From three tragedies, cathartic breakthroughs

In recent days, the world has reached thresholds on the pandemic, climate change, and police violence in the U.S. The deeper meaning is an awakening to the common good.

World leaders appear on a video screen at the White House during a virtual climate summit April 23.

When a breakthrough is reached on an important public issue after a long period of resistance or inertia, there is a tendency to look to circumstance for an explanation of the change. A rare alignment of relevant factors, perhaps, or a novel deal between political rivals. When a shift touches on several intractable problems at once, it is worth asking if something deeper is happening.

In recent days, three significant hurdles were cleared. World leaders set aggressive new targets to cut carbon emissions. A police officer in the U.S. was convicted of murdering a Black man. And the Group of Seven nations, led by the UK, launched an international partnership to prevent future pandemics.

This does not mean that the current pandemic, climate change, and the problems of race and American law enforcement have been solved. Pledges on climate change have been made and missed for decades. An average of four Americans were killed by police each day during the 22-day trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin. In India COVID-19 cases are spiking rapidly.

But the headlines this week point to a broadening acknowledgment, as the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ said in The Washington Post, that “we are all interconnected, inextricably bound to each other.”

Among the reasons for this may be political shock and recognition of a common adversary. A year ago, as countries were scrambling to shut their streets and borders to contain the coronavirus, Columbia University psychology professor Peter Coleman noted that history often pivots when people are jarred by crisis into a wider range of urgency and empathy. Nazi Germany’s 56-day bombing campaign against Britain, he told Politico, stirred “an ascendance of human goodness – altruism, compassion, and generosity of spirit and action.” He foresaw a similar response in the pandemic, noting that “the time of change is clearly ripening.”

In a similar way, the shock of a nine-minute video led to the Chauvin verdict while erratic weather over the past year has led to heightened alertness to its causes. Recognition of these outsize events has shaped public coordination on solutions. At his virtual summit on climate change yesterday, President Joe Biden vowed to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by 2030 from 2005 levels. Japan, Britain, and the European Union made similar pledges. Those goals invite skepticism. The goals will require massive and rapid transformations in power grids, infrastructure, transportation, agriculture, and construction.

Yet their boldness, like the response to COVID-19 or the injustice in Minneapolis, reflects a reaching toward a higher good. Mr. Biden cast the climate crisis as “a moral imperative.” The challenge of police brutality, argued the Rev. Dr. Roderic Land of Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the Deseret News yesterday, made clear that “somehow we have to start seeing each other as human beings and as brothers and sisters, period.” How, he asked, “do we begin to help police officers see that ... these people of color are also human?” 

Jolted by necessity, much of humanity is taking a fresh look at neglected problems – and this collective awakening by individuals has helped redefine the common good. Tragedy has led to shared purpose.

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