We always knew that climate change was going to be painful ...
Something changed recently when I saw a map comparing the air over China before and after the country locked down in an attempt to contain the Covid-19 Coronavirus. Slowly, over the course of a week, I began to see the issue of climate change in a whole new light.
This may sound radical but please listen to me.
The road to a stable climate will have to go through some kind of economic collapse. It will have nothing to do with a more sustainable business model or more progressive government action; both approaches have failed. Let's face it - people just don't feel the urge to change the way they live their lives and the government is too weak and / or corrupt to lead the way.
Wait, stop this negativity!
Perhaps you believe that we will find a technological solution such as carbon capture or perhaps you believe in the capacity of solar, wind, tidal energy and algae as a basket of renewable solutions. Or maybe you think that Greta's move will force the government's hand to finally take the firm steps we need. Maybe you're right ... maybe ... maybe not. But I think late at night, when we are alone with our thoughts, we can see the writing on the wall. Our efforts over the past 30 years have failed and it's no wonder: we've been hitting the wrong "switch" button.
Change ... never came
Climate change is a slow-motion crisis, perfectly suited for politicians to get going. Reducing emissions by the amount set by the scientists in the IPCC report requires a massive downsizing of the fossil fuel sector and a complete rethinking of how we do business. The amount of economic instability and job losses this would create would be unprecedented. It is political suicide: Voters do not support politicians who take their jobs because of a crisis that will drag on for decades.
In hindsight, a significant change was never going to happen before the crisis hit, aside from being a political loser, the status quo is a windfall for the super-wealthy, corporate elite that supports the campaign and has a vested interest in maintaining the climate looting system. So politicians take the middle way: they talk about being environmental defenders, they pretend to take firm action, they sign the Paris Accords (which is nothing more than "immunity for collective failure"), and nothing of consequence happens.
A strong economy
Politicians say a lot about climate change, but when you look at their actions, the message is clear: the economy comes first. According to the neoliberal script, the best way to achieve this is to leave the business alone and not burden it with too many pesky regulations. Efforts to reduce environmental or social damage are encouraged as voluntary measures without regulations, and of course there are few or no penalties for non-compliance. All the actors in this performance are perfectly aligned to keep the current system in place. In this way, economic disruption is kept to a minimum, the elite continues to line their pockets, jobs are protected, and voters continue to elect weak and visionless politicians like the ones we have today. And, of course, the environment pays the price.
Change needs a shake
For real change to occur, there must be a trigger, something has to pull us out of our familiar ways. Something has to alter our expectations of what the future will be like if we continue our current path. That is, we perceive a higher level of risk with our previous behavior compared to trying something new. And that's where a perfect dose of fear comes in - that's the trigger button for us to collectively realize that it's time to take the medicine that science tells us is necessary.
Our current approach to fighting for a stable climate is not working. Our brains just don't seem to understand the severity of this slow motion crisis. We need to compromise a more primitive answer. We need to engage our limbic system so that it feels the urgency, that the danger is imminent and not 20, 50 or 100 years in the future. This is what we've been missing all along.
The dream is ending
Something has happened in the last two months that changes everything. A tiny virus has landed right in the middle of our green business fantasy, in which a smooth transition to a sustainable economy is within reach. Where we just need to shop greener and force companies to meet that “green demand”… along with a few small behavioral changes like carrying a reusable coffee mug, riding a bike to work, or going vegan.
Let's finish that dream: this virus is about to shed light
in a failed strategy that has persisted for too long. Could this be the trigger we need that will ultimately force us to control our emissions? Time will tell, but as of now, tragic as it may be, this horrible virus appears to be the best chance we have to prevent a climate disaster.
Covid-19 is like nature reasserting itself, flipping a switch that says enough is enough: if you're not going to make the economic system more climate-friendly, we'll just shut everything down. And we won't make the same mistakes you liked trying to use the greed of a predatory banking system to achieve positive results or encourage a movement to ditch fossil fuels. Our approach will succeed in shutting down something even more fundamental to the economy than money or oil: people.
What makes Covid-19 so effective is that it captured our attention using fear. It's forcing everyone on the planet to rethink and adjust to something we never really think about: how we interact with other people, and how important those interactions are to the global economy. This is something the climate movement could never achieve: on an individual level, everyone feels the urge to change their ways.
Tragic but effective?
Now if this sounds like a tough way to tackle climate change, that's because it is. It is tragic that people die and it could get much worse. According to Julia Grant, an infectious disease epidemiologist, "People you know are likely to die from Covid-19." But we always knew that climate change was going to be detrimental and would take millions of lives, we just thought it was going to happen at some distant time in the future under someone else's supervision. Our planet's collective decision to "kick the can in the road" has ensured that our response to climate change will not be on our timeline: we will let nature decide.
I guess the bigger question is: do you believe the science about what will happen to our planet if we continue to let the climate crumble? If you don't, I'm surprised you've read this far, and if you do, you should take this model of change seriously and reflect on all the flaws that have led us to this point.
Yes, but the economy
We have tested everything we know about reducing emissions while expanding the economy and we have little to prove. But we probably won't have to face our failure any time soon, as the consequences of our inaction won't be felt for years to come.
An “economy first” approach with Covid-19 is different: The results of this strategy have been revealed in near real time. There were many experts who said at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak that it was vital to contain the disease and restrict air travel, but those warnings were ignored in favor of keeping the economy healthy, and of course now is too late. We are in the middle of a pandemic and our economy is showing its fragility. What we are trying to protect is now under attack and lives are being lost at an alarming rate.
Whether we are talking about Covid-19 or Climate Change, the similarities of an “economy first” approach are striking. We can probably guess that it won't work well in the case of climate change, but now we have a live example of how this strategy works when governments choose economics over mass mobilization designed to protect human well-being.
The heart of the problem
What makes Covid-19 so fascinating is that you don't need to convince anyone to do things differently - the fear component takes care of that, and new behaviors become the norm. And when that happens, the rest of the pieces fit together. Social distancing begins, the economy cannot function properly, and emissions drop.
After so many years of playing by the rules of a climate looting economy, Covid-19 appears on the scene and crushes them all. Trying to befriend and collaborate with those who cause harm has gotten us nowhere and wasted decades. Like a missile looking for heat: Covid-19 gets straight to the source of the problem: our economic system, and begins to dismantle it.
A new approach?
We have a big problem and it is not emissions. It is not plastic, it is not deforestation, it is not loss of species and biodiversity: it is the way we choose to run our society, do business, and measure progress. Perhaps ignoring biodiversity loss, ecosystem health, and general human well-being in favor of a healthy stock market was the wrong choice. The economic system we use to run the planet is a disaster. It is time to put our focus directly where it belongs.
If you believe in science, then you must take this model of change seriously. Nothing else has worked and the clock is ticking.
Article in English. By Brad Zarnett, Canadian sustainability strategist, writer, and blogger. He is the founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS).