The Pandemic and the Earth crisis
About this post
It’s more than a post! It’s an experiment in contemporary collecting, responding to the emerging Covid-19 pandemic. As a collaborative and evolving document about a current issue, it is helping inform our enquiry into Digital Commons Collecting. Although published in March it was regularly updated until August 2020, and some additions are still being made.
We in the Climate Museum UK team are sharing our findings and inviting your contributions as we consider: what is the relationship between the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate & ecological emergency? We hope that it will be useful for anyone, for example, concerned that the wider emergency is being ignored in this health crisis, or wanting tools to explain how planetary health means human well-being.
Because our mission is to encourage talk about the Earth crisis, we aim to let this post grow as new insights and information come along, and we welcome your ideas to help with this. Please comment and share. Links are being captured in this Pinterest board. There is a mirror version of this post on Climate Museum UK’s website.
We’re also keen to host guest posts or to share artistic responses on this. See this collage artwork as an example.
Covid-19 is an environmental problem
“Storms are to climate change as disease outbreaks are to ecosystem decline.” Jonathan Foley, After the Storm
“Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans…nature is sending us a message…There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give…We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves.” Inger Andersen, UN’s environment chief
- When a particular disease happens at scale, potentially affecting any of the population, it is an environmental issue. According to our principles in Climate Museum UK, the environment is essentially a whole-systems, big picture view, so a public health issue sits nested within environmental issues. In exploring the environmental perspective on Covid-19, we recognise the unprecedented, lethal and disruptive nature of this global health emergency.
- It is important to distinguish between the Climate and the Ecological dimensions of the Emergency. They are entirely entangled, but Ecological devastation and the broader aspects of the global economic system is the key issue here, compared to Climate breakdown. Climate breakdown and pandemics are two parallel and slightly linked outcomes of this destructive system.
- Global pandemics have long been predicted as part of the ecological collapse that is emerging as a result of human acts of extraction, ecocide and consumption.
“Countless reports have warned us during the last thirty years…that changing environmental conditions were contributing to increasing disease threats. Numerous studies highlighted how infectious diseases could arise from deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss, wildlife exploitation, the bushmeat and traditional medicine trade, confined animal agriculture, and antibiotic misuse.” Jonathan Foley, After the Storm
“…when I grieved the climate crisis, I mourned the coming onslaught of pandemics. I knew that warming temperatures would allow dangerous diseases to travel farther. I knew that intensifying storms and fires would devastate our medical infrastructure and force people to live in conditions that were veritable playgrounds for contagion. I knew that melting permafrost would unleash diseases that were literally prehistoric…. All of that remains true, and it only serves to compound my grief over a pandemic that, so far, appears not to have originated in any of the scenarios that haunted my dreams.” Mary Annaise Heglar, What Climate Grief Taught me About the Coronavirus
- There are environmental causes to the new diseases, including deforestation and killing and eating wild animals. Covid-19 passed from a bat to humans, in a process known as ‘zoonotic spillover’. 75% of all new infectious diseases pass from wildlife.
“The chances of pathogens like viruses passing from wild and domestic animals to humans may be increased by the destruction and modification of natural ecosystems, the illegal or uncontrolled trade of wild species and the unhygienic conditions under which wild and domestic species are mixed and marketed.” WWF, The Loss of Nature and Rise of Pandemics
- These diseases are exacerbated by the increasing density of urban populations, increasing global tourism and trade. The disease has more severe effects due to reduced immunity and poor cardiovascular health caused by an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise. It is also worse for people with vulnerable lungs due to air pollution. A study shows that 78% of deaths in Italy, France, Spain and Germany were in the most air-polluted regions. Another study published in January 2021 concludes that “a small increase in air pollution leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 infectivity and mortality rate in England”.
