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“We Must Treat a Crisis Like a Crisis”: What 2020 Has Taught Us About the Climate Emergency

Photo: Getty

When countries around the world went into strict, Covid-enforced lockdowns earlier this year, there were signs of nature returning to our cities — from dolphins spotted in the port of Sardinia to goats taking over the Welsh town of Llandudno. Blue skies were seen in cities such as Delhi as air pollution levels dropped, while carbon emissions plunged a dramatic 17% globally by April. 

“It gave us a taste of what it could be like, if we managed to tackle our emissions,” Corinne Le Quéré, professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, tells Vogue. “It was a positive message at a time that it was needed.” 

2020 was seen as a critical year for the climate crisis 

he San Francisco Bay Bridge seen from Harrison Street under an orange smoke-filled sky in San Francisco, caused by wildfires sweeping through California, September 9, 2020. Photo: Getty

It was meant to be a critical year for addressing the climate crisis, with the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement — the commitment signed by 195 nations to keep global warming well below 2C and pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5C — taking place in December. Countries had been due to submit their commitments to cutting emissions for the next five years, but the postponement of COP 26 — the annual UN climate conference — due to Covid-19 has delayed this.

Still, there have been important developments, including president-elect Joe Biden declaring that the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement in 2021. Meanwhile, the EU has proposed a new goal of cutting emissions by 55% by 2030, while China has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2060. Japan has also joined several countries in committing to net zero emissions by 2050, the UK has unveiled its 10-point climate plan, while New Zealand has officially declared a climate emergency

We must treat a crisis like a crisis 

A resident carrying a child rests in a shelter ahead of the expected landfall of cyclone Amphan in Dacope of Khulna district, Bangladesh, 20 May 2020. Photo: Getty

What’s clear, though, is that we have not been treating climate change as an emergency to date. Covid-19 has shown the considerable speed at which governments can act when faced with a crisis — whether that’s enforcing strict lockdowns or investing in new vaccines to stop the spread of the virus. “Covid has shown the ability to have a swift, broad, and in lots of ways unprecedented response [to a crisis],” says Rhiana Gunn-Wright, climate policy director at the Roosevelt Institute. “Climate change is an issue that we are only going to get under control through decisive government action.” 

Now there is a blueprint for the type of response that’s needed for the climate crisis. “People have got a sense of what an emergency is,” Gunn-Wright continues. “We’ve often thought climate change is far off and it’s been very difficult for people to conceptualise when [the effects] are happening in places where you don’t live. I think there’s an analogue now.”

For some though, the effects of the climate crisis are already on their doorstep — whether that’s wildfires in California, typhoons in the Philippines or cyclones in India and Bangladesh, which are becoming increasingly frequent as the world continues to heat up. “We have reached a point where climate change impacts are visible to the naked eye,” Le Quéré says. “We’re approaching a moment of realisation where you can see that this is really, really serious.” 

Climate justice is crucial

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a news conference announcing Green New Deal legislation in Washington, DC, US. Photo: Getty

These climate-related disasters, which have taken place during the pandemic, have also shown the extreme challenges of dealing with multiple crises at the same time, with people of colour often bearing the brunt. “Those who are most vulnerable to the Covid crisis are frontline workers, those living in poverty, BIPOC communities,” Tasneem Essop, executive director at the Climate Action Network, explains. “Those communities are the exact same ones that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis.”

That’s why it’s so important that we fight for climate justice and ensure that help is given to these communities who are most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. “The big lesson is that we need to make sure there’s enough financial support to build the resilience of these vulnerable sectors to multiple shocks in the future,” Essop continues. 

The importance of a green recovery 

Filipino students and activists are seen in a climate strike organized by YACAP in the University of the Philippines, Diliman. The Philippines is among one of the most dangerous countries for climate activists, and among the most vulnerable countries to climate related disasters.

As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, it’s critical that we don’t return to the ‘old normal’, with a fossil-fuel driven economy at the centre. “When you’re talking about [economic] stimulus or recovery, it’s been focused on increasing economic activity, regardless of the impact on emissions,” Gunn-Wright says. “That’s dangerous, particularly now when we need to decarbonise so quickly and when we are on the threshold of much more sustained and severe climate impacts.” 

There is a huge opportunity to use this moment to rethink the way we do things, with the Green New Deal — proposed by US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and senator Ed Markey in 2019 — being an example of what could be achieved. “What we need is investments in green infrastructure: renewable energy, electric [transport], electrifying all the industries that we have,” Le Quéré adds. “It is possible to react ambitiously if you realise the scale of the action that is needed.” 

Just like with Covid-19, we can all play our part in tackling the climate crisis, whether that’s examining our own consumption habits or putting pressure on governments and major corporations via protests (in person or online). “You can become an active citizen,” Essop concludes. “The starting point is just to be informed — listen to what scientists are telling us. Based on that information, take action. You can make a contribution to the collective effort, both within your own [community], but also globally.” 

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