COVID-19 is the chance for a social and ecological reset….but, how? Part I

We are living in unprecedented times. This period will go down in the history books, and today’s children will be telling their children stories about times of climate change and COVID-19. How the stories end is in great part up to us, now.

It is a tale of two emergencies. They are really intersecting rises. Only one is being responded to with urgency, but they are both connected to each other, and both entail unprecedented threats to humanity.

COVID-19 has led us to a deeper understanding of how we are connected to each other and to nature. This highlights the urgent need to radically address climate change to ensure the health of that relationship.

The World Health Organization has affirmed that there is an increase in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic viruses making a jump between animal hosts and humans, and that there is a link between this and climate change. Not only will biodiversity loss due to climate change makes pandemics more likely, but we will have reduce capacity to tackle global health crises due to the intersecting nature of more extreme weather and environmental events on human health.

We know that climate change puts pressure on many species to move to new areas due to loss of habitat and food sources. This puts more animal and bird species in contact with human populations, increasing the risks of novel virus spillover.

According to a recent study, by 2070, around 4,000 mammal species are “predicted to aggregate in areas of high human population density…sharing novel viruses between 3,000 and 13,000 times.”

It is not yet know the definitive links of findings such as this and the potential for global pandemics, but science suggests the risks are high. For such reasons, the IPCC is currently modelling the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics to include in its next assessment report in 2021.

Regardless of the science, we know that the wellbeing of the natural environment affects human wellbeing and vice-versa. It is this society-nature continuum, that often gets forgotten and is in danger because of human activity and the continual search for developmental ‘progress’.

We live on a finite planet. The constant, unrelenting quest for economic growth is creating more ecological destruction that we cared to imagine at the start of the industrial age. Because of this we are now living a climate planetary emergency. This has been internationally acknowledged and declared in over 1,750 jurisdictions worldwide, yet the political will to address the climate emergency with as much urgency as the health emergency is still lacking.

Nonetheless, COVID-19 has demonstrated that we have a chance for a social and ecological reset. This gives us the possibility to address climate change in the process. But, how?

I will discuss further in the second instalment of this post

Climate emergency requires changing the value of the environment

Last June Hobart City Council joined 623 other jurisdictions and local councils (including 22 in Australia) in 13 countries to declare a climate emergency, becoming the first Australian capital city to do so.

So what exactly is a climate emergency? Many political and climate scientists state that emergency policy measures towards zero emissions are a necessary measure to try and stay within the ‘safe operating space’ for the climate at around 1.5°C warming or 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon concentration. Declaring a climate emergency means making a commitment to radical carbon emissions reduction. It means that government puts climate and environmental policy central, rather than as an add-on.

Although there is no single definition of a ‘climate emergency’ making a binding commitment to an urgent speed transition to zero emissions is a significant step in climate policy. By declaring a climate emergency, local councils like Hobart City Council demonstrated leadership to act on climate change that is lacking at the federal level. Local councils can start the ball rolling on climate emergency initiatives, putting pressure on state and federal governments to do the same, proving a promising avenue for wide scale urgent climate action.

Declaring a climate emergency is not just a symbolic act of recognition, it requires making some tough decisions that break away from ‘business-as-usual’.

A departure from ‘business-as-usual’ means major shifts in policies (not limited to) for manufacturing, transport, land use, tourism, and economic investment; as well as vast changes in individual social and consumer behaviours, which in turn requires a focus on education. Including climate change and ecological values in curriculums is vital in educating our next generation of climate leaders. This policy and behavioural shift means not taking the most cost-effective option in public spending, but making choices that value the environment over the bottom line.

With so much political recognition of the need to put the environment and climate change front and centre of policy, a declaration of a climate emergency can be a pathway to make transformational change in the way local governments approach development, scaling that up nationally, and ultimately having an impact on the role the environment has in the human world.

A climate emergency requires all of us – individuals and governments – to rethink our relationship with nature.

The traditional approach of viewing nature as a commodity has proven itself to be far from sustainable. Take, for example, Buen Vivir which in Ecuador led to a world first development policy recognising the Rights of Nature. This approach steers away from the wellbeing of human beings at the centre of decision-making, valuing environment and human wellbeing equally.

In other words, we are no more important than our environment, and unless radical action to safeguard the latter is taken urgently, life on this planet is under severe threat.

The changes that need to be made are not necessarily going to be uncostly, but one just needs to compare the ultimate cost of not acting on climate change. Governments have the opportunity to integrate some of these costs into post-COVID stimulus plans.

It is no longer a radical utopic idea, but something that needs to happen – especially relevant under the declaration of a climate emergency.

There is a joint policy-behavioural responsibility to act, though governments, particularly at the local level must facilitate that through policy action including looking at the structures and spaces that allow for transformational change, not just rhetoric. The economic challenges related to the current global pandemic might result in the latter. It is up to all of us to push for change.

That said, we need a substantial amount of political will combined with people power to tackle the climate emergency; and it is the actions of both our political leaders, and of individuals thinking collectively that will help determine what this looks like in the coming years, especially faced with challenges like COVID-19.