By Holly Harrison
Two things are evident to me as I sit to write this. Firstly, yellowing patches of grass stick out in tufts on a stretch of baked earth beneath my feet (April showers were virtually non-existent this year). Above my head, an open expanse of blue sky is spreading out gently, speckled only with the gentle trill of birdsong, emerging from the eerie absence of thundering traffic. All around me the air circulates with imponderable leisure, rising to the peak of midday heat under the lidless eye of the sun.
Yet in the peace of this moment and signified by my remarkable surroundings, two thoughts race around my mind: firstly, we are living through a global pandemic – on a scale never before seen in the modern era. Secondly, we are hurtling towards unprecedented global catastrophe, due to mass ecological breakdown and the collapse of climate stability.
These two horrors seem equally existential and unavoidable – my own family members each represent a vulnerable community and watching the news seems to highlight inevitability to it all – if we don’t catch it from one another, we’ll pick it up on a weekly shop. If not, it will be on a contaminated packaging. If not there, what about the second wave?
20 seconds to wash your hands, 2 meters apart and the #stayathome seem like elementary measures given the magnitude of this pandemic. Yet, remarkably, these simple steps are all it takes to protect the public from this insidious infection.
Of course, it is only effective with comprehensive government action that allows for widespread PPE distribution, economic stimulus packages, furloughing schemes, data analysis, and other pre-emptive safeguards designed to dissipate the devastating ripple effect of an epidemic. Such a level of global cooperation unheard of in recent history is needed so urgently and it is in this we can see the parallels to the climate crisis.
However, Covid-19 has rallied the international community in a way that the climate crisis has not yet achieved. The unemployment, financial set-backs, deaths, and widespread suffering across the world is easily traced back to the coronavirus outbreak and with this hindsight, we all would do anything to change the tides, be a little more prepared and maybe even save some of the 274,4881 lives lost so far. Yet when it comes to the effects of global heating, our approach does yield the same impetus. Science has told us time and time again of the impacts to come with the predicted rise in global temperatures (at the current rate of warming – 0.2C per decade – global warming will reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052)2: the LEDC farm labourers whose land will become irreversibly infertile, whose crops will fail and whose mass unemployment will lead to global food shortages and a surge in climate-refugees. Already Oxfam has estimated that “Every two seconds, a weather-related disaster forces someone on the planet from their home”3
These are risks to mankind greater than anything we have seen before – the restraints we feel due to lockdown now is only a fraction of the disruption we will face in our lifetimes. Globally there has been a huge reduction in emissions, with blue-skies in Delhi and clear waters in Venice. On the surface this appears wonderful, but as Fatih Birol, director, International Energy Agency shrewdly put it in an interview, these changes are due to a, “major economic meltdown, and not as a result of well-designed energy policies.”4 With economies around the world eager to bounce back bigger than before, this could be the calm before the storm – just short-lived respite before humanity’s final surrender to the single-minded pursuit of profit over people.
While rightfully this weighs heavily on our conscience, we must also take note of the tranquillity present – though devastating in its origins, evocative of an ecological balance that we can reach. With the quieting of the streets, the slowing down of time, and the sudden break from “business as usual” – a large portion of the population is glimpsing a way of life previously unimaginable. The crisis has prompted a serious reconsideration not only of how we function within our own personal parameters but also of our global systems support them. We are recognising the importance of key workers – so often overlooked individuals in trades such as care, transportation, food manufacturing, and distribution – who’s industries are the backbone of our society. We are realising that the inequalities in our health services are undeniable and come at a dire cost. We have seen in real-time how natural disasters care not for borders or politics. This is a call to action for the worldwide community – this is what we must work on.
And all of these realisations should only further underpin our focus for the coming weeks, months, and years – Build Back Better. An approach to economic stimulus, new policies, and government decisions that prioritise the climate, promoting a more sustainable, greener future that utilises new technologies, renewable energy and invests in the future of the younger generation.
IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P. R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 32 pp [Accessed 11th May 2020]
Kusmer Anna, ‘The Big Fix: What can COVID-19 teach us about the climate crisis’, North Carolina Public Radio, (24th March 2020) <https://www.wunc.org/post/big-fix-what-can-covid-19-teach-us-about-global-climate-crisis> [Accessed 11th May 2020].
Oxfam, Forced from home: Climate-Fuelled Displacement, (2 December 2019) <https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/forced-home-climate-fuelled-displacement> [Accessed 11th May 2020]
World Health Organisation, Coronavirus, (10th May 2020) <https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019> [Accessed 11th May 2020]