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We need a pandemic-like response to tackle the climate crisis

Climate change will surpass the pandemic in scale and impact—we must demand that our leaders respond with the same urgency

COVID-19EnvironmentEconomic Crisis

We now have evidence that rapid and extensive action is possible. The pandemic proved that we can cease business as usual and channel our efforts toward collective well-being. Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson/Unsplash.

By all accounts, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed long-standing inequities throughout society. Yet this once-in-a-century global health crisis also mandated unprecedented collective action, revealing the cost of social divestment while proving that it is possible for political leaders to rapidly implement large-scale socioeconomic programs and emergency measures.

From border closures to relief programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), we witnessed governments react swiftly to curb viral transmission and introduce cash transfers that replaced lost income—all with significant public support.

We have conclusive proof that urgent action is possible to stem the destabilization of entire economies. Now, we must demand that governments employ the same urgency to tackling the climate crisis.

A prolonged respite is not possible given the current state of the environment. As the most recent report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows, global heating is human-caused and is having an enormous impact on our health, safety, and well-being.

As we continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere, the situation will inevitably worsen. The impending devastation caused by ecological collapse will certainly surpass the severity of the pandemic, both in suffering and duration.

There is no time to lose, and inaction cannot be tolerated. As the IPCC report lucidly demonstrates, we are fast approaching the proverbial tipping point. Pressure must be put to bear on elected officials so that they are forced to act with the same urgency provoked by other global crises, like the coronavirus pandemic.

“Code red for humanity”

In July, as wildfires raged across the western part of North America, the town of Lytton in British Columbia recorded a temperature of 49.6 degrees Celsius, the hottest ever witnessed in Canada. Farther east, cities like Montréal and Toronto were under public health advisories due to smog caused by wildfires in Manitoba and Ontario.

According to the IPCC report, Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, given its proximity to the North Pole. In fact, Canada’s annual average temperature has warmed by an estimated 1.7 degrees Celsius since 1948, when nationwide temperatures were first recorded.

Meanwhile, we learned that the Amazon rainforest now emits more carbon than it captures. It is unclear if it will be possible to restore the vast forests of South America or if this ecological change is permanent. In early August, experts sounded the alarm on the collapse of the Gulf Stream, one of the planet’s key circulation systems, which would have catastrophic consequences for the climate. They warn that such a breakdown would devastate human communities and would render some areas of the globe uninhabitable.

We are currently experiencing the effects of a 1.1 degree rise in global temperatures. Already, we are witnessing a marked increase in the frequency of extreme weather events, from wildfires to floods. We are on track to reach a 1.5 increase in the next few years and likely to reach two degrees in the following decades if we continue to emit high levels of CO2. The IPCC’s climate science report, part of its sixth assessment, paints a distressing portrait. The acceleration of climate change has led United Nations General Secretary António Guterres to proclaim a “code red for humanity.”

We have, of course, known for some time that the climate crisis threatens ecological, and by extension, societal collapse. Early reports on the threat of climate change date back to the 1970s. In fact, a group of scientists recently embarked upon an experiment to verify the predictions made over 50 years ago, with sobering conclusions. Not only were the predictions accurate, they effectively pinpoint the threshold of collapse at 2040. Past that point, the conditions needed to support human life on this planet will be weakened significantly.

Climate injustice

Before we reach that tipping point, climate change will progressively transform our lives and communities, and though extreme weather is indiscriminate, its impacts will harm some more than others. In 2019, the UN warned that we are likely to experience some form of ‘climate apartheid,’ as the wealthy pay to escape the harsh effects of the crisis while the poor are left the bear the brunt of our collective disregard for the environment.

Global heating is already having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities throughout the Global South. Successive droughts in areas such as the Sahel have led to increased periods of drought, resulting in famine. For island states such as the Philippines and Haiti, natural disasters have multiplied, leaving less and less time for communities to recover between extreme weather events. For farming communities in Central America, lack of rainfall has meant fewer successful harvests, a devastating blow for Indigenous communities that depend on subsistence agriculture.