- Climate change is one of these environmental causes: there is an expanding range, (and northern shift) of insects and other carriers of infectious diseases as the planet warms. In terms of humans, there is evidence that a warmer climate reduces the immune response and extends the flu season. There are many other factors too, as Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’. A July 2020 report found that climate change and agricultural land use will increase zoonotic transfer up to 4,000 times by 2070. “Range-shifting mammal species are predicted to aggregate at high elevations, in biodiversity hotspots, and in areas of high human population density in Asia and Africa, driving the cross-species transmission of novel viruses at least 4,000 times.”
- The Covid-19 pandemic will have long-lasting repercussions and recurrences. There will be more global pandemics as part of the worsening environmental crisis. A team of epidemiologists have used mathematical models to estimate that there may be as many as 1.7 million unknown viruses in animals. A WWF report (June 2020) confirms the threat of more zoonotic pandemics. In addition, with climate change as threat multiplier, David Wallace-Wells reminds us that “our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when…prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice”.
- This future rising of pandemics has to be seen in terms of systemic collapse. For example, food stress and disruption of normal supplies leads to conflict, which makes it harder to cope with extreme weather or ecological disasters, such as the spread of locusts in Africa or in Pakistan.
- Covid-19 (and other human diseases) pose a grave threat to Great Apes: gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees, and could wipe out existing populations — already threatened by loss of habitat.
“Although Covid-19 is likely the biggest global crisis since the second world war, it is still dwarfed in the long term by climate change. Yet the two problems have suggestive similarities. Both will require unusual levels of global cooperation. Both demand changes in behaviour today in the name of reducing suffering tomorrow. Both problems were long predicted with great certainty by scientists, and have been neglected by governments unable to see beyond the next fiscal quarter’s growth statistics..to think of this new level of state intervention as a temporary requirement is to ensure that we continue barrelling down the path to climate disaster.” Peter C Baker, ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?
“The climate change depression, the mass extinction depression, the eco-depression — these are going to make the Coronavirus depression seem like a happy memory.” Umair Haque
“If Covid-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained…Instead [it] is revealing the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades as they’ve been steadily worsening. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as ‘synchronous failure.’ ” Jeremy Lent, Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What Next?
Shifts happening and opportunities for change
“Covid-19 has blown the Overton window wide open.” Jeremy Lent
“COVID-19 is climate on warp speed,” Gernot Wagner
“At moments of immense change, we see with new clarity the systems — political, economic, social, ecological — in which we are immersed as they change around us. We see what’s strong, what’s weak, what’s corrupt, what matters and what doesn’t.” Rebecca Solnit, What Coronavirus can Teach us about Hope
- Those who have been calling for declarations of climate and ecological emergency, but who were frustrated by the limited response, can now see what a global emergency response looks like.
- The extraordinary response to stem the spread of the virus is dramatically reducing (by 80%) international flights and industrial production and, in turn, fossil fuel emissions. Holiday cruise ships are docked and some not starting up until 2021. The drop in production and local car transport is greatly improving air quality. China’s emissions dropped by more than a quarter since February 2020. The sudden drop in demand for oil is leaving fossil fuel companies in survival mode.
- Organisations are switching to virtual digital tools where possible, which despite their downsides, is showing them what is possible and could change habits permanently.
“The longer we are at home — remote working, using video conferencing — the more people will wonder: do we really need to get on a plane?” Mark Lewis, BNP Paribas, quoted in The Guardian, 1 April
- Collaborative community action is springing up, with potential for neighbourliness to overcome antagonism in communities. See the Karunavirus website, collecting stories of compassion and Mutual Aid in this crisis.
- The climate movement itself is providing existing networks and influencers to quickly build community action and response. Greta Thunberg, recovering from the virus herself, has appealed to young people: “We who do not belong to a risk group have an enormous responsibility, our actions can be the difference between life and death for many others.”
- The severity of this novel disease is forcing rapid innovation in areas such as 3D printing (e.g. of ventilators) and in seeking pharmaceutical solutions, which may inspire and translate to environmental innovation. There are attempts in Europe and USA/Canada to learn from Asian mitigation and suppression strategies. There are also initiatives to apply design innovation and technology to the social and economic fall-out of the virus.
