The coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating impact across the globe, affecting every part of our society and way of life. People are feeling alone, existential and lost. However, powerful and inspiring global mobilisation has brought a new sense of hope and community. From families supporting local businesses to people bringing groceries to their vulnerable neighbours; from clapping for our carers to online support and conversation, there is a new sense of looking out for one another and an appreciation of our surroundings.
On a governmental level, countries across the world have been banding together to find a cure, supplying medical supplies across borders and sharing knowledge to protect lives regardless of nationality. More than a third of the global population has some form of restriction, including anything from recommendations to stay home to full lockdowns.
The UK went into full lockdown on 23 March and we have now spent over a month in quarantine. The UK has, rightly so, poured billions of pounds into coronavirus relief to support those who cannot work, as well as those who are fighting for us on the frontline. The first NHS Nightingale hospital, built to treat coronavirus patients, was built in London in just nine days. It is truly remarkable to reflect on how quickly we have all modified our lives to help prevent the spread and protect those around us. Across the globe, we have mobilised and focused all our energy on the pandemic.
Although not directly comparable, it’s interesting that the response to another global emergency, climate change, is so wildly different. In terms of the pandemic, the UK’s response to the pandemic is based on medical professionals with daily governmental updates often including one or more medical experts. The public in no way had to ask for this sort of response; governments are being driven directly by evidence and recommendations from relevant experts and organisational bodies.
It is clear the urgency of the two issues is on a completely different scale, as it should be – the pandemic is and should be the current focus. Still, it is interesting to imagine what the climate crisis would look like if it had been treated the same way as coronavirus is now. With overwhelming evidence on the impacts of climate change available, it should be possible for governments to lead the climate fight, acting on their side, as well as enforcing action on a local level. Yet, instead of mass governmental mobilisation, climate strikes attracting millions have been calling on the world to do more. Those behind the message are passionate, yet much of the world still takes advantage of cheap airfare, single-use products and meat-filled diets.
Why has global mobilisation against climate change not been possible?
It feels abstract
Unlike medical crises, climate change has many different causes, all feeding an increase in greenhouse gases. As nearly every aspect of Western society contributes to climate change, the issue can seem abstract and unsurmountable. The idea of tackling climate change itself does not currently present itself with a clear action plan like the ‘stay at home, save lives’ pandemic campaign. This is largely because along with climate change comes several other environmental crises, including pollution and biodiversity loss, that provide their own set of problems. As the impacts spread their branches across society, it can be hard to conceptualise and understand the true impact.
If we take a look at Storm Ciara and Dennis, which caused over £1 billion in damage, took 20 lives across Europe in early 2020 and have been linked to climate change, the key next step is to increase flood defences to be ready for future storms. This action step is comparable to staying at home during the pandemic – it aims to minimise the impact of the problem. However, with medical crises, the final solution, on a basic level, is a vaccine. But what is the final solution to the climate crisis and extreme weather events? The lack of a linear trajectory can disengage people from the issue, as they cannot see a clear way for the problem to be fixed.
The way we discuss the impacts of climate change, specifically mortality, shows a clear disconnect and sense of abstract understanding. With medical conditions like the coronavirus, if mortality occurs, we attribute it to the disease itself. On the other hand, with climate change, deaths are instead attributed to symptoms, like the flooding caused by the storm. This disconnect from the true cause of extreme climatic events, among other factors, further pushes climate change into this unconnectable issue. As predicted by the World Health Organisation, 250,000 deaths a year can be attributed solely to rising global temperatures, with a further 7 million people predicted to die from air pollution each year. We must highlight this direct link to help bring the climate crisis down from the clouds and directly into our understanding.
Driven by money
On a local level, most people are incentivised by cheap, non-green purchases such as airfares. As the price of plane tickets decreases, levels of air transport increase. Plane tickets are often cheaper and quicker than greener alternatives such as trains, therefore creating a large barrier to making an environmentally conscious choice. There is also a new form of ‘why not’ travel, where you aren’t necessarily looking to travel, but you see a cheap flight, so you go somewhere new for a weekend. In 2019, Ryanair saw flights as low as £5 – it takes a strong-willed individual with a deep pocket to choose a different travel method. Governments need to help society make greener decisions through relevant taxation and subsidies for low-carbon travel, among other green alternatives like local produce.
In many countries, economic growth is still prioritised over environmental protection. The European Union finances advertising to promote meat consumption, with 60 million euros spent since 2017 (Wakker Dier). Across the pond, the US government spends up to $38 billion per year to subsidise the meat and dairy industries. With livestock production and animal agriculture being responsible for 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Georgetown Environmental Law Review), 91% of amazon destruction (Mighty Earth) and the desertification of 1/3 of the world’s land (The Encyclopaedia of Earth), why are governments incentivising production and purchase? Well, the North American Meat Institute estimate that the meat industry contributes $894 billion to the US economy alone. With similar stories in the fossil fuel and transport industries, governments need to reconsider what is most important for building prosperous countries over the long term.
Unconscious bias against climate scientists
A survey conducted by Pew Research Centre found that, in 2016, the percentage of US adults that had a fair amount of confidence in medical scientists was 8% higher than other scientists. Another similar survey conducted in 2019 revealed that only 57% of US adults have a mostly positive view of environmental research scientists and just 35% believed they always provided fair and accurate information. Western society needs to rid itself of the traditional image of a scientist, a man in a lab coat holding chemicals, to include environmental scientists and those that don’t fit the societal mould. Research must be public, peer-reviewed and reproducible to obtain the public’s trust.
Rather than dismissing evidence presented, it is vital that society allows environmental professionals to partner with leaders and to help move countries forward to a sustainable future, similar to medical experts at the coronavirus press conferences. Medical professionals are often trusted, as you believe they can save your life. Well, environmental experts can too – both are acting to aid in the understanding of the world to make it a better and healthier place. We need to acknowledge that our health goes far past our bodies and that the longevity of society as we know it depends on expertise from both groups, not just one.
Although these reasons may help us understand why mass mobilisation has not yet been possible for the climate crisis on the same scale as coronavirus, they are only explanations, not excuses. We must find a way to move forward from the ashes of the coronavirus pandemic to our next battle: the climate crisis.