The slow breakdown of ecosystems and the resulting loss of livelihood is already displacing millions of people across the planet. In 2018, for the first time in recorded history, more people were displaced by weather than by conflict. As conditions worsen, we can expect increased displacement and migration linked to climate change. Though some more fortunate migrants may succeed in re-establishing themselves, most will experience poverty and many will be forced into overcrowded refugee camps.

Photo by Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Closer to home, Indigenous communities are experiencing disproportionate ecological stress. For communities in northern Ontario, traditional methods of food gathering, such as caribou hunting and berry picking, are under threat as temperatures warm. On the east coast, reports of dwindling fish populations are raising concerns in Inuit communities.

Among non-Indigenous populations, the vulnerable are also dealing with the heightened effects of climate breakdown. During the recent heatwave in BC, unhoused and poor residents, most of whom did not have access to shelter and air conditioning, faced near-intolerable conditions. Many died. Moreover, these conditions became dangerous for the elderly and for those in poor-health, many of whom sought shelter in city-run facilities. As heat waves increase, these inequities will be accentuated.

As with the pandemic, the climate crisis is sharpening inequalities. The way global warming is experienced will vary widely in accordance with geography and socioeconomic status, as will our ability to mitigate and adapt to it. Our efforts to combat climate change must therefore be rooted in the spirit of social justice. Equity, solidarity and dignity need to be at the centre of this fight.

Demands for a Green New Deal

As the climate crisis is all-encompassing, it will require bold and transformative action that goes beyond ecological conservation and decarbonization. Saving the planet from the worst impacts of warming will require nothing less than reimagining our relationships to material and physical resources as well as our collective responsibility towards one another.

The proposal for a Green New Deal (GND) introduced by American politicians Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey in 2019 offers a compelling vision for short-term change. It espouses a transition from fossil fuels to clean forms of energy through massive public investments in green infrastructure. Crucially, however, it also aims to provide a social safety net to accompany the transition, ensuring that fossil fuel workers and others who depend on the extractive industries do not lose their livelihoods.

Any plan to tackle climate change needs to prioritize socioeconomic justice and equity. Indeed, many governments may be tempted to transfer transition costs to working people (as was the case in France when a diesel tax which impacted primarily lower-income workers such as truck drivers, sparked the yellow vests protests). Durable change, however, requires forward-looking social and redistributive policies.

Some form of a GND could offer an equitable roadmap to rapid decarbonization. And while the policy is far from perfect advocacy in support of a GND in the short-run should not preclude us from imagining and working towards a sustainable future that is free from capitalist and imperialist oppression. Valuable work is already being done by collectives such as the Red Nation whose manifesto outlines a future based on decolonization, solidarity, dignity and ecological harmony.

As another federal election looms, we must demand a GND and hold to account parties whose platforms fail to meet the urgency of the climate crisis. So far, only Avi Lewis—who is pursuing the NDP nomination in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country—has explicitly endorsed the GND, and is one of the only political figures in this country who, as Christo Aivalis writes, “recognizes that the severity of the climate crisis and other forms of injustice in this country necessitate a strong, rapid, and bold response from the federal government.”

Allowing any government to maintain and expand fossil fuel exploitation is virtually suicidal. Canada is one of the world’s foremost petro states with some of the highest per capita emissions. As such, the responsibility we bear in resolving this crisis goes far beyond our borders. Given the very short window for action, the next election is crucial. All issues are now climate issues—and the coming electoral race needs to reflect this fact.

We now have evidence that rapid and extensive action is possible. The pandemic proved that we can cease business as usual and channel our efforts toward collective well-being. The climate crisis will fast supersede the pandemic in scale and impact, so we must demand that our leaders respond with the same type of urgency.

Though some degree of global heating is now inevitable, there is still just enough time to act to prevent abject devastation. Climate justice must now be at the centre of all political discussions. Canadians have a considerable responsibility in this fight: our choice of leaders matters not just for us but for everyone and for the viability of our planet for future generations.

Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethELeier.

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