Opinion

What has the COVID-19 pandemic shown us about tackling the climate crisis?

We will not treat it as a crisis until the state makes it one.

Right up until the moment of lockdown people were out on the streets. In the week or so before the most extreme social distancing measures were legally enforced student cities like Newcastle saw clubs and pubs busier than ever with people ‘making the most of it’ before policy became stricter. The logic that ‘if it was really serious the government would’ve closed the pubs and restaurants’ floated around, revealing a persistent belief in state omniscience that seems to dog us even in this mistrusting ‘post-truth’ ‘fake news’ era. It all points to the fact Greta Thunberg has been so desperate to tell us; you can’t solve an emergency unless you treat it like one. Well, we certainly can’t anyway.

The status of ‘crisis’ has to be a top-down initiation and, most importantly, one with legal and policy backing. Voluntary measures such as the initial social distancing policy were easily dismissed as ‘advice’ however many ‘strongly’s’ Matt Hancock premised it with. The nations in lockdown have found it increasingly necessary to draw on the punitive powers of law enforcement to implement any potentially disruptive public policy.

Not only do we need state nudging to follow policy in our own interest but we are also dependent on government policy to support us through the changes. The unlikely ‘socialism’ of Boris’s current direction is less a radical choice and more of a necessity if any vast structural changes are to be implemented. If we truly want to radically tackle environmental issues we would almost certainly require a level of government support to cover the transitionary costs and losses of any such large-scale change.

We will not treat it as an emergency until we are directly affected.

A few weeks ago we were all in awe of the phenomenon that we could ‘see directly into our future’, watching the drama unfold in Italy and Spain, ostensibly learning from their mistakes. It has become increasingly clear, however, that neither public nor government were ever entirely convinced that it could happen here. This prophetic chronology is not news though. All across the Southern hemisphere the severe impacts of climate change we were promised have become reality, with the Australian bushfires of 2020 part of an estimated tripling of climate-related disasters in the last 30 years. Yet again we have a direct glimpse into our personal future and an unqualified belief that ‘it won’t happen here’. For many the fight against Coronavirus (or COVID-19) seems to have only become a true fight once it was right on our doorstep. Many of us will have had that moment of terrifying reality when we lose a relative or worry for a family member on the frontline. It is perhaps a scary reflection on our human nature that this is what it takes. For a generation that have grown up with comparatively high levels of existential security, it seems to take the most imminent threat and loss to get us off our sofas- or in the case of COVID-19 , to stay firmly on them.

The most important action has to be taken by the generations least affected.

Yet another strange phenomenon presented by this virus is the apparently disparate effects according to age. With death rates indicating that younger people are at substantially lower risk it has arguably been most tempting for these age groups to disregard the draconian measures of lockdown. As countless government messages have told us however, it is these younger cohorts that are at greatest risk of carrying the disease to the elderly and vulnerable. In other words, it is essential for the group likely to be impacted least by the crisis to follow and, indeed, take a lead in the efforts to protect those who will suffer more. Sound familiar? This has presented us, not without a hint of cosmic irony, with the inverse of our climate change paradox. The Baby Boomers and Gen X’s may never feel the full impact of climate disaster, leaving that as a burden on their children and grandchildren’s generations, yet they still remain the backbone of both the financial and political economies in most countries. Much like tackling this pandemic, the power for meaningful progress is made more difficult by the fact it requires sacrifices from those least under threat.

Is there any hope?

Having presented a rather pessimistic case for our combined ability to tackle climate change, we are left with the question: is there any hope? Many activists have argued the case that this pandemic, as well as revealing our weaknesses, will encourage us to grow from them too. We’ve all seen the clear canals of Venice and the mountain sheep of Wales on our Facebook feeds, suggesting that just maybe, given the chance, our environment is capable of healing. Even when it comes to politics, governments all over the world have been forced to embrace the kind of vast structural changes and centralised organisation radical environmentalists have been advocating for decades. And in regards to the seemingly intransigent attitudes to crisis we’ve been displaying? There is hope, perhaps, that this might be a sufficient blow to the false lull of security afforded by the comfortable lifestyles of post-war generations. Having engaged in the battle mindset of crisis once, who knows? We might be willing to do it again.