- There is a rapid upward learning curve about the fragility of the economic system, which relies on: people being able to go out to work to pay debts and buy food; goods being transported across national borders; continued consumer demand for goods and services; continued production of consumer goods to meet demand; continued international tourism and cultural activity. In a matter of days, worldwide, many businesses and workers are needing comprehensive help from the state. People are quickly realising that we must transition to more resilient, localised and commons-based systems. The city of Amsterdam is planning to apply Doughnut Economics to the post-virus recovery.
- The crackdown on global travel, production and trade is forcing consumers to seek local suppliers, and to hack forms of distribution from local growers and food companies. People are less able to buy new consumer goods so are more likely to mend or lend. It might spark new ways of organising the growth and supply of goods that are much more sustainable.
- A combination of factors has led to a huge drop in oil prices, such that suppliers are paying for oil to be stored or taken away.
- Measures that the Green Party has been promoting for many years, such as Universal Basic Income, are now proposed by more mainstream thinkers. Governments are taking measures to rapidly provide safety nets for their citizens.
- Those governments and leaders most seen to have failed their citizens in protecting them from the virus, or supporting them in economic fallout, are likely to lose support (although this can also trigger power grabs).
“It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens.” Pankaj Mishra
With Covid-19 “you don’t need to convince anyone to do things differently — the fear component takes care of that and new behaviours become the norm. And when that happens the rest of the pieces fall into place. Social distancing begins, the economy can’t function properly and emissions drop. After so many years of playing by the rules of a climate plundering economy — COVID-19 comes on the scene and smashes them all. Trying to befriend and collaborate with those who are causing the harm has got us nowhere and wasted decades. Like a heat seeking missile — COVID-19 get’s directly to the source of the problem — our economic system — and it begins to dismantle it.” Brad Zarnett
“My climate grief was so difficult to process because not everyone saw what I saw. I felt like I could see the near future, so close I could touch it — but to the people around me it remained invisible. They saw a world that was still safe, still stable. Try as I might, I couldn’t pull the scales from their eyes. That’s not the case with the coronavirus, at least not anymore. Everybody sees it.” Mary Annaise Heglar, What Climate Grief Taught me About the Coronavirus
But, there are problematic factors for this shift…
- Distraction from the Climate & Ecological Emergency, and cancellation of protests, conferences, action groups and educational programmes about it, reduces the visibility of the movement and potential for in-person learning. COP26 — the most crucial climate talks ever — is likely to be postponed to 2021. It can feel insensitive or inappropriate to talk about the planet at this time. However, slowing down climate action is a major justice issue as direct harms continue to affect people where there are food and water shortages and extreme weather events.
- There are direct harmful ecological impacts of the virus response, such as the massive disposal of single-use protective garments and the use of antimicrobial chemicals. It’s estimated that over 1.5 billion will end up in the ocean in one year (published December 2020).
- Fear of public interaction may continue for a long time, leading to higher car use and a drop in public transport use.
“Excessive hand-washing, overuse of antibiotics, aseptic cleanliness, and lack of human contact might do more harm than good. The resulting allergies and autoimmune disorders might be worse than the infectious disease they replace. Socially and biologically, health comes from community. Life does not thrive in isolation.” Charles Eisenstein, The Coronation
- We are only at the start of the global pandemic, and there are huge risks that food shortages (caused by both the virus shutdown and climate impacts) could soon lead to opportunistic crimes, unrest and collapse. The most visible factor of our experience of the pandemic is empty supermarket shelves. This is due to our fragile just-in-time supply chain, and that only 50% of our food is grown in the UK. This summer, because seasonal workers can’t travel to work, the crops may rot in the fields. (Read this interview with Tim Lang.)
- This and future pandemics will severely affect indigenous communities, the bastions of stewardship of biodiverse places, due to a lack of healthcare combined with the ramping up of the devastating impacts of climate breakdown. Brazil, for example, is at risk due to Bolsonaro’s attitude, favouring economic growth over protection of life. Not only the disease but the response to it can be exploited for harm, for example in Colombia where death squads are using the lockdown to kill social leaders and activists. In the Maasai Mara, the loss of tourist income and the disease are threatening starvation and disruption to the wildlife conservation work of Maasai people.
