Right now, in the corridors of power, the pandemic is being used to divert our attention away from the climate emergency.
We are all facing challenges on a scale that would have been unimaginable only a few months ago. All over the country, people frightened for the health of their loved ones are also worrying how they will pay their rent, feed their families and keep their jobs or businesses going.
At Greenpeace we are doing all we can to respond to this public health emergency – both for staff and volunteers, and the planet and its people.
Our staff are working from home for the foreseeable future – over the years, our carbon-saving flight policy means we’ve got pretty good at video calls! – and of course, while this situation continues, we’ll be finding other ways to have our say that don’t involve public gatherings.
The coming days and weeks will be tough.
In the short term, every effort must be targeted at protecting those who need it most. Aside from basic common decency, this makes economic sense.
But we are well aware that once we have resolved the Covid-19 pandemic, we will still have a climate crisis to tackle, oceans to protect, and forests to save. One thing’s for sure – we are still working on these goals.
Greenpeace has a long history of reacting and adapting to changing world events – and that is what we will do. We will find ways to continue to have an impact and to influence governments and corporations as events unfold.
During this time, governments will be injecting trillions into the global economy to keep it afloat. They have the opportunity to direct that money towards clean industries, to set in place a greener economy, and create a more resilient system that puts people and planet first. They could do this, rather than propping up old industries that are causing the other great crisis – the climate and nature crisis.
Once the health emergency is over, or at least under control, only workers can fix the economic crisis we will be in. But the government can go beyond protecting what exists today to providing an economic stimulus package to help us build a new tomorrow.
We will soon be in one of those rare moments when left and right both agree on the need for large-scale state intervention. And it’s happening against a backdrop of history’s biggest-ever market failure, climate change. This is where intervention becomes necessary, not just for our prosperity but for our survival.
So when governments intervene in a big way to jump-start the recovery, it’s important the support they provide isn’t just a temporary crutch for the big corporations propelling us towards the next crisis.
The normality we were used to won’t pop back into existence without a push, and as we’re going to be pushing, let’s choose a direction to push in.
The welcome appearance of mutual aid groups has highlighted that healthcare, social services and community organisations should all have been receiving far more support than they were getting of late, and should be obvious choices for more public investment.
But there will also be many high-carbon industries, with easy access to ministers, following the lead of the aviation and oil and gas sectors asking for billions in government support in addition to the tax breaks they were already receiving.
Decisions are being made now on how we will spend our collective wealth rebuilding the economy, so let’s be clear about what we want from the deal.
Bailouts and stimulus funds need to be tied to social benefits – if we’re paying for companies to provide continued employment, make that a clause in the contract. And where there is potential demand for transport, energy or other goods, let’s fill the gaps by supporting companies that can provide low-carbon solutions that solve two problems for the price of one.
When we’re building houses, let’s make them zero carbon and not build them on flood plains. In fact, let’s build some more flood defences while we’re at it.
When we design government schemes to get laid off workers back into work, let’s give them decent jobs with a real future, in factories, farms and offices that are designed to be compliant with our carbon-constrained reality. And, importantly, jobs that won’t need a second bailout to cope with tightening restrictions on carbon pollution.
Last week, International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol urged political and financial leaders to drive global climate action through their economic stimulus packages. As well as promoting economic recovery, Birol suggests they could also accelerate the transition to cleaner energy sources.
Yet right now, in the corridors of power, the pandemic is being used to divert our attention away from the climate emergency. Fossil-fuel lobbyists and their allies are loudly declaring that “now is not the time” to think about moving the economy away from their pet corporations.
But despite the trauma society is going through, now is actually the time we must think about it. If we ignore it now, those lobbyists may get their way and use the stimulus to lock us into a disastrous high-carbon future that we were just starting to steer away from. And that mistake will cost the economy many billions of dollars as well as many lives and livelihoods.
By using the stimulus as part of a low carbon transition plan or Green New Deal, and thereby making it do double the work for a price we have to pay anyway, we could emerge from beneath the dark cloud that has settled over all of our lives with a new contract between government, business, people and the planet. This would protect our health, our homes and our environment.
Many people will soon suffer unbearable loss. Some already have. The priority in this moment must be saving lives and livelihoods. The short-term is frightening and uncertain, and the short term is where we all live.
These are not the end times. If the government gets the stimulus wrong, it could accelerate us towards them, certainly in terms of climate change.
But if we work together to help them get it right, this could be the moment we use what we have learned about how fragile and interconnected we all are to solve the climate crisis at the very moment we escape from this one.
In the meantime, let’s take care of ourselves, and each other. There are so many ways to support communities at a time of crisis – both online and in real life.
We’ve made a list of useful organisations and resources for you to investigate, including ways that you can give or receive help at this time.
The connectedness of our planet has never been more clear. And whatever happens, we’re all in this together.
John Sauven is executive director of Greenpeace UK.
Image: Anne Barth, Greenpeace.