Has the Covid-19 pandemic stalled the momentum to take bold action on climate?
Just a few months ago, climate change dominated the conversation and was at the top of the political agenda. The EU was set to unveil its signature initiative the European Green Deal. Meanwhile, climate protesters planned a massive three-day strike to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. But today, after months of lockdowns, economic recovery – or even just the restoration of normalcy – seems to have taken over as top priority.
And yet, far from being a disaster for the climate movement, the coronavirus outbreak may very well prove to be an opportunity – to break free from some of the tired strictures and illusions of climate politics of recent years, and to move the policy discussion onto a more responsible plane – one that can sustain the long time horizon that will be needed to get a grip on the climate problem, one that recaptures a sense of hope and optimism about the future, and one that enables the messy process of our democratic politics the time and space to hash out the tricky ethical and distributional questions that climate change poses.
For the last two years, the debate on climate change has been dominated by young activists like Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who became the face of the movement after spearheading the Fridays for Futures protests. The Greta Thunberg phenomenon – and all the attendant social movements it helped spawn – undoubtedly injected tremendous energy into the climate discussion, helping to move public opinion on the issue and putting pressure on policymakers to take bolder action.
Nevertheless, even before the coronavirus pandemic, this brand of climate activism was showing its limitations. To sustain the momentum and passion of a social movement is exceedingly difficult over the long term. At one point, protest must be institutionalized or absorbed into the realm of real politics, otherwise it risks either petering out in exhaustion, or turning inward or radicalising – focusing less on persuading others or building broad coalitions, and more on preserving the righteousness and moral purity of the cause. The danger is this makes climate change, rather than a space to carve out common ground and seek pragmatic solutions, yet another wedge issue polarized across partisan and identity lines.
So what is to be done? What would a new dialogue on the climate look like? A glimpse of one way forward can be discerned from one of the few welcome side-effects to come out of the coronavirus lockdowns – that is, the noticeable improvement in air quality and the return of nature. This is not something to celebrate. It has come at the unacceptable cost of millions of jobs lost and countless businesses shuttered. But it does allude to a way climate politics can adapt and reframe its message in a post-coronavirus world, by recapturing some of the spirit and aims of the environmental movement’s successes of the 1960s and 70s, and focusing on outcomes like clean air or water that have a discernible impact on people’s lives and positively influence their experience of the natural environment.
This is not an argument for a lack of ambition. But it does mean shifting away from the abstractions and simplifications and going beyond symbolic gestures and emotional appeals, and refocusing on more manageable targets and more visible metrics. It means putting forth a practicable program and engaging in the slow, laborious process of politics. Incremental policies like retrofitting old buildings, expanding power grids, making use of already-existing nuclear power plants may not carry very much emotional resonance, but they do have the virtue of being both effective and politically palatable.
Second, the climate movement must move away from the preoccupation on individual consumer behaviors and exhortations to personal austerity, which have grown divisive and in any case not particularly effective. Whatever the merits of living more sustainably on an individual basis, convincing global populations to voluntarily relinquish the material gains of the modern world, or developing countries to deliberately suppress their growth, does not seem a realistic strategy over the long term. The point is to not make people feel guilty for going about their lives, but to put the structures and incentives in place to make doing so in an environmentally friendly way seamless and unthinking.
Third, a new climate politics must move away from doom and despair and reclaim a sense of optimism and confidence about the future. The rhetoric coming from some quarters of the climate movement, bathed in language of revolution and anti-capitalism, only feeds the suspicion that some environmentalists use the climate as a smoke screen to pursue other ideological goals. One of the central paradoxes is that any solution to climate change likely requires unleashing the same restive forces that got us into this predicament in the first place; that is, the power of human ingenuity and innovation. The green agenda must be a growth agenda.
Finally, just as we must recover trust in the vitality of market forces and the capacity for technological breakthrough, we must also retain faith in the promise of our democracies. In one recent poll, 53% of young Europeans said they think authoritarian states are better equipped to handle the climate crisis than democracies. That is not just wrong, but counterproductive. Democratic politics can be messy and chaotic, but they are also adaptable. Built into their structure is a feedback mechanism that pushes them to change course when necessary. That means protest certainly has a vital place in a democracy. But it also means one cannot permanently be on the outside yelling in; at one point you have to fight for change within the system.
Getting a grip on climate change will be an immense challenge – and exploding government budgets and plunging private investment under Covid-19 may make it even more so. But having just commemorated the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, we know very well that democracies have proven capable of mobilising to meet the great challenges of the past, and on the climate, we must have confidence they can do so again.