The dominant and rampant coronavirus has conquered the fickle news cycle and is now whipping it up to ever-greater speeds. I have doubled my normal screen time but can barely keep up with shifting live feeds. How many cases now? Who is locked down, how, and where? How many people have died? What new acts of generosity and hope? You have to be nimble, or revved up on countless cups of caffeine, to stay on top of the news in this singular time.
The situation changes so rapidly that closing your eyes at night feeling firmly au fait with multiple feeds on diverse news sources does not hack it. Wake up eight hours later and bam! — you are in a new world. And not such a brave new one, either.
Every day I find my perceptions changing, pummelled and chivvied by the relentless flow of real events. And, collectively, we find our behaviour changing. What was unthinkable yesterday is unremarkable today.
Obsessive and extensive hand-washing? Ho hum. Standing 2m apart for 20 minutes in the howling wind to buy a box of tissues and a cabbage? Yes, of course. Lockdown at home for three weeks, which may turn into three months? Just another April in 2020.
Perhaps there is something heartening in the way we are galloping through ratcheted-up cycles of behavioural change as though just putting on the kettle for afternoon tea. We are still an adaptable primate species.
Among the daily tragedies that play out across our screens, one news item last week captured my attention enough to force me down in front of my laptop, all notifications silenced, to write these words. The culprit: the report that COP26, this year’s annual climate-change negotiations jamboree, scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November, has been postponed until 2021. No date has yet been set by the presiding body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
This delay is necessary, in the middle of a raging pandemic, but not good. We are racing through the year in which we need to finally peak emissions of greenhouse gases and send them over the top and running down the hill, if we are to have any reasonable hope — any hope at all, really — to keep the increase in global average temperature to less than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Once held by some experts to be the guardrail against dangerous climate change, 1.5°C is the aspirational target of the Paris Agreement — and a line in the sand for small-island, developing states and other climate vulnerable countries whose survival is already threatened.
Removing the annual punctuation mark of the COP could lessen the momentum of countries to develop and share more ambitious plans to bring their national emissions down. Already, Japan’s updated climate pledge has been tactfully but clearly declared as inadequate by the UNFCCC. Countries must still submit their revised plans this year to lessen emissions of the heat-trapping gases that fuelled runaway fires and terrifying storms in 2019.
We can’t neglect the climate crisis
Countries do need to focus their energies on the immediate threat of the pandemic to their citizens, as well as on the economies on which our livelihoods depend. Across the globe, governments are scrambling to save lives and keep economies from crashing. It seems reasonable to say, “Well, let’s get on top of the coronavirus first, and then we can pick up the slack on the climate crisis.”
If only we had the luxury of time to do this. Alas, too many years of prevaricating on emissions reductions, too much slippery accounting and too many failed promises to help vulnerable countries adapt, and voilà! There is now no leeway, no give in the time frames — we must address the climate crisis, and we must do it now.
It’s a bit like what happens when, in the name of austerity, you decimate public-health systems, and refuse to stockpile personal protective equipment essential to keep your health workers safe, because of hubris or an unwise elevation of the “bottom line” over all other criteria, and Bob’s your uncle! A pandemic, which was always only an arrhythmic heartbeat away, is knocking even excellent health systems to their knees.
There is of course a less-bad, non-binary outcome we could seek. We could do what we are — or should be — good at doing as a big-brained species with complicated cerebral cortices and capacities for integration.
Prioritising the green economy
We could make sure that the Covid-19 bailout plans and stimulus packages at different levels are designed to drive down emissions and unleash the green economy in powerful and wide-ranging ways. And we could use the delay to COP26 to strengthen the connections between solutions for climate and biodiversity, inequality and public health in the UNFCCC and relevant global institutions.
After all, the coronavirus has emerged into the human sphere as a consequence of our failure to integrate biodiversity protection, public health and economic development. So let’s meet it on its own turf. As Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, has said: “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people”. Habitat destruction and climate change are key factors increasing transmission of diseases from animals to humans, as are the wildlife trade, intensified agriculture and livestock production, and antimicrobial resistance.
We can think of our new fellow traveller, SARS-CoV-2, as a warning, albeit a dire one, of pestilences more foul that await us. Although climate change is not directly implicated in the emergence of this coronavirus, who knows what novel pathogens lurk in the thawing permafrost and the unravelling of ecosystems from heat and dryness?
Developing integrated responses
We have a chance, a valuable one, to develop integrated responses to the pandemic that recognise the links between economy, society, biodiversity and climate change, and our priceless public-health systems. It should be a given that the significant investments already being announced to “restart” the global economy are low carbon, and help people adapt to climate change, as well as other stressors.
Would it be too much to ask that we also use this crisis to ditch deeply flawed metrics such as gross domestic product? We could design and measure our recovery using a more holistic and sustainable measure that places equal importance on non-material aspects of wellbeing, such as Bhutan’s gross national happiness index.
Can we still bend the curve on greenhouse-gas emissions, while we flatline the coronavirus and retool our societies to become happier and more equitable? If we can, then we will not only be restarting the economy, but we will be unleashing the global transition to equitable and climate-resilient development.
Many actions can have significant job-creation potential, in addition to their green kudos. A lot of the thinking has already been done. So far, short-term measures designed to stabilise the European economy are not doing much for the green transition. But there is growing mobilisation for this, and many studies, blueprints and plans to guide the way, such as the Just Transition and plans for a Green New Deal.
Investing in zero-emissions public transport, and boosting reforestation and ecosystem restoration, are two of the opportunities highlighted by the World Resources Institute for the United States’s $2-trillion stimulus package. If there is the will, we certainly have the ways.
These responses should lead us firmly away from the temptation of mystical thinking that this is a one-off, or that we can deal with interconnected global problems in a fragmented and sequential way. No, we cannot — we never really could. And we have long since lost the luxury of breathing space to bumble our way through more cycles of mistaken responses, or those advocated by vested interests not aligned with the public good and promulgated by captured governments as the orthodoxy.
We are out of time, but we could still be in luck. Let us not miss another opportunity to set the world on a happier and more equitable clean, green pathway.
South African Penny Urquhart works internationally on policies and plans for climate-resilient development