Caption: They stayed at home. Apologies to L.S. Lowry’s painting ‘The Rush’. With factories shut, the air is cleaner.
The Covid-19 pandemic and climate change are both worldwide emergencies and remind us we are all sharing one planet, dependent so tightly upon one another in a fragile network of threads.
Yet whereas Covid-19 is a short-term acute crisis, the climate emergency is a long-term chronic crisis.
Our experience of the pandemic is showing how fast the world can change, and that we can accept such drastic changes in our lifestyles because the threat is imminent, science is trusted and leaders are taking drastic, evidence-based action.
A key question is: since leaders have now shown they are capable of such decisive leadership to enforce behaviour change when necessary, can and will the same leadership be applied in respect of the climate and extinction emergencies?
The pandemic has created conditions in which emissions are reduced, smog-bound cities can breathe again, and birdsong formerly drowned by traffic noise can be heard.
People won’t forget this after the viral threat has disappeared. When the traffic starts running again, visibility is once more reduced, and breathing becomes harder, we’ll remember that another life is possible.
Governments are racking up huge public debts to prevent the pandemic’s spread that will need to be repaid by stimulating the economy.
There are already calls from certain quarters that the need to reboot the economy trumps action on tackling the climate and extinction emergencies.
These calls must be resisted at all costs.
Quantitative easing is a high carbon way of doing this, and increases inequality. It must never be forgotten that we are currently on course for a 4°C global temperature rise, which would create disasters that put the current pandemic in the shade.
When the pandemic has died down we will need a Marshall Plan-style reconstruction drive aligned with the best scientific advice on tackling climate change, simultaneous with leadership on behavioural change.
Investment in low and zero carbon infrastructure is capital intensive and it can be used to decrease inequality and improve public health at the same time. Action on eco-refurbishment of all existing buildings, sustainable transport, renewable energy and storage infrastructure, and carbon capture should be on the agenda. All create skilled jobs whose workers will pay taxes into the public purse.
A wealth tax will ensure that the burden falls on those who can most afford to bear it, and ensures that we do not end up with calls for austerity afterward.
Press coverage of the pandemic has been fact based. Risky behaviour has been shamed. The even greater threat of climate change deserves the same treatment. We now know what can be done. Let’s commit to doing it.