Coronavirus and the Climate Crisis

6 months ago, if we’d taken a glimpse into 2020, we’d have been shocked by what we saw. Air travel all but abandoned, the roads curiously quiet, air pollution halved in some cities. A sudden shift in our mindsets: a realisation that we are vulnerable - and from that the fostering of greater empathy and care for one another.

Last week I took a walk through my village and noticed the birdsong more prominent. Perhaps it’s a sign that nature’s blossoming, sensing the opportunity to return undisturbed. Or simply, the birdsong didn’t have the drone of traffic to contend with. Either way it was pleasant to stand and listen.

If we’d observed this without knowing about Covid-19, we might be lulled into thinking this was the beginning of the transformation we’d been asking for. But digging deeper, we’d start to see the cracks - the loneliness, the unemployment and the overstretched NHS.

In reality, we mustn’t romanticise the changes we’ve seen in the last few weeks. Many of us have been badly affected by the virus in some way, or have loved ones who have been. In the words of UN Chief António Guterres, “We will not fight climate change with a virus”. This is far, far from the just transition we are looking for.

Having said that, there are lessons we can draw from the response to Covid-19, which have resulted in these rapid changes (changes to individual and global behaviour many previously dismissed as impossible), and how these can be applied to the Climate and Ecological Emergency. I’d recommend reading this short piece on lessons learnt in Time magazine by Christiana Figueres, who was instrumental in formulating the Paris Agreement.

And how about XR’s approach?

I was reminding myself of XR’s three demands recently, and with Covid-19 on my mind I realised that actually, they are not demands designed only to address the Climate and Ecological Emergency. Rather, they can be applied to any existential, global threat that requires individual and collective action.

Take the first: Tell the Truth.

The only reason all of us (okay, most of us) are tolerating the sudden inconveniences and behavioural changes imposed by governments is because we have been told the truth. Rather relentlessly. ‘The truth’ has been filling our ears, our TV sets and our news outlets 24/7. In fact I’ve purposefully avoided all news this weekend, feeling the need for a break from the Coronavirus coverage.

But the result is that we understand the extremity of the crisis. We understand why we must change our behaviours, and how we could be affected if we refuse. Faced with the facts, we realise - to change is the only option.

Applying this to Climate Change is more tricky, as the immediacy of the Climate Change threat is much less apparent than Covid-19’s. But the premise is the same - Tell the Truth of the science, understand and yield to it, and we will willingly accept change.

Demand two: Act Now.

Back to that Time article I mentioned, Figueres writes, “Prevention is better than cure”. Clearly with Covid-19, the more drastic our actions today, the less money will be spent, the less the overall impact and the sooner we can recover. Similarly with Climate Change, mitigation is cheaper and less inconvenient than adaptation. We are better off dramatically decarbonising now, than paying for the flood defences, sea barriers, and the crop failures later.

Demand three: Beyond Politics.

Controlling the pandemic (not something achieved as yet) on an international level requires international coordination. Perhaps we’re still waiting for this to really begin, but there are stories of cooperation in the pooling of research efforts for a vaccine and a global fund to aid treatment in developing countries.

Just like Covid-19, Climate Change is indiscriminate. Nobody, and no country, is immune. Locally, we’ve already seen what can be achieved by putting aside our differences with all parties in Warwick District Council working together to form the groundbreaking Climate Action Fund plans, with the ultimate aim to achieve Net Zero by 2030. Imagine the progress that could be made if this cooperation on Climate Change was seen on a global level.

We are on the right track. Now is not the time to disrupt, but in the coming months we will have enormous opportunity to invest in low-carbon infrastructure and a green transition. The economy has been reset, and we must ensure the recovery is not spent on projects that will lock us into carbon intensive projects for decades. Out of Covid-19, there may even be greater opportunity for a more systematic re-shuffle; to reprogramme the economy to benefit people and wellbeing, instead of GDP and growth.

Life is on pause, but keeping our eye on the ball is maybe more important now than ever.

The tide is beginning to turn, and perhaps at just the right moment. We’ve had the ruling against Heathrow, and Chris Packham is launching his HS2 challenge on the same grounds. Just last week, the government quietly published a visionary plan to revolutionise UK transport, replacing our dependency on cars with walking, cycling and public transport. It’s rare that plans like these are so widely welcomed, praised even.

The wind will return to our sails, and if we learn from Covid-19, it could be stronger than ever.

 Elis is an active member of Extinction Rebellion Warwick District