With empty roads and not a plane in sight some might see global lockdown as a quick-fix to the climate crisis. How can the climate movement maintain the urgency of its message, and what can it learn from this crisis?

Matteo Baccaglini explains why the climate movement doesn’t have to be a casualty of COVID-19:

Environmentalists claiming that the pandemic is a welcome relief for Mother Earth are doing themselves a disservice. Yes, energy consumption has fallen to decade lows; world travel has collapsed; air pollution has slumped; and wildlife has flourished. But if the lockdown persists, the picture could worsen dramatically.

Studies suggest that during the winter months, centralising heating costs by working in offices and factories is much more environmentally-friendly than everyone heating their individual homes. Meanwhile, the restrictions are hampering climate monitoring and disrupting important research. Crucial conferences like COP26, initially scheduled for this September, have been postponed. While environment charities are struggling for funds, major polluters – especially airlines – are successfully lobbying governments for billions of pounds’ worth of taxpayer-funded bailouts. Worst of all, the oil price has fallen to below $30 a barrel. If cheap fossil fuels bankroll the recovery, it could undo years of progress in renewable energy and electric vehicles.

So, we shouldn’t be complacent, nor extoll the pandemic as a boon for the planet. Besides, applauding the newfound cleanliness of Venice’s canals strikes as insensitive when millions of families are facing poverty and starvation from the economic slump. It threatens to perpetuate the unhelpful stereotype that climate activism is just a hobbyhorse for the rich.

Here are two challenges facing the climate movement. Firstly, widespread coronavirus hardship will sap popular support for sacrificing economic growth for the environment’s sake. To thrive in the post-pandemic world, we must embrace capitalism-friendly environmentalism, promoting policies that conserve both the economy and the environment.

Secondly, the international order that will emerge from the pandemic could be unrecognisable from the order which existed beforehand. Their lacklustre responses to the pandemic, coupled with rising tensions between China and the West, could severely weaken the authority of supranational institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations. That is bad news: climate change tops international agendas but is middling in domestic political priorities.

So, environmentalists should prepare to don their gloves and scatter their seeds much further afield from the familiar settings of Brussels and New York. As long as we recognise and confront these challenges, there is no reason why the climate movement should be a casualty of COVID-19.

Luke Hatton makes the case for ‘green economic recovery’:

2019 was the year when the climate crisis loomed large in the public’s consciousness. Millions of people took part in strikes across the globe, and the UK saw one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in decades from the radical Extinction Rebellion. The pandemic threatens to disrupt climate initiatives, with many fearing substantial setbacks in climate initiatives and negotiations.

Governments have pledged trillions of dollars to keep companies afloat during the lockdown and will likely pledge trillions more to aid economic recovery. Calls for green stimulus packages – building in strict environmental conditions to corporate support and investing in clean energy infrastructure – are being heard around the globe. Ten EU climate and environment ministers and hundreds of business leaders, campaign groups and trade unions have signed an open letter calling on the EU to ensure its rescue packages are in line with climate commitments, as they fear the economic shock of the pandemic could stall or even reverse climate action. 

These fears are not unfounded. In Canada, the controversial Keystone XL pipeline has received a $1.1bn ‘strategic investment’ from the provincial government, and south of the border several US states have made it a criminal offence to protest against fossil fuel projects. Heavily polluting industries such as oil, gas and aviation have received billions of dollars in aid from the US government, while assistance for the renewable energy sector was not included in the $2tn support package.

The full impact of the pandemic on the climate movement will be determined by the recovery measures adopted. The case must be made for a green economic recovery, as current emissions targets would see the global economy facing losses by 2100 of as much as $600tn according to a journal paper published in Nature Communications. A green economic recovery plan would stimulate the economy whilst abating these future losses, providing a sustainable route out of the pandemic-induced economic crisis.

One of the lesser-known conclusions of the IPCC’s 2019 report is that emissions need to peak this year to limit temperature rises to 1.5C. National emissions targets would have fallen significantly short of this limit, but the temporary emission reductions due to the pandemic offers an opportunity to bring forward the peak. The pandemic has taught us how critical early action is in reducing the cost to human health and wellbeing – let’s hope this message isn’t lost in translation to climate action.

Grace Clark outlines the lessons we can learn from the pandemic:

As fear and suffering sweeps across the globe, the urgency of the danger posed by COVID-19 has perhaps temporarily suppressed the momentum and attention given to the climate movement. It is difficult to comprehend the enormity of one crisis in the midst of another and activists understandably have fears that the severity of the climate emergency will continue to be overshadowed by this very rapid and very visible threat to humanity.

Nevertheless, I am hopeful that as individuals and as societies, we will emerge from this crisis with a renewed receptiveness to the climate movement. Firstly, the pandemic has unequivocally taught us that acting early is the best form of response. The countries that have behaved pro-actively have seen far fewer deaths while those which initially resigned to denialism and even obstruction of the truth have witnessed a much greater scale of human loss. If governments adhere to this same mentality and as a society, we continue to amplify the voices of scientists above those of politicians when necessary, we could make a lot of progress in acting against the inevitable threat of climate change.

Furthermore, the international response to this pandemic has shown that, effectively overnight, societies can adopt radical measures that transcend purely economic concerns to prioritise the safety and well-being of all. The climate movement needs to utilise this proof that when necessary, human behaviour can change in the most unimaginable ways. The flexibility demonstrated in this immediate scale-down of how we live has shown that society can still function by shopping locally, limiting consumption, restricting air travel and commuting by mouse rather than vehicle. These changes show that the demands of climate activists are not impossible but simply require a compelling enough reason.

And perhaps most of all, this pandemic has hopefully made humanity realise what it values most. Consumption and happiness are not inextricably linked, what really matters is the safety and health of ourselves, our loved ones and our whole societies. And if we realise that climate change poses just as valid a threat to this, such an ethos, a reconfiguring of human happiness, could inspire a renewed energy within the Climate Movement. Let us learn and absorb the lessons of this pandemic, listen to what it has taught us about what it truly means to be human and work to fight for our world, which we are all so eagerly awaiting to be reunited with.