COVID19 AND CLIMATE CHANGE CAMPAIGNING – THE SAME PRINCIPLES APPLY

Matthew Crighton continues the discussion on organising at a time of pandemic. You can check out earlier contributions here, here, here and here.

SUMMARY                            

The Covid19 crisis and climate change have in common not only that they are both deadly but also that we know that they can both be tackled. The reasons that each has become a massive crisis is that they have been exacerbated by the neo-liberal economic system, by the weakening of health systems and social protection, and by the lack of capacity, globally and nationally, to manage the economy so that it protects us and meets our needs.                                                                                                                                                   

To solve both of them and to put us on a safe trajectory into the future, we need a radically different approach – publicly-driven, pro-people and pro-nature, collective and egalitarian. Broad and strong  mobilisations leading to decisive shifts in power away from the corporations and their political allies are required to ensure that, drawing in the diverse popular movements with a stake in this alternative.

These struggles are inter-linked. So climate change activists ought to be engaged now in the politics and economics of the coronavirus, and practical solidarity actions which it necessitates.

The essential messages are the same including:

  • Save lives! Take immediate urgent measures to stop the avoidable death, illness and suffering which will arise if we don’t act.
                
  • Collective actions for our shared needs must displace the pursuit of private profits. Public institutions must be strengthened and resourced.
                
  • In crises the powerful will seek to protect and consolidate their grip on power. Only mass organisation, vigilance and democratic accountability can prevent that and ensure change for the better.
  • Inequalities will increase unless strong and determined actions are taken to reverse that. Our actions must protect and empower the vulnerable and make the rich pay most.

We can build back better and merge our ideas about just transition into campaigns for a just recovery. It’s not in doubt now that radical public interventions in the economy are possible, in this case to reduce transmission of the virus, to boost public health systems, to support workers affected, and to sustain otherwise vulnerable companies. Only governments have these powers and they can and should be used to rapidly cut emissions as well. All support for private companies should include conditions that they should create forward plans for a just transition; and just transition approaches to redeploying and training of workers from one sector to another should be applied in the current crisis. 

As it moves towards an end, the reconstruction of a new normal for economic activity should integrate health, wellbeing, climate change and environmental objectives at its core. We need work on a new economic strategy for that to start now.    

                                                                 

THE SAME PRINCIPLES APPLY

We are all bewildered by the rapidity and scale of the Covid 19 crisis and most climate justice campaigners are juggling with reactions which can appear to pull in different directions. These include: this has knocked other issues from the attention they need – if only climate change had been treated as seriously – solving Covid will give us tools for stopping climate change – at least emissions are falling if only temporarily and at massive human cost – the same groups of people are at risk from both. 

Thinking clearly about the similarities and differences will help fit these all into a perspective which can in turn help us to orientate to the political and campaigning challenges ahead. Here’s my first effort, with some concluding thoughts specifically about implications for work on sustainable economics.

These are very different problems. One is a disease – a medical problem with associated public health problems related in particular to the rate at which it can spread in urban societies. The other is at its heart an economic problem, an externality – an unintended, unanticipated, uncosted and initially unnoticed consequence of economic activity. In free markets, no costs are attributable to anyone responsible, even though the costs to society and nature are enormous. 

Accordingly there are few intrinsic synergies between the two crises. Solving one has no necessary relation to solving the other. For example an end to Covid 19 through rapid creation and deployment of a vaccine will leave greenhouse emissions untouched, or rather bouncing back to previous levels. Equally a clear and rapid downward trajectory of emissions will bring no benefit to those dying from the virus, nor to the medics treating them. The timescales and the degrees of threat are also contrasting. Climate change threatens civilisation and therefore the lives of billions, in the fairly long term by the destruction of liveability and agriculture in much of the earth; and in the shorter term through disease, drought, flooding and wars, probably involving nuclear powers, driven by escalating resource competition. Unless it mutates badly, the virus will only kill a fraction of any human population but it could do that in a few years.

