The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare our vulnerability as humans, as societies, in the face of “the forces of nature”; our biological, molecular, physical environment. We face threats of even greater crises in the future driven by climate change, as Covid-19 was in part.
Environmental impacts of this crisis have already been dramatic. Nitrogen dioxide levels and air quality have improved the world over. People in areas of Punjab, northern India, have reportedly seen the Himalayas for the first time in decades. It is estimated that improved air quality in China from Covid-19 shutdowns will save tens of thousands of lives. Globally, an estimated seven million people die each year from the direct health impacts of air pollution.
More significantly, shutdowns have caused record falls of CO2 emissions levels. In the height of the crisis, one study estimates, daily global emissions fell by up to 17%, to levels last seen in 2006. On average, for individual countries, daily CO2 levels were down 26% in peak shutdown.
While energy use has increased in homes, this has been more than offset by much industry, aviation, and transport temporarily suspending.
Yet while emissions have dropped temporarily, atmospheric levels of greenhouse gasses continue to increase.
Until 2020, the global economy has had its foot on the accelerator, hurtling humanity ever faster into greater and still greater environmental destruction.
Momentarily pre-occupied by the viral threat, the foot has been temporarily lifted off the accelerator. We are still, currently, hurtling into these crises, albeit, for once, at a reduced rather than increased speed. And, once the driver has regained control, with a promise to jam the foot onto the accelerator again.
We need to instead force the foot onto the break, jump out of the vehicle, and even start to run in the opposite direction.
More important than the chemical and physical fallout of the Covid-19 crisis is the political impact.
The global response to this pandemic has shown the possibility of societal, state, economic intervention on a scale far beyond that recently dismissed and ridiculed as belonging to the realm of fantasy.
“Magic money trees” have been openly harvested, sacred taboos about governmental intervention in the economy and society publicly broken. Against the previously unquestionable rights of private property, of corporations and their bosses, the — supposed — needs of society and the economy as a whole are championed. It is discovered that environmentally destructive industries — which could not previously be stopped, slowed, or transformed — can in fact be turned off.
The importance of workers, work, and socially useful “key” work has been thrown into sharp relief.
The social, individual and economic difficulties we are now facing are significantly beyond what would be needed for even many of the most ambitious environmental transitions.
The horizons of possibility have been widened. We must demand that governments rise to the climate crisis with comparable — indeed greater — seriousness than they have done against Covid-19. We must organise to make the labour movement do likewise.