In early November 2020, world leaders were due to meet to hold the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 26) to discuss action against the climate emergency. The meeting was postponed for a year as the world was brought to a grinding halt by COVID-19. Beyond the setbacks of the pandemic, the challenges of climate change must be confronted. What can we learn from the COVID-19 crisis that can inform our attitude towards this climate emergency?
We were woefully unprepared for the pandemic. Governments are still wrestling with it but as the vaccine rolls out at last, there is a significant task to analyse the failures and successes of these reactions. However, certainly in the West, the threat of a pandemic did not generally arrest the public consciousness. COVID-19 has taught us not to be complacent and to heed the more abstract warnings that many scientists make. Just as COVID-19 took its toll, so will climate change threaten our survival. Without question, climate change is rising as a public concern. It is covered daily in the media and climate considerations are increasingly taking their place in policy and business.
A lesson from the pandemic is that in a crisis, the most vulnerable are affected the worst. Therefore, those most at risk should be those who are afforded the most protection and resources. Governments have stepped in with unprecedented efforts such as the furlough scheme, vaccinations and loans to businesses. The success and capacity of such interventions is up for debate, but they are an important example of how important government is in times of crisis. Nations like the United Kingdom have rolled out vaccines in a relatively short amount of time compared to less developed countries who may have a fiercer struggle in dealing with a burgeoning economic and health crisis, which has been abetted by the global north. Though the tendency is to view crises on our own terms, we must remember that other countries do not have the medical or fiscal resources that we do, and we cannot close our eyes, ears or hearts to the damage our self-interest may cause.
In terms of climate change, poorer nations suffer the most from issues such as extreme weather. Natural disasters are exacerbated by climate change and poorer countries have less capacity to offer relief. In the same way that wealthier countries have been better disposed to deal with such a dangerous virusand develop vaccines, so do they have a greater responsibility to battle climate change. The development of an economy has in the past required a heavy carbon footprint through the building of infrastructure and industry. Now those developed economies must develop sustainable alternatives for growth.
Boris Johnson’s government has been widely criticised in dealing with the pandemic regarding issues such as employment, education and healthcare. That being said, it is a difficult task in combating an unknown, rampant virus. Pandemic prevention and relief was not a key part of Mr Johnson’s manifesto in 2019. However, since their election it has become an issue of paramount importance, aggravating inherent shortcomings in society like inequality. The effects of crises are discriminate against the least vulnerable and priorities must be set now to protect those who will be the most affected. Public funds spent in preparation and prevention are funds well spent.
Hospitals and healthcare institutions have been dramatically put to the test and this is a warning for if climate change turns into a new health emergency. Mental health, food quality, care for the poor, security will be problems when the climate crisis happens. The problem with climate change is that there is no vaccination, no inoculation, to solve it. The only solution is to fight against it now before its effects get worse. Climate solutions will also have repercussions for the poorest in societies. Renewable energy and electric cars must become cheaper to be a viable solution for more people.
Considering the difficulties of the past year, the warnings of climate change are a hard pill to swallow for a public already exposed to great economic and emotional hardship. The conceptual battle of our time is to perceive and counter an environmental threat which exists beyond standard political and economic cycles, beyond the day to day struggles that people undergo. Like the pandemic, climate change will create unforeseen issues for everyone around the globe while exacerbating pre-existing problems. Only a significant devotion of effort and resources will tell if, when COP 26 comes around this November, we can build back better and help people most at risk from this environmental, global crisis.
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