men sitting in whitehouse
L to R: President Truman, George Marshall, Paul Hoffman, and Averell Harriman, in the oval office discussing the Marshall Plan. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The Covid-19 pandemic and climate change are both worldwide emergencies and remind us we are all sharing one planet, dependant so tightly upon one another in a fragile network of threads.

At a joint press conference last week organised by Plan B, the climate litigation charity, leading British scientists and academics discussed the relationships between the two and what we can learn for the future.

Spot the difference

“The two crises are very different in terms of immediacy. Climate change is a chronic problem and Covid-19 is an acute problem,” said Sam Fankhauser, director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics. “Both are things we have to deal with in next decade, the comparison is difficult to make, but they are fundamental, and could be existential.”

For Sir Michael Marmot, climate change, health and inequality are linked.

“I see everything through the prism of health inequality”, said the professor of epidemiology at University College London, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity, and past president of the World Medical Association.

“With climate change, what happens in rich countries has a disproportionate effect on low and middle income countries. They will also suffer more from the pandemic because they have a poorer health infrastructure. We need action on health as with climate change.”

Our experience of the pandemic is showing how fast the world can change, and that we are all in it together. We are accepting drastic changes in lifestyle because the science is trusted and leaders are taking drastic action as a result.

When the traffic starts running again, visibility is once more reduced, and breathing becomes harder, we’ll remember that another life is possible.

The pandemic has created conditions in which greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, smog-bound cities can breathe again, and birdsong formerly drowned by traffic noise can be heard.

People won’t forget this after the viral threat has disappeared. When the traffic starts running again, visibility is once more reduced, and breathing becomes harder, we’ll remember that another life is possible.

Dr Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at Goldsmiths University, said: “We have seen that when we scale down industrial production it has ecological benefits, but this has happened in an unplanned way with the pandemic. We need to develop a planned approach to reduce unnecessary economic activity that benefits no one.”

For biophysicist Dr Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, “The causes of climate change and Covid-19 are similar – how we treat animals for food and biodiversity loss. International cooperation has not been done enough and the things that haven’t been done are similar with climate change.”

A key question is: if leaders can show decisive, evidence-led leadership to enforce behaviour change when needed in a life-threatening situation such as this, can and will the same leadership be applied in respect of the climate and extinction emergencies?

How dire is the climate emergency?

Sir David King, former special representative for climate change and chief scientific advisor to the UK government said: “The climate emergency is more serious than most people understand. If all emissions were to stop tomorrow the next 30 years will still lead to 1.5-2oC temperature rise.” He warned of “a 7-metre sea level rise when all the ice on Greenland melts, and this is not counting the ice in glaciers and elsewhere. Coastal cities will drown.

“We can’t talk about any carbon budget left. We’ve already gone too far. We need to manage the risk, otherwise the future is not attractive for our children,” King said.

Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, added: “We’re heading for a 4°C global temperature rise at the moment, if we don’t take action. Even a 1.5 to 2°C temperature rise means a lot of people will die”.

What should we do? “Deep and rapid reductions first, then CO2 removal,” said Sir David. “I’ve set up a Centre for Climate Repair to achieve this; we shouldn’t prioritise one solution over another.”

He said that to prevent disaster he supports three immediate objectives:

  • Stopping all emissions immediately
  • Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at a rate of 340 billion t per year, the same rate as it is being emitted now
  • Finding out ways to refreeze the Arctic.

Mission Innovation is spending $20 million on finding solutions. I’m reasonably hopeful,” he said.

How should the public debts be paid off?

In tackling the pandemic governments are racking up huge public debts that will need to be paid off. Economies will need to be rebooted.

Kevin Anderson believes that we therefore need a Marshall Plan-style reconstruction drive and we need to align it with a behavioural change. Also, “Equity is absolutely key. Most people are low emitters, 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by 10 per cent of the population.”

Jason Hickel agreed: “We need to recognise the inability of households to pay rent and debt. Not with massive borrowing but a wealth tax so it falls on those most able to pay and don’t rack up debt. How we respond is crucial to how we address the climate emergency.”

As with the Marshall plan after the Second World War, investment will be in new infrastructure.

According to Sandine Dixson Decleve, the president of the Club of Rome, “conservatives in Europe are circulating a letter calling to eliminate the green new deal until Covid-19 is eliminated. They’re saying forget the climate emergency because it will be all hands to the pump to rebuild the economy.”

Sam Fankhauser agreed. “In economically difficult times we take the foot off the pedal in ecological terms. People don’t pay enough attention to the environment. But there is an opportunity to make reconstruction climate-friendly.