- As the virus spreads to the poorest parts of the world, such as Pakistan struggling with locusts, and where there is minimal access to healthcare and people live in close quarters, the disease may have harsher impacts. The most vulnerable people are refugees in camps, unable to self-isolate or wash adequately.
- In Asia, many countries have very low levels of Covid-19 but their economies are being severely affected by lockdown measures, in combination with food shortages and other climate impacts.
- The pandemic is leading to louder voices for population reduction, who use environmental arguments to push their case.
- The pandemic is increasing racist attacks.
“Wikipedia now has a page collating examples from more than 35 countries of ‘xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic’: they range from taunts to outright assault.” Peter C Baker
- There is a pushback in countries such as USA and Brazil to deny the severity of the virus, to weaken measures to protect populations in order to salvage the economy, as there is such great alarm at historic drops on the stock market, and concern that voters who have lost jobs will lose trust in governments. Fossil fuelled industries are demanding public rescue packages, and airlines have received $60 billion from the US government.
“The plastics industry have launched a public relations blitz on behalf of single-use plastic bags, spreading the unproven claim that the virus is less likely to stick to plastic than to the cloth fabric of reusable bags.” Peter C Baker
“We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem” Donald Trump
“Sunk costs within the fossil fuel industry, farming, banking, private healthcare and other sectors prevent the rapid transformations we need. Money becomes more important than life.” George Monbiot
- The projected 5.5% drop in global emissions is not enough, if it continues, to progress towards the 1.5C target of climate action, which needs to see a 7.6% drop each year this decade.
- There are signs that China is already ramping up production and is slashing environmental regulations to make up for lost economic ground, and this will be the case in other countries too. Three states of the USA have placed new criminal penalties on protests and against fossil fuel projects, and are likely to continue with the dismantling of regulations already well under way.
“If there is a temporary reduction in emissions in 2020, that could encourage a false sense that global emissions are on a long-term decline when in fact they are not. A coronavirus induced drop in world emissions will mean very little in the long run on its own. If handled badly, the pandemic could suck the energy out of public action and public policy as prosperity declines.” Andrew Norton
- Extreme inequality means that the rapid reduction in emissions has corresponded with deprivation and injustice, as the Degrowth blog has made clear:
“Despite observations that pollution and emissions have reduced, the sudden, un-planned, and chaotic downscaling of social and economic activity due to Covid-19 is categorically not degrowth. Instead, it’s an example of why degrowth is needed; it shows the unsustainability and fragility of our current way of life.”
- Responses of powers to control populations is taking an authoritarian turn — with rapid statutes limiting rights to gather, move, trade, protest or for representatives to have a say in democracies. For example, Orban in Hungary passed a law that allows the government to rule by decree with no legal oversight or elections. There are fears that other illiberal countries will follow suit, and in Europe, the situation is weakening the already challenged European Union.
“We could be seeing all-powerful states overseeing economies dominated even more thoroughly by the few corporate giants (think Amazon, Facebook) that can monetize the crisis for further shareholder gain.” Jeremy Lent
So, what can we do, apart from controlling the pandemic?
“If we can change the basis of our global civilization from one that is wealth-affirming to one that is life-affirming, then we have a chance to create a flourishing future for humanity and the living Earth…However big we’re thinking about the future effects of this pandemic, we can think bigger.” Jeremy Lent
One thing you’ll have noticed about the pandemic — it’s really making us talk and is dominating the news, much more than the Planetary Emergency. Rather than letting talk about this big, ongoing crisis slide away because we’re focusing on a current major outcome of this crisis, what if we can expand our conversations to embrace the big system changes we need to make? What if the time afforded through cancellation of events and work (for some of us) gives us a chance to talk about what big levers we can pull?
