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Opinion: COVID-19 shows a missed opportunity to tackle the climate crisis

Lucy Betts presents a call for long-overdue action; why not enough is being done to save our planet and how we can press for change.

By now, there is little need to introduce the concept of ‘the climate crisis’ as scientists are (rightly) opting to refer to it as. Explaining why and how this process is occurring is far beyond the scope of this article. I will, however, acknowledge a few simple and increasingly irrefutable facts: the climate crisis is very real; very imminent and very much a product of human activity. Despite these facts, publications by those few rebellious research scientists never fail to provide ammunition to ill-informed politicians who, regardless of all their shortcomings, still do have opposable thumbs and access to a twitter account. For every step forward, we take two steps back (and then the United States, swiftly withdrawing from the Paris Agreement in 2017, takes 10 more).

It must also be stated that climate change is by no means the only environmental emergency born at our hands, and in many ways works to detract from issues such as declining biodiversity and plastic pollution. Our insistence, as a species, on categorising issues to make a very grey world seem black and white is educationally obstructive. Irrespective of the impacts on climate, we are losing species at an unprecedented rate. I have seen large companies to clear-fell diverse landscapes, blatantly ignoring local communities (in some cases having the audacity to blame them for the human-wildlife conflict we ourselves inspire by allowing impoverishment to persist). Subsequently, it seems that we praise the perpetrating loggers if they find it in their hearts to replant a measly palm oil plantation as substitute, branding the effort as sustainable. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Westerners exist in a bubble of new age comforts obscuring the injustices happening all around us. Whilst some are entirely deprived of their basic human rights, others have progressed to invent whole new ones as an attempt to justify their obnoxious sense of entitlement (protesting protective legislation which makes facemasks compulsory, for instance). This exceptional ideocracy epitomises human selfishness. Unfortunately, not living in “a communist country!” (an argument used as defence against just about every ‘injustice’), seems wholly unrelated to the issue; last time I checked, Marx didn’t say all that much about pandemic etiquette in the Communist Manifesto. Though many try to distinguish themselves from the culture of disregard and exploitation deeply entrenched in our ideals, disregard and exploitation have thus far gone hand in hand with advancement. It’s advertised as difficult, in developed nations, to live both scrupulously and within your means without becoming a social pariah. Being an “ecowarrior” is attributed to another one of those student quirks pegged as ‘just a phase’. Something crunchy middle class kids with enough money to sit daily in hipster coffee shops sipping oat milk flat whites out of their reusable coffee cups do.

So, there it is, a bleak picture of an impressive species being eradicated much more rapidly than we dare to admit by our own self-indulgence. I am not by any means attempting to posit that every average joe out there actively works to intentionally destroy our earth. How we feel about the planet, and what we actually do to protect it, are two very different things. We have all the information we need; we have the solutions; we have the incentive. Why do we lack action? There are many suggestions, but (as per usual) the culprits on a large scale are unfavourable economics (taking precedence over human lives) and inefficient politics. Faceless agencies to cast ineffectual blame upon. Inefficient politics in fact seem to be a trademark of the 21st century so far. For citizens of the UK, two Prime Ministers down since 2016, the only reason we have stopped hearing the word ‘Brexit’ every waking hour of the day is due to attention being temporarily diverted to the inconvenience of a global pandemic.

In 2008, the concept of a ‘Green New Deal’ was first suggested. An ambitious suggestion, cleverly drawing on Roosevelt’s New Deal a century ago, linking to the aspiration of tackling “fear, anxiety, instability, insecurity, and precarity.” Finally! Recognition that ecosystem security and social class inequality go hand in hand, policy striving beyond the concept of decarbonisation and pushing for accountability. Obviously, this was disbanded. Mere threads were left dangling for activists to clutch onto as Europe generously invested in a ‘Green Deal’ programme instead, quite literally removing any trace of the word ‘New’ and characteristically rife with accusations of corruption. Most controversially, the European Commission lies snugly tucked up in bed with commanding companies such as the US investment fund Blackrock (who have a clear vested interest in, you guessed it, fossil fuels…). A political climate where governments are slaves to enormous multinational corporations increasingly fates a top down approach to greening the economy as improbable. Nonetheless, you have to hand it to politicians, untrodden terrain has been cautiously traversed, unprecedented action has been taken (albeit haphazardly, sporadically and a little too slowly). Yet in the back of our minds lingers the sinister truth, Covid-19 is a trial run. Frankly, in our global society, it’s shocking an event of this scale has not already unfolded.

Alongside screams for a return to normality there is a whole other kind of discontent rising, a subset of people (silenced by media preference to continually report on the ‘daily experience of a shopper in Covid-19’ for the 6th time in a row) who instead champion a ‘new normal’. The implications of that someone allegedly eating a bat over 5000 miles away in Wuhan causing the entire world to come to a halt should be enough for us to appreciate our very real interest in the state of public health and welfare overseas. Realistically, we should now be thinking, “Jeez, we really need to push education and sustainable development internationally”. In reality, a flood of racism directed at Asian ethnic minorities has transpired. Blame has been cast. The President of the United States has publicly used derogatory slurs, referring to the virus as the “kung-flu”! It speaks volumes not only that this is the example set by the White House, but that we have become so accustomed to such displays that the public expect nothing less. Of course, we shouldn’t be so hasty to cast blame. For every individual in power, there’s a large enough or passive enough support base to put them there.

Put bluntly, those in control don’t really seem to care about the environment. What I see being prioritised right now is an upsurge in economic activity, to ‘eat out to help out’, to keep on singing happy birthday as you wash your hands. Yes, Covid-19 has seen some extremely short term reconnections with nature. When life begins again, as is increasingly demanded, it won’t take long before we have better things to do than to stop and smell the roses. Instead of capitalising on unrest, COP-26 has been postponed to 2021 (missing a vital opportunity to go digital and set an example). In an attempt to get things back up and running in the US, Trump has made regressive changes to the National Environmental Act and has completely missed the memo that global communication in a global society is imperative, withdrawing funding for the World Health Organisation. The New Green Deal seems nothing but a pipe dream.

Dismal prospects for sustainability is not the note I intend to end on. For anyone who has ever stated that there is no point in acting, that it won’t change anything, that one person never made a difference, I ask you to point to a revolution in history that didn’t spark from individuals simply saying no. We fuel the consumerist society we live in, we create the demand for products which destroy the planet. As individuals, we need to think more considerately about the legacy we leave behind. Companies cater to consumers; the consumers are just as culpable. ‘Crunchy middle class kids’ aren’t where this ends. Those with the means to invest in cleaner energy or electric cars have a social responsibility to do so. Those without these means are not helpless victims- we can all, for example, consume less meat and dairy. Next time you don’t recycle, next time you buy a plastic bottle full of a free commodity (water), next time you purchase chocolate from companies who keep cocoa farmers in poverty, think about which role you want to play in the future of humanity. We have access to information, a reason to ask questions, no excuse for being passive.

Readers can check out the following petition to rebuild the economy out of lockdown with a Green New Deal.


Artwork by Rachel Jung

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