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COVID-19 & The Climate Crisis - Signs for Optimism?

posted 30 Mar 2020, 06:07 by ECRN ECRN
This piece represents one of a range of point of views on the implications of the ongoing pandemic for climate activism. It does not purport to be a definitive assessment of the situation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered swift and drastic changes on an economic, political and societal level. Amid the anxiety aroused by this upheaval, there are also significant questions and implications with regard to the ongoing climate crisis. Climate activists and experts have long been advocating substantial structural change in order to address the ongoing deterioration of the global environment. Should they be encouraged by the evidence of the possibility of such change in the response to the pandemic, or pessimistic at the prospect of such changes being sustained or repeated in the future? Indeed, is it a fallacy to be speaking of the pandemic and the climate crisis as separate issues?

The pandemic has illustrated the fragility of our globalised world, traversing borders and even continents with a swiftness only possible in the era of cheap and plentiful air travel. The nature of modern global capitalism has also been frequently cited as a key factor in contributing to the climate crisis. Thus, both crises cannot be contained within the borders of a single country, and nor can our response to them. These are global problems in need of global solutions. With regard to the pandemic, these solutions have thus far varied considerably. Many governments have turned to public health experts and thrown their resources behind the experts' proposals (though others, initially at least, such as the UK and China have been criticised for misleading the public on the nature of the scientific strategies proposed). This foregrounding of scientific experts in both the public eye and government strategy would appear to bode well for climate activists. 

Though perhaps it is erroneous to imagine how the climate crisis might be tackled from the point of view of how governments addressed the pandemic, a course which implicitly positions us as imagining a response from a 'normal' world. The COVID-19 crisis may well fundamentally and permanently change economic and social structures. Feasta (the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) has argued as such, asserting the need to "radically reset the economy in order to help flatten the Coronavirus curve and to prevent supply chains for essential goods from collapsing in the near future." Indeed, Maurie J. Cohen in Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy argued that one of the ultimate consequences of the pandemic would be in adapting the public to the reality of the sweeping changes needed to address climate change, normalising the abnormal. He writes that "the more protracted the threat of contagion proves to be, the further engrained and resistant to reversal these adaptive responses will become." Given that the response to the climate crisis will have to be a long term strategy, evidence of this adaptability of the public and malleability of social and economic structures is promising.