However the connection between the two crises is not just that efforts to solve one may distract from the other. We sense that there are lots of similarities and perhaps we have tried out the idea that they have common roots in a dysfunctional relationship between nature and humanity. Maybe, but perhaps that’s really just tautologous – restating as a generalisation that they both cause illness and death and both involve natural processes which we don’t have ways of controlling. (However I recognise that there is an argument that they are fundamentally connected – that Covid 19 would not have infected humans without the effects of globalised economic expansion on marginal agricultural communities and the pressure on wildlife from habitat extinction, even though viruses do transfer between species naturally. This could mean that it also could be portrayed as an externality of similar economic processes, though in my mind that is a stretch. Another true point is that climate change will make more pandemics more likely).

While both are instances where the interaction between the scientific community and politics is in the spotlight, it’s not in the natural sciences where we should look for similarities but in the social, economic and political spheres. There, I think we will see that the contradiction is not between nature and humanity per se, but between nature and humanity on the one hand and, on the other, the particular dominant way of organising economy and society – neo-liberal capitalism.

Firstly, equity and inequality: the impact of both Covid19 and climate change are universal in the sense that anyone may be victims, but both tend to fall most on particular sections of the population, disproportionately on those who suffer other disadvantages. People in poverty are more likely to have poor health and to be badly affected by COVID (think for instance of rough sleepers) and citizens of poor countries with limited health services will be much more likely to die. In a similar but not identical way, the impacts of climate change are mediated by social oppressions and global inequalities. A rich person can get the virus, or their house may be burnt by a wildfire, over all it is the poor and oppressed who will suffer most. Social inequalities kill, in both cases. 

Secondly, the economy: both cause economic dislocation. That caused by climate change is slow and long term and if unchecked it will be massive, resulting in breakdown of the economic life support systems of many  – for example through drought and starvation or flooding of coastal settlements. In the short term the consequences of climate change are more about the value of financial assets in specific sectors; and on specific countries and geographical areas.  COVID 19 is having some similar effects, in an immediate and dramatic way. However, mostly it is not the illness which is having them but the measures being taken to prevent its spread. 

It is when we get to think about these, the policy responses and the solutions, that we start to see really big connections between these two crises. At root, both require that the economy, and social conduct, is managed in order to achieve shared human purposes – prevention of a pandemic disease or stopping catastrophic global warming. Economic policy in capitalist countries, however, has as its formal purposes achieving economic objectives (though some might say that its real purpose is continuing a regime of accumulation which benefits the already rich).

These are both crises which need urgent solutions but which free markets cannot solve. They require decisive and forceful action by the state. Conversely the pro-market, neo-liberal consensus has contributed to making both of these crises worse in various ways (for instance the massive growth in cheap air travel). Austerity has weakened the capacity of our institutions and infrastructure to respond (for instance the stripping of the NHS to the bare minimum for regular, expected peak demand). The recognition that markets need to be constrained and that collective action and public agency are vital has de facto dispelled neo-liberal prescriptions.

We have been developing the tools, measures, policies which are needed to prevent greenhouse gas emissions and when we look at Covid 19 we find that we need them for that too, whether in preventing its spread or dealing with the economic consequences – again, not in identical ways. For each of the measures needed for a just transition to net-zero emissions listed below (in no special order) we can compare the way they need to be applied for the Covid19 crisis:- 

  • Public leadership
  • State intervention
  • Economic management and regulation, general and sectorally specific 
  • Fiscal policy
  • Restrictions on the rights of private owners
  • Bail outs, conditionality and extension of public ownership
  • Investment planning and direction of production in specific sectors
  • Social protections (unemployment benefit, pensions etc)
  • Redeployment, training and other labour market measures
  • Planning and long-termism
  • Regional and local responsibilities
  • Community organising and service delivery
  • Behaviour and consumption changes

(There are other tools used against Covid 19 of course – most notably social distancing, public health systems, digital surveillance – see annex).  

It’s not just the policy tools, it’s how they are done.

National governments are the key agents of a pro-public response – only they have the capacity to overrule the decisions and desires of companies and individuals in order to impose measures which can limit and end these crises. Each nation, in its own political system, has its way of balancing consent and coercion and deriving the authority for the state to act in these ways. Between and within states there are right wing and left wing solutions (and ones in between) –  this is a tension between ones which won’t be effective and will exacerbate social problems and existing inequalities – and ours, which will actually work and bring wider benefits. 

