By Phoebe Jarvis
Image credit: The Business Journals
COVID-19 has well and truly delivered the message; disaster, no matter how distant it may seem, can and will happen. Scientists knew that a global pandemic was likely to occur - even Bill Gates warned of it in 2015. The government was also well aware, from a 2016 pandemic simulation exercise, that the real thing would cause the NHS to collapse, but proceeded to ignore the recommendation to increase PPE stockpiles as a preventative measure. Our political leaders are so short-sighted (a kinder word than stupid) that even in January, when the World Health Organisation confirmed that COVID-19 would become a global pandemic, Matt Hancock disagreed: actually, in mighty Great Britain, everything was fine. Four months later, as the UK death toll estimates reach 35,000, the government is now considering what they should have enforced in January: a two-week quarantine period for people entering the country.
Perhaps we can use COVID-19 as a lesson on how to respond to impending catastrophe (hint: by doing something about it). Maybe, the right decisions will be made as we recover from this crisis and we’ll be in with a fighting chance of avoiding our next biggest threat - climate catastrophe. Currently, we are on track: not to meet our 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target, but for a 3-degree global temperature rise by 2100. To give some idea of what this means, we will reach a 1.5 degree rise between 2030 and 2052; this will see around 37 million people displaced by food shortages caused by extreme weather and drought, like that seen in Australia, the Amazon, and the Himalayas. A 2-degree increase hikes this figure to 370 million. At 3 degrees, sea level rise means that coastal towns and cities around the world are flooded; Miami and Shanghai are completely underwater. Far from being unaffected in our temperate country, we will see the collapse of food systems, mass migration and conflict, and as some have predicted, the beginning of human extinction by 2050.
These scenarios may seem like exaggerated doomsday predictions, but new research suggests that the reports published by organisations such as the IPCC and the UN in the past few years have been too optimistic. This means that the scenarios described above are best-case. The deaths of hundreds of millions of people is the most positive predicted outcome of a global temperature rise, that could itself be underestimated.
The same tragic failure to act for our future selves is at play; we've been warned about the climate crisis for decades. The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity was published in 1992 and signed by 1,700 scientists, with the message to stop using fossil fuels, halt deforestation, and stabilise the population if we wanted to survive. The United Nations’ first Framework Convention on Climate Change, committing countries to climate action, was also published in 1992. Nearly thirty years later, global carbon dioxide levels have increased by over 60%, and we must now consider the possibility that its too late to halt the destruction of the earth.
Despite this, and despite the declaration of a climate emergency by countries and cities around the world in 2019, the sense of urgency around climate change is lower than it should be: in the UK, 51% of people are 'very concerned'. And whilst COVID-19 means that we are more distracted than ever, environmental destruction worsens. Companies and governments are using this time as a loophole to continue controversial operations; without the physical presence of protesters, and whilst public concern is at its lowest, as people grapple with the loss of their loved ones and concerns over their own physical and mental health. Not only an insult to our global climate commitments, such as the 2015 Paris agreement, this is an insult to the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people under COVID-19.
In the UK, work on HS2 continues: the controversial high-speed railway that will cost over £110 billion. Meanwhile, our underfunded health system struggles to cope with a pandemic, and research shows that transport investments would be better made in improving local bus and train services. HS2 site workers have recently been filmed flouting social distancing rules and travelling across the country to work at remote sites, whilst the government has ordered all other construction sites to close. It seems that a pandemic is being used to undertake work that is in direct competition with climate action: whilst the government has itself confirmed that HS2 would never become carbon neutral, many of the clearing operations currently being undertaken are simply illegal; such as felling ancient woodland in bird nesting season, which the Wildlife Countryside Act 1981 prohibits.
Over in the US, the situation worsens: TC Energy have been trying to begin construction on the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline for nearly ten years. The pipeline would transport the most polluting type of oil, tar sands, from Alberta in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Obama said no, but Trump said yes –activists have since provided constant obstruction to the funding and construction of the pipeline. However, when COVID-19 presented a lull in opposition, Alberta granted $5 billion in funding needed to continue the project, and several US states quietly made protesting the construction of ‘critical infrastructure’ illegal. The opposition of the pipeline is not merely driven by some disgruntled environmentalists – NASA scientist James Hansen said that extracting Alberta’s tar sands oil would be ‘game over’ for the climate system.
The quiet continuation of these operations during a global pandemic means that workers are not safe, irreversible damage is made to the environment, and governments and businesses are not held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, exploitation and undermining of the public is not an activity exclusive to pandemics. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the five biggest oil and gas companies alone (ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total) have invested over a billion US dollars of shareholder funds in misleading climate-related branding and lobbying.
COVID-19 has confirmed, in every possible way, that we cannot rest easy on the assumption that climate change will be ‘taken care of’ by the people in charge. World leaders are blind to impending disaster and, in the face of it, continue to put profit before humanity. Yes, we need infrastructure and energy, but there are powerful corporations making sure that these developments serve shareholders in companies: not us, the public, who may prefer a cheap and reliable UK-wide bus and train network over another train line feeding the capital; investments in renewable energy sources that won’t destroy our very existence; and the protection of our beautiful green spaces.
To ensure that we have a future, we must become informed and accepting of the disastrous reality of climate change. We should know that scepticism and debate on the issue is pushed by companies that profit from environmental exploitation, and we must put continued pressure on our government to act in the best interest of this country. A global pandemic is our biggest concern right now, and rightly so; but we cannot ignore one existential threat in the face of another.