Three Ways COVID-19 Prefigures a Response to the Climate Emergency

Anton Darius, Unsplash

Governments right now are a little like the X-Men. Having mostly kept their powers hidden, citizens in liberal democracies are discovering that our governments have extraordinary powers to mobilise significant resources in response to a crisis.

Where governments declare an emergency they are capable of extraordinarily quick responses to emergent problems. Political deadlocks vanish, stimulus funding magically appears, and old ideologies are set aside.

All of this means the dithering around climate change is unnecessary. Radical economic and social change is possible. There are three key ways that COVID-19 has changed our idea of what is politically possible with regards to climate change.

All meaningful action begins with an honest recognition of the scale of the problem, candidly communicated to the public. In Australia, accurate up-to-the-minute reports on the state of COVID-19 have been a key feature of the government and media’s response to the crisis. In the United States, Trump has lost much of his legitimacy by downplaying the scale of the threat. Singapore’s government uses Whatsapp. COVID-19 clears a path for a more honest, scientifically-informed communication strategy for the existential risk of climate change . Key to this is the declaration of a Climate Emergency, which opens up new legal powers for governments (as has happened in the UK).

The response to COVID-19 has been swift. We have seen mass public information campaigns, travel bans, new research funding, event closures, public clinics, and mass stimulus spending. This prefigures the scale, speed, and even type of response required to deal with climate change. As with climate change, COVID-19 forces us to consider what is essential to a functioning society. As a grim Forbes article points out, the closure of factories and reduction in carbon emissions may suggest COVID-19 is actually a net positive for human health.

Australia’s “war-time” COVID-19 cabinet has explicitly deferred to health experts in shaping the government’s response to the virus. As Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said:

“…the premiers and the Prime Minister said to us, the health advisers, ‘Give us your fearless advice and we will take it.’”

This deference to expertise in policymaking hasn’t happened with the climate crisis in spite of well-researched roadmaps to help Australia achieve net-zero emissions. For the climate crisis, experts and the public can work together through citizens assemblies to develop policy in a way that bypasses politics-as-usual.

COVID-19 has revealed a radically different politics is possible. In a week governments have told the truth, acted quickly, and moved beyond politics. These are the demands of Extinction Rebellion.

What seemed impossible last week now seems possible.

If we learn from the COVID-19 experience, we can make it inevitable.

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