Here are some articles that suggest shifts, happening, possible or necessary in response to the crisis:
In The Upsides of a Global Pandemic Umair Haque offers five ways that the pandemic is forcing us to make a transition:
- It’s forcing economists and leaders to get real about rebalancing the economy
- Financial markets will have to price in existential risk
- Our level of investment needs to double as a world.
- (A realisation that) Coronavirus was born and spread because much of the world still lives in poverty and dehumanizing deprivation.
- It just might spark the much needed epiphany above: we need to take care of all of us, or else we’re all at risk, and that means building what economists sometimes call global public goods, like healthcare, food, housing, water systems, for the first time in human history.
In Coronavirus: Respond at Scale, Build Bridges to the Future Anthony Painter (on the RSA website) offers these five solutions:
- Get cash to people now and build the social contract of the future
- A fiscal stimulus for community: urgent support to local authorities and major grant-making bodies to support civil society infrastructure
- Establish a new ‘school plus’ education service
- Support agility and resilience in health, care and neighbourhood services
- ‘Beyond GDP’ stimulus.
In 8 Emerging Lessons from Coronavirus to Climate Action, Otto Scharmer from the Presencing Institute describes the value of Data-led Citizen Awareness, and how our systems must be upgraded, as follows:
1. our learning infrastructures toward whole-person and whole-systems learning;
2. our democratic infrastructures by making them more direct, distributed, and dialogic; and
3. our economic infrastructures toward shifting from ego-system to eco-system awareness.
The Rapid Transition Alliance offers Pandemic Lessons for the Climate Emergency
- A clear understanding of risk can lead to much faster, coordinated responses to an emergency
- Rapid, physical mobilisation of resources can happen alongside behaviour change. People can change their daily habits very quickly, and adapt to new social norms
- Where adaptations and behaviour changes reveal possibilities for more sustainable behaviour — such as avoiding unnecessary travel — they should be encouraged to become the new norm, and part of the broader climate emergency response.
“Inadequate action on the climate could even be described as something like knowing the cure to COVID-19, and failing to manufacture, distribute and treat people with it.”
Other inspirations or resources
Geneva Environment Network: Covid-19 and the Environment
Bifrost Online, Through the Portal of Covid-19: Visioning the Environmental Humanities as a Community of Purpose
We can support the ‘Healthy Planet for Healthy People’ call of the Club of Rome by signing this open letter to world leaders.
Christiana Figueres is clear that we need to learn from the pandemic to apply to climate, and offers 5 clear lessons.
Jessica Prendergrast from the Onion Collective with 5 things the Government won’t want us to learn from this crisis
This article on Open Democracy calls for A Great Pause, to establish an economy based on equality and environmental wellbeing.
The Climate Museum (in New York) has published its first blogpost focusing on Covid-19, and suggests a manifesto for change with more of a ‘climate justice’ lens.
PIRC has also provided some sets of values that are helpful and unhelpful in facing this pandemic.
Ella Saltmarshe on language and framing
The Artists and Climate Change project is inviting creatives interested in the Earth crisis to share a 100 word story and an image, to collect responses to this situation.
Keri Facer has compiled a useful set of her learnings from research into futures of education to apply to this situation, with further resources included.
A piece by Media Lens about fossil fuel subsidies (and about the anger and despair of climate activists and scientists).
24 Theses on Corona by Rupert Read takes a positive view of the crisis.
Covid-19 resources for the Higher Education Sustainability Community — full of links, still evolving.
Coronvirus syllabus — readings on the politics, economics, technology and environmental aspects of the crisis
Daniel Lawse talks about zooming out to make sense of Covid-19, and the loop of response.
Zoya Tierstein points out a key parallel with climate, that small numbers (1 or 2 degrees of warming, 1 or 2 % death rate) make a huge difference.
Over to you
We’d love your thoughts. Please comment on this piece.
What should these shifts look and feel like? What motivates you?
How can we leverage the sharing of emotion and creative approach to mutual aid, to apply it to the wider Earth crisis?
What kinds of community and cultural action can we take to start pulling these levers?
If you have artworks or creative responses you’d like to share with us in relation to this enquiry, we could host a guest post. Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org
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