However no national government on its own can solve these crises. Effective global governance is vital –  we need institutions which can constrain global capital and ensure solutions are applied across the world. It is obvious that neo-liberalism has weakened these institutions and empowered corporations and profit seeking instead. In particular mechanisms for achieving a fair distribution of pain and gain between rich and poor, and rich and poor countries, have been fatally undermined.

To legitimate this, and to weaken the alternatives when the failures of globalisation and neo-liberal crisis management become apparent, xenophobic ideologies and the racist narratives of the right have been fostered.  A focus on justice and combatting oppressions conversely has to be built in to our approach to both climate change and to Covid19.

In the face of hesitant, inadequate and incompetent response to Covid 19 from governments, in particular in the UK and USA, political campaigns and workplace organisation have been essential to insist on action to protect both the population and the workforce. Similarly, we have learnt from bitter experience that those same governments are failing to protect us from the consequences of climate change. We will only be protected if we have developed the power to insist on it, so democracy, scrutiny, movement building and populare mobilisations are essential – we need to force the existing system to deliver real solutions; and in doing so, to change that system.

The strength to do that will depend on seeing that these struggles are inter-linked – success in one can strengthen the likelihood of success in others. Workers, health, environment, social justice, liberation/anti-oppression are up against the same enemies. The strength of each helps the other.

Core Messages about both Covid 19 and climate change

The Covid 19 crisis is about mortality and illness, which is why people are prepared to accept such draconian measures against it. It is preventable, in the short term by lockdown, testing and tracing and effective health systems; in the long term by treatments and vaccines. It has arisen in the context of reckless exploitation of our environment and has been fostered and enhanced by neo-liberal capitalism. The most vulnerable and poorest are likely to be hit hardest- in our communities and across the world.

Each of these things is true of climate change too. It kills people, it is preventable and it is rooted in economic and social structures which put short-term profit above collective human needs.

So, many who care about climate change care equally about preventing the Covid 19 crisis from escalating and about ensuring that actions to stop it don’t make injustice and inequalities worse. Instead they want them to create a much stronger foundation for the solutions to both climate change and future pandemics. In political terms, this also suggests that they ought to become actively engaged in the immediate arguments and struggles about the virus and the responses to it.

Just as the solutions which we need to climate change are vital parts of the armoury we have to deploy against Covid 19 and its consequences, most of the measures which we need to take now are also required to stop greenhouse gas emissions. The essential messages are the same:

  • Save lives! Take immediate urgent measures to stop the avoidable death, illness and suffering which will arise if we don’t act.
             
  • Collective actions for shared needs must displace the pursuit of private profits. Public institutions must be strengthened and resourced.
             
  • Inequalities will increase unless strong and determined actions are taken to reverse that. Our actions must protect and empower the vulnerable and make the rich pay most.
             
  • In crises the powerful will seek to protect and consolidate their grip          on power. Only mass organisation, vigilance and democratic accountability can prevent and reverse that.
             
  • Xenophobic, racist and reactionary ideologies which seek to blame and weaken other communities strengthen the elites and weaken our capacity to deal with these crises.                 
  • The workers most affected must be protected from danger, their voices must be heard and their actions supported. The principles of just transition can be applied to the management of any planned changes, not just decarbonisation.
             
  • Economic powers must be used to protect the wellbeing of the people. Support for businesses must ensure that the benefits are transmitted to workers and customers and tight conditions must reduce harmful impacts on our environment.
             
  • Tackle the crisis globally! We are dependent on each other for our health so governments must cooperate and create institutions which can ensure funding, delivery and oversight of solutions across the world.          
  • The poorest countries and their poorest peoples will suffer most so rich countries must direct large-scale funding and support to them.
             
  • Build back better! The ways in which we act will determine whether we are in a stronger or weaker position to deal with ongoing and future crises.

The way in which a government deals with a crisis is likely to be the way in which it comes out of it. It not only affects how effective it will be but also all the other outcomes, for instance whether the society which emerges is more or less equal. It is vital, therefore, that we are stronger and better equipped to deal with the climate change crisis as a result of the massive efforts and sacrifices made to stop the Covid 19 pandemic.

The inescapable conclusion from this is that climate change activists ought to be engaged now in the politics, economics and practical solidarity actions of the coronavirus.

