035 without raising customer bills. The budget also includes tax credits to help more working families afford electric vehicles and funds for building decarbonization that would save families money while cutting emissions. Together, these proposals would do what’s required and leave a proud legacy for our children and grandchildren.

I know my dad would have been thrilled to see a vision and plan for tackling this crisis, before it’s too late. As his daughter, I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen. We can’t replace what we’ve lost over the past year, but we can honor those losses by re-dedicating ourselves to healing this planet and the life support system that sustains us — weaving a support net that will catch us all before what could be a catastrophic, irreversible fall. It’s not too late, and everything we do now matters so much.

May the memory of my dad and all those we’ve lost be a blessing on this sacred work ahead of us, and an encouragement to work hard for a safe climate future.

Energy Innovation: Policy and Technology LLC is a nonpartisan energy and environmental think tank, providing original climate policy analysis to policymakers.