“It’s maybe a bit too early to talk about it now, but as we move into rebuilding the economy we can pay attention to this. Timely, targeted and temporary are the three tests that economists use, and climate change measures fall into this, so it is possible.”

Quantitative easing is a high carbon way of stimulating the economy, however. Can we have green quantitative easing?”

“We can bail out companies if it helps employees,” Kevin Anderson said, “but we mustn’t exacerbate climate change and inequalities in the way we deal with this.

“With 10-20 per cent in fuel poverty, we should be retrofitting and have high quality public transport, make renewable electricity more overall energy. This is jobs. We should readjust where we hand out resources; a care worker is worth as much as a banker, we are seeing this. It will be good for most people.”

Sam Fankhauser sees a big opportunity: “The low carbon economy is quite capital intensive. We are reaching a time when capital will be feeding in. Quantitative easing is a high carbon way of stimulating the economy, however. Can we have green quantitative easing?”

Reducing inequality is vital

Jason Hickel responded that quantitative easing can increase inequality. “It pumps up asset prices, for example house prices – which helps the rich. But inequality is an ecological problem. As the government bails out small firms, conditions should be attached.

“Our ability to maintain progress on ecological policy in the wake of Covid-19 all depends on how we pay for the present crisis.

I propose, however, that we pay for it with a wealth tax, which is entirely feasible. 

“If it is paid for by massive borrowing, we can expect that austerity will be next; and if that’s the case there will be little appetite for investment in a green new deal. I propose, however, that we pay for it with a wealth tax, which is entirely feasible. This ensures that the burden falls on those who can most afford to bear it and ensures that we do not end up with calls for austerity afterwards.

“It’s important to remember that there are economic consequences of climate breakdown. Food supply is a great risk; every degree of global heating will yield a 10 per cent decrease in food productivity, 40 per cent if we reach 4 degrees warming. Food security could be catastrophic. People already are moving to seek more habitable areas due to drought, and this will increase. Fundamentally, the world could buckle, fascists are marching to fight immigration already.”

For Sir Michael Marmot, “Air pollution is accounting for 7 million deaths globally, and if we act on climate change we act on this. We must make sure all actions we take don’t worsen inequality. Business as usual in the rich countries will.

“The sustainable development goals (SDGs) make me hopeful. At least 11 SDGs are determinants of health equity. We must encourage countries to take action on these.”

What should future society look like?

Marmot said that “The Prime Minister should chair a cross-government committee on reducing health inequality as a top priority. and it should be alongside a climate policy.”

Bradbook noted that there is $32 trillion tucked away in tax havens. “We must stop subsidising the industries that are killing us. The subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, including the externalities, according to the IMF amount to $10 million per minute.”

Kevin Anderson said, “Lots of people are now volunteering to help – can we pivot this to dealing with the climate emergency? There are multiple narratives – people have always been good; we have become deeply cynical, but this shows the world is full of good people, so let’s talk about what is a good world we want to move towards.”

Bradbook noted that there is $32 trillion tucked away in tax havens.

Michael Marmot noted that Wales and New Zealand use a well-being approach to decide policy. A similar Well-Being of Future Generations Bill has been introduced to the English Parliament. He and Bradbrook felt that this is the best way to connect the public to the personal threats posed by climate change – talking first about their health and well-being, and that of the children and grandchildren, rather than of a threat that may seem distant or in the future.

COP26 postponed

It is looking like COP26 will be postponed as a result of the pandemic. Will this matter?

Sam Fankhauser felt that it is “better to have a good delayed COP than a bad COP. It doesn’t have to be in November since much momentum is outside of this process, if we can keep those going a COP delay is not the end of the world.”

David King said that “The way in which negotiations continue is determined by foreign ministries around the world which has slowed down due to Covid-19, but I know how much better it is to be there. We are getting a slight breathing space. Suppose it’s in April next year, which is likely, it’ll be after the next president in the US is in place. USA hasn’t withdrawn from COP, they still send delegations who try to inhibit the process, and by then this may not be so.”

Kevin Anderson felt that “COPs are not just about the technical process, they offer a chance for civil society to have a voice and be by the negotiators. This is very important now. If COP26 is delayed too much, this may not happen.”

As to the role of the media, Michael Marmot called for an end to distortions in public debates in the media and Sam Fankhauser called for “fact-based reporting. Say we have a crisis but we know what we have to do about it.”

David Thorpe is author of the books Solar Technology and the new One Planet Cities. He also runs on line courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.

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  1. This is an extremely valuable perspective on the issues we face on Planet Earth. These experts make the connection between the climate and health emergencies in a succinct way as well as pointing to some of the directions needed to rebuild our ecoomies