To tackle the climate crisis, the world cannot return to normal after Covid-19

This moment must be used to build a new economic consensus founded on justice, care and sustainability. 

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With startling clarity, the ongoing public health and economic crisis has revealed our collective priorities. Communities across the UK have exhibited solidarity and generosity, with more than 750,000 volunteering for the NHS and mutual aid groups. These actions have been mirrored across the world, from volunteer drives for medical workers in Wuhan to “care mongering” in Toronto. In many respects, this crisis has served as a reminder that we broadly want similar things: security, health, community, wellbeing. It would be easy to assume, as the maxim now goes, that we might just all be in this together. But where the public has demonstrated solidarity, the response from many governments reflects a different reality, and offers a harrowing warning of how we might handle our next great crisis, the most urgent of which is the climate emergency.  

In the case of the world’s major economies, the priorities shown by governments in response to this crisis are those of finance, big business, “rentiers” and fellow affluent, global North nations. As several economists have warned, without stringent conditions and major structural changes to the economy, government stimulus, bailouts and an unprecedented influx of money from central banks will simply end up in the vortex of a financial system “unfit for purpose" and lining the pockets of the wealthy, as happened after the 2008 crisis.

Meanwhile, the solidarity on display between domestic neighbours does not seem to extend between nation states: in the EU, a coronabond proposal which would have supported the most imperiled European countries was opposed by “frugal” states including Austria, Germany and the Netherlands at great cost to their southern European peers. And countries in the global South now face a devastating sovereign debt crisis following a record exodus of capital as investors, having pursued a glut of lucrative new investment opportunities in “emerging markets” over the past decade, retreat to safer havens.

In many ways, the pandemic has exposed the deep fractures, vulnerabilities and power imbalances present in the global economy long before the virus took hold. It has also been a stark lesson in which groups will be protected first in times of crisis, and whose interests prioritised. The majority of us may all be in this together. But in a separate pool, investors, major corporations, and the powerful governments of the global North are also in it together.

At present, this crisis seems likely to widen the chasm between these separate “togethers”, expanding inequalities and insecurities even as the climate crisis looms large. And although many claim the experience of climate and environmental breakdown will be different, unfolding over several decades, not only is the climate crisis already here, but in all likelihood as US journalist Melody Schreiber has written, it will be “just as shockingly abrupt”, punctuated by many acute crises – extreme drought, wildfires, crop failure, disease outbreaks – that will become both more frequent and more grave as breakdown advances. 

The same fractures exposed by this pandemic are the fault lines along which the battle for climate justice is fought. Many of the people most vulnerable in the current crisis will be worst affected by environmental breakdown, while those who are enriched by this pandemic are likely to benefit in the future. Reports this week that UK hedge funds are cashing in on Covid-19 ring eerily similar to now regular stories of investors betting on climate collapse, water scarcity and crop failure, and investing in the infrastructures and technologies of disaster. And just as many nations and communities have been abandoned in our response to this pandemic, it is all too easy to imagine a future in which communities from Jakarta to east Yorkshire are left to fend for themselves amid accelerating climate breakdown. Indeed, to imagine it one has only to look at the present. 

The task is therefore to use this moment of unprecedented uncertainty and change to build a new economic consensus founded on justice, care and sustainability. We cannot afford to keep the global economy on life support only to resuscitate it, unchanged, once the public health emergency subsides. Rather than condemning ourselves to a future of reactivity in the face of disaster, the safest and most reasonable approach is to anticipate known threats, and do everything in our power to both mitigate them and build resilience for when shocks inevitably occur.

This path is far from guaranteed; we might just go backward, providing economic stimulus packages that drive a major spike in carbon emissions larger than the significant crisis-induced drop currently projected, as happened after the 2008 financial crisis. Instead of facilitating a just transition for workers, we could place carbon-intensive industries on state-funded life support and acquiesce to corporate demands to repeal environmental regulation while allowing investment in renewable energy to collapse.

In place of debt forgiveness, we could leave global South governments with soaring borrowing costs as they look to rebuild post-crisis. Rather than strengthen social security and recognise it as an asset, we could further erode it. And, as they did in 2008, governments and central banks could pour money into the system without materially changing it, enriching the wealthy and deepening vulnerabilities, rather than resolving them.

The alternative is to recognise this juncture as an opportunity to do everything in our power to prevent similar tragedies in the years to come, by designing a more just and more resilient future. Rather than no-strings attached cash, public bailouts must come with equivalent public stakes to grow collective wealth while mandating change in corporate behaviour. 

Better yet, in the case of industries such as fossil fuels or aviation, the low cost of both government borrowing and current share prices could be used to nationalise them and justly manage their transition to a decarbonised future. Post-crisis stimulus should be directed towards green infrastructure and innately low carbon forms of work like health and social care, proven so vital and so undervalued by this crisis. Debts must be written off to allow those countries most vulnerable to climate crisis to build resilience against it. And having exposed austerity as an ideological choice, rather than a necessity, we must ensure these mistakes are never repeated, and social safety nets are both valued and strengthened.

To experience a crisis is to be confronted with several alternative futures at once. The temptation toward a return to normalcy after this crisis is strong, and eminently reasonable. And in some respects – the ability to see our families and friends, to enjoy public spaces, nature and culture – a return to normal will be profoundly welcome. But it has also never been clearer that to enjoy this sort of “normal” in the decades ahead, as we confront climate and environmental breakdown, we cannot return to business as usual. To do so would be to condemn ourselves to continued vulnerability. The response of our governments to this crisis will determine the conditions under which we grapple with the next one. Now is the time to choose the future we wish to have.

Adrienne Buller is senior research fellow at Common Wealth. (@adribuller

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