What lessons can the climate movement take from the Covid-19 crisis?
Just a few short weeks ago, if asked what the current greatest threat to humanity is, most people would likely have replied that the climate emergency topped their list. The climate strikes led by Greta Thunberg were the story of 2019 as Greta was heralded as Time magazine’s person of the year. At the beginning of 2020, the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has overtaken the climate emergency as our greatest threat with breathtaking speed. It is of course entirely necessary and appropriate that the full attention of governments, businesses and private citizens has been redirected to fighting this deadly disease until such time as Covid-19 can be brought to heel. Our focus right now should be to look after ourselves and those close to us.
In this time of great uncertainty and anxiety for all, it is also appropriate that we do everything possible to maintain our mental health by minimising other sources of stress and anxiety outside of the current acute situation in front of us. So the climate emergency has taken a back seat in the minds of most.
Unfortunately, the climate emergency has not gone away. So, can we extract some valuable lessons from the current situation that might benefit us all when the Covid-19 crisis passes? I believe the answer is yes.
The current situation is a window into the future.
Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis, according to the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen. Experts warn that global heating and destruction of the natural environment must end if we are to avoid even more serious consequences than those playing out around the world right now with Covid-19. Covid-19 shows in close and fast forward reality what procrastination in taking decisive action against environmental risks could mean. We must look after the planet in order to look after ourselves.
Is this the warning shot we need, albeit a brutal one, to finally wake up to the stark reality of what lies in the future? Will we finally sit up and take notice?
As we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with mother nature as our strongest ally.
Will Covid-19 benefit the climate emergency?
The swift shutdown of the world economy has caused some to celebrate a reduction in emissions. Experts estimate that China’s emissions dropped 25% during the shutdown in that country. Similar reductions will be seen globally as the rest of the world self isolates in the coming months. While this is positive on the face of it from a climate perspective, the numbers mask the fact that the human cost of these gains is far too great a price to pay for a modest and temporary gain. The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects that the coronavirus pandemic will actually have a negative long term effect on climate change by undermining investment in clean energy due to the economic fallout from the pandemic. A decline in emissions will be due to an economic crisis, not due to sustained governmental action as it needs to be. Once the crisis passes and world economies flex their muscle again, the economic stimulus will likely lead to a spike in activity and corresponding emissions. As stock market gains have been decimated by the crisis, emissions gains will be reversed in the recovery.
There will always be deniers and ‘fake news’
President Trump initially sought to defuse fears over the Covid-19 repeatedly stating the US had the outbreak under control, going so far as to call it a hoax instigated by the opposition. Soaring infection rates have since dissuaded him from these notions. Similarly, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro dubbed the outbreak a “little flu” and “a fantasy” created by his opponents to undermine his power. This, despite an eightfold increase in the number of cases in a week. The threat was initially played down by the UK authorities before some common sense prevailed — in the meantime, precious time was lost in putting appropriate measures in place to contain the outbreak. This lost time will ultimately cost lives.
This is a mirror of the sentiment that has been spread by leaders in relation to the threat posed by the climate emergency. These threats are viewed through the prism of the negative effects they may have on the economy and political futures. Underplaying the threat and spreading disinformation serves to confuse the public and sew doubt as to what should be done.
As with Covid-19, when we open our eyes to the reality unfolding before us of record temperatures, bush fires and more ferocious storms, we can clearly see the truth of the matter. We should trust our own eyes and instincts, fake news be damned.
Delay is deadly
The comparisons between delays in taking the necessary steps to combat Covid-19 in many countries are a warning for the decades that have already been wasted in tackling the climate emergency. Delay and deny tactics have been the mainstay for climate politics for years. When it comes to a pandemic like Covid-19, that position is untenable. No leader can deny the science, nor can they delay action as they have done on global heating. Muddling through until the next election is not an option; leaders will be judged on deaths in the next month, not emissions reductions in 2050. This makes the pandemic a greater political threat than the climate emergency has ever been. Election cycles have driven short sighted policies for years. There will be no hiding from the fallout of Covid-19 as its impacts are being felt now with brutal force. If we are to avoid a cascade of future crises, political and business leaders must think beyond returning to business as usual when this crisis passes. Our understanding of normal must change.
When we need to, we can mobilise decisively en-mass against threats to our existence.
The world has not seen a more sudden and deadly shock to the global economy since records began. This economic downturn has been faster and more severe than the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Depression. Stock markets are in free fall, consumer demand has ground to a halt and projections for unemployment globally are dire. We don’t know when this will end or how bad the end result will be.
What is already notably clear however is how governments have moved uniformly and with incredible speed to pump cash into the economy in an effort to minimise the damage. The US stimulus package is about to pass and will be over $1 trillion, or about 10% of GDP — a massive package. The EU has loaded its €500 billion “bazooka” (in German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholtz’s words). The UK will pay 80% of the salaries of affected workers. Similar policies are being rolled out globally. After years of conservative fiscal policy and austerity, governments have shown themselves willing to act decisively in the face of crisis.
The climate emergency is of a slower moving and more abstract nature to the current crisis. It is, however, no less real and has the potential to unleash irreversible destruction. While we will likely create a vaccine for Covid-19 within 12–18 months, there will be no vaccine to insulate us from the impacts wrought by climate change. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to recognise the risks and begin to change our habits now.
Governments have shown that they can act decisively with fiscal stimulus — the money has somehow been found to address the immediate need. Mass lockdowns across the globe show that private citizens can make significant compromises to their lifestyles when faced with a dangerous enemy.
While we certainly do not revel in the current environment, we can view the collective action we are taking now as a massive social experiment that shows we all have the capacity to combat the climate emergency.
Can we use lock down time productively?
Millions of us will be holed up at home in the coming weeks with little purpose or activity to occupy our minds. Many workers are benched as their professions are not part of the essential services infrastructure we need to keep us alive during this lockdown. Planes are grounded, airports vacant, stores closed. The economy is in hibernation. This sums up to vast amounts of manpower and brainpower laying dormant. Is there a way this valuable resource could be harnessed during this time to begin solving the next battle that awaits us as a species?
While our markets and our spirits are suppressed, we will conquer Covid-19, it is just a matter of time. This will be a time for celebration but also reflection on what has just unfolded and how it might echo into our future. While the market is suppressed, we at CarbonClick are pushing forward with as much vigor as ever to develop our capability to play a part in the recovery from this crisis. Wouldn’t it be something to celebrate at the end of this crisis if we could fast track our collective impact on the fight against climate change? We all have an opportunity during this lockdown to use this time to the greatest effect. While governments will be focused on navigating us through this time, business leaders can mobilise their organisation’s spare capacity to use this time to create solutions to the climate crisis and position themselves to recover stronger from this crisis.
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