The current coronavirus pandemic is a warning “postcard from the future” that could provide an opportunity to rethink our relationship with the environment, a leading environmentalist and economist has said.
The “great upheaval” of coronavirus highlighted the dangers of climate change but could shift thinking about ways to tackle it, Andrew Simms told The National on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day,
“There are a number of echoes between the issues and the problems,” said Mr Simms, the co-author of the Green New Deal.
“When you have a pandemic, it reveals the ability of governments to respond at speed and scale and change their economic priorities in the economic interest.”
Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970, grew in part out of US counterculture and protest movements of the 1960s. Since then it has grown into one of the largest secular celebrations in the world.
The school strike for climate movement, the extinction rebellion and the 2018 Special Report on Global Warming had driven the climate change up the political agenda in the last three years, said Mr Simms.
In 2018, the 17-year-old Greta Thunberg rose to prominence, giving the movement its most recognisable figurehead ever.
“If we go back just a few months that was the big debate, Greta Thunberg was on every front page and being welcomed by heads of state around the world,” Mr Simms explained. “Earth Day has been the steady ring of the bell in the background that has been trying to muster interest over a long time.”
While the coronavirus may have pushed the environment from the headlines, it has not erased climate change from people’s minds.
As the skies clear of pollution and our urban centres become less congested as a result of social distancing measures, Mr Simms said new ways of living have become more obvious.
“People have been finding they can cook for themselves more at home, they are making more of their own entertainment and, as a consequence, probably living lower impact lives,” he said. “It has allowed people to do a double take and hit the reset button.”
The direct relationship between health and the environment has also been highlighted by the pandemic as links are revealed between pollution and coronavirus and the raised risk of diseases spreading from animals to humans as ecosystems are destroyed.
“The climate emergency, climate change and the increase of vector borne diseases are hardwired,” said Mr Simms, who is also coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance of experts pushing for radical changes to head off climate disaster.
“So you can see there if we clean up the environment we are also acting on public health.”
Throughout history huge shifts have occurred in society precipitated by unforeseen events. In the last 50 years the world adapted to the Opec crisis, the end of the Cold War and the financial crash.
“The [crisis] we are living through at the moment in terms of its suddenness and comprehensiveness certainly does stand out,” Mr Simms said. “The timing of it means people are hopefully going to be looking to take lessons from this great upheaval.”
Mr Simms said public consensus had shifted despite some opposition from voices calling for the economy to reopen at the expense of public health.
The inaction of some governments in the face of the warnings about coronavirus pandemic also has troubling parallels with the sluggish response to climate change over the last 50 years, said Mr Simms.
“There has been a massive shift of awareness. I would argue that it’s a pretty broad consensus that public health and wellbeing comes before short term economic interest,” he explained.
“There will be voices that argue for an aggressive return to business as usual. I think there are more voices than there have ever been before arguing that this is an opportunity to do things differently.”