The pandemic has shown that the world is quickly able to organise against crisis. Can this new-found ability be carried through into responses to climate change? Pandemic action and climate action have much in common.
George Monbiot points to the growth of bottom up, and often localised, support actions by ordinary people. Charles Eisenstein claims the pandemic “breaks the addictive hold of normality.” Others say the coronavirus has “killed neoliberalism,” changed the practical ideology of neoliberal governments, or changed the world. Air flights have been cancelled, oil remains unburnt despite its low price, CO2 emissions are falling and so on. Many are asking whether these systemic changes can be carried into action on climate.
To explore this question, we must look at the differences between pandemic, and climate, action.
Firstly, few organisations stand to make billions out of ignoring the virus. Cruise ships and airlines are losing money, and therefore could downplay the crisis, but they are fighting against fears that the virus comes from outside, and from travellers being easily identified by authorities as infection vectors, so this is difficult. On the other hand, many powerful, wealthy and socially central organisations (fossil fuel, mining and energy companies, car manufacturers, etc.) profit out of downplaying the climate crisis, and may lose financially from recognising it.
The pandemic disrupts ordinary life styles, while pollution, ecological destruction and fossil fuels help continue these modes of living, until it’s too late. Pollution and ecological destruction are also frequently less visible than sickness.
Wealthy and powerful people are less likely to think that they can completely escape the pandemic through their wealth and power; they may even say coronavirus does not care about wealth from within a bathtub with rose petals. Well-known people like Prince Charles, Boris Johnson and Peter Dutton have caught the disease (as have presumably some of those close to them), although, as none of them have apparently died, they might come to think it has been exaggerated. Even if you can escape to the high-seas in a well-armed private yacht, you still have to land to take in food, water and possibly disease.
We have dealt with pandemics before, the historical guidelines for action are quite clear, and we know how bad they can get. We have precedents for action on disease, but we only have recent, largely unfamiliar, models for climate change and no heritage of action.
The timeline and future of a pandemic is pressing and short. Intense action is required, but will probably, although not certainly, be over in a year or less. The timeline within which climate change will become an ongoing crisis is absolutely uncertain, and is not marked by a brief agreed-upon period of transition from good to bad. Most people behave as if climate crisis was at least 50 years away (rather than that we may have already passed the tipping points), so there is apparently no reason to discomfort ourselves or engage in major political struggles now. It is easy, and less painful, to postpone action.
As Charles Eisenstein points out, pandemics can be handled within a command-and-control structure. Violence and penalties are implemented mainly against the general populace rather than the power elites themselves. Again this is a familiar route and, for some politicians, suspending parliament or democratic process presents them with an opportunity to extend their power, or revoke elections and public protests – it is hard to protest if people cannot gather in groups larger than two. The chances of absolutely unexpected consequences from these actions seem relatively low. With climate change, the elites resist, the chance of unintended consequences is high, and we are not sure how to proceed, or even if we can proceed, without long term disruption.
The technology for pandemics is generally clear. Quarantine, medical treatment and working on vaccines. We do not have to hope for major breakthroughs to deal with the problem. Climate technologies are new and expensive substitutes for already functional technologies which are tied into modernist power, wealth and energy structures. Climate technologies are resisted and not always easy to implement. Their unintended consequences are largely unknown, even if the dire unintended consequences of established technologies are known.
While lots of disinformation and misinformation circulates about the pandemic, with a possible tendency to wander off into political polarisation, or even US vs China slugfests, there are no major media organisations, or corporately sponsored think-tanks, promoting an anti-medical agenda. They may want to distract from any role in helping the initial situation get out of hand, or agitate for special compensation, but they are not banking on building a political alliance out of pretending the pandemic is unreal (at least not yet). One of the main ways of making money from the pandemic, or attempting to lower fear, is through promoting fake or untested medicines , , , but most large businesses are aware that this could lead them into financial, or legal, trouble. So it is mainly small concerns that benefit, but they gain no benefit in denying the pandemic.
An interesting perspective on disinformation is visible through the way that President Trump has changed his stance. His initial reaction was to deny there was a problem, state that it would be over quickly, that criticism of him (or alarm at the virus) was a hoax by the Democratic Party, that it was no worse than the flu, and that everything would be over by Easter. Now he is claiming that “I’ve always known this is a real — this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”, and if there are less than 200,000 deaths, he will have done a good job. “The president repeatedly asserted that millions would have died if he hadn’t stepped in.” He may have made this change by seeing the effects of the virus on hospitals in Queens, NY, and infecting people he knows. This does indicate importance of personal reference, and the vague possibility that he might be able to change track on climate change with equal speed.
A major problem revealed by the pandemic is how important ecological destruction is to the workings of our system, despite talk of nature sending us a message. In the US the Environmental Protection Authority has announced it will not be policing pollution, and rules for fuel-efficient vehicles are to be scrapped. The crisis has not stopped, or slowed, the taking away of Native American land, or stopped anti-union, anti-worker’s rights activity. “America’s wind and solar industries have been left out of a $US2 trillion economic stimulus package released by the federal government” leading to job losses. China issued permits for more new coal-fired energy stations in the first three weeks of March 2020 than for all of 2019,while halving subsidies for renewables to balance the budget. The international Energy Agency has warned that political action to deal with the virus could derail the energy transition. The virus has slowed solar installation in Victoria. In NSW an Independent Planning Commission enquiry into the Narrabri gas fields will be launched even though it cannot have audiences or public participation. Coal mining has been approved under Sydney’s reservoirs.
Perhaps the pandemic has been used to cover these economic actions, perhaps they are seen as necessary to recover ‘ordinary order’ after the pandemic. Whatever the case, it does seem that without a lot of political pressure and action from ordinary people, the historical devotion to environmental destruction will continue, even though the pandemic has demonstrated the possibility of enacting radical and rapid social and economic change for the public good.
Jonathan Paul Marshall is an ARC supported researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney, investigating problems with climate technologies.