Some conclusions about campaigning

At the moment there is almost no news except coronavirus. Quite rightly people and journalists are giving full attention to this extraordinary crisis and the measures being deployed to tackle it; and to the economic questions. 

In the debates about what the measures should be and how they should be implemented, our voice is unlikely to be heard, in large part because we don’t have anything to say about these which is specifically within our remit (or do we? ‘look after what keeps us healthy and that requires a healthy environment’ might work). 

On economic questions we have a bit more to say because we identify that the way in which the economy develops and is managed is central to achieving our objectives regarding climate change and biodiversity. We have a unique contribution to make as part of the broad movement advocating for different objectives and policies. 

While health-related measures and the economic response are to the fore at present, in parallel everyone will start thinking about more general issues as well, to differing degrees. These include questions like Why did this happen? What went wrong? Who might be blamed? What should be done differently from now on? On these we have a lot to contribute from our decades of experience of thinking about these questions in relation to climate change.

My conclusion from the discussion above is that our overall approach should be:

Covid19 and climate change have different roots but they have in common not only that they are both deadly but also that we know that they can both be tackled. The reasons that each has become a massive crisis is that they have been exacerbated by the neo-liberal economic system, by the weakening of health systems and social protection and by the lack of global and national capacity to manage the economy so that it protects us and meets our needs. To solve either or both of them and to put us on a safe trajectory into the future, we need a radically different approach – publicly-driven, pro-people and pro-nature, collective and egalitarian. Broad and strong popular mobilisations leading to decisive shifts in power away from the corporations and their political allies are required to ensure that, drawing in diverse popular movements with a stake in this alternative. We have a powerful and unique contribution to put alongside those of other allies; and we want to support them and learn from them in their struggles for protection of workers, care for the vulnerable, public health etc. 

We should avoid saying that the Covid19 virus is helping fight climate change, even though emissions are falling, because it suggests that a) we think they are directly connected somehow and b) that high mortality and economic crisis are necessary parts of the solution to climate change.

We should try saying: Climate change will make similar disasters more likely and is already on course to cause similar levels of harm. Why do all this to stop a virus pandemic without using the same tools to also stop greenhouse gas emissions?

Implications for alternative sustainable economics

In relation to economics work and just transition, the key links with the response to Covid 19 are:

  1. radical public/state interventions in the economy are possible and effective, in this case to reduce transmission of the virus, to boost public health systems, to support workers affected, to sustain otherwise vulnerable companies;
  2. only governments have these powers and they can and should be used to rapidly cut emissions as well;
  3. the terms of support for private companies should include conditions that they should create forward plans for a just transition;
  4. just transition approaches to redeploying and training of workers from one sector to another should be used and developed in the current crisis;
  5. social protections for the workforce should be improved permanently to make such shifts easier in the future; 
  6. as and when the Covid 19 crisis moves towards an end, the reconstruction of a new normal for economic activity should integrate health, wellbeing, climate change and environmental objectives at its core. We need work on a new economic strategy for that to start now.  
  7. in the longer run, it is likely that the Covid 19 crisis will lead to re-balancing of the offshoring of production in favour of greater self-sufficiency, complementing the requirements for creating local employment and a just transition;
  8. the experiences of this episode should be instructive for how we promote circular economies, de-coupling and de-growth.

Author: Matthew Crighton

Email: mcrighton@gmail.com

Annex

Covid 19 campaigns and messages

Prevent avoidable deaths –

Immediately: through lockdown, testing, tracing and quality universal health and social care.

Restrict intra-national and international travel

Defend the disadvantaged and vulnerable (and all communities with greater vulnerability)

Protect frontline workers with PPE

Support union actions and community solidarity

Invest in health systems

Strengthen and empower public services

Convert industry to make health equipment

Protect and support poor countries

Create drug treatments

Create vaccines

Make them universally available

Global governance to ensure funding, delivery and oversight

Protect people economically – incomes, food, rent, bills

Ensure supplies of necessities

Bail out private companies with the right conditions – prevent profiteering, extend public ownership

Address inequalities- share the pain fairly – tax the rich

Resist restrictions on liberties

Build an economy which won’t repeat these mistakes

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