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If you liked Covid, you'll love climate change

What did you find most depressing about the Covid pandemic? (This is always a fun conversation starter and you have my permission to use it next time you’re at a party).


For me, it was the great reluctance of everyone in the UK, from the government down, to respond to do anything about it. Only after the virus had been in Britain for weeks and was killing people by the thousand did we finally take decisive action. We locked down only when faced with the imminent deaths of vast numbers of people. People complained bitterly about social distancing. The economy took a hit from which it is yet to recover. Some small businesses shuttered their doors forever. But through our collective sacrifice, we were able to curb the spread of the virus and limit deaths to a mere 212,000 (at time of writing).


So how would we have responded if it wasn’t British lives at risk? What if, for the meantime at least, everyone who suffered most from the crisis was on the other side of the world? What then would we be prepared to sacrifice?


Only relatively recently have basically all governments and corporations come to view anthropogenic climate change as an existential threat. (Publicly, that is. Privately, it appears that they’ve known for some time.)


Its effects are already being felt. Just last year, flooding displaced 3.4 million people in west and central Africa and 7.9 million people in Pakistan alone. Worse is yet to come. The suffering that will be caused by climate change over the coming years will dwarf that caused by Covid.


But unlike Covid, which initially spread faster in rich countries than poor ones the worst impacts of climate change are, so far, mostly limited to the developing world. As such, radical action on the scale of the Covid response remains elusive.


At COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh last year, representatives from the biggest polluting countries delivered eloquent platitudes on stage, whilst working behind closed doors to keep substantive change on the use of fossil fuels out of any final negotiation. In the end, next to nothing was agreed that would drastically reduce climate change. Don’t expect much better from COP28 in Dubai, which will be presided over by the CEO of the national Emirati oil company in the world’s sixth-highest carbon-emitting country per capita.


Even previous agreements appear fragile, as demonstrated by Europe’s response to the recent fuel crisis when countries across the continent began reopening oil, gas, and coal-fired power plants. Global South leaders accused the Europeans of blatant hypocrisy: How can the West now continue to push Africa to abandon fossil fuels when just under half the continent has never had access to electricity?

Europeans and North Americans are not prepared to make big changes to their standards of living to address climate change. World leaders are happy to attend climate conferences and make speeches emphasising the importance of tackling global warming. They are happy to put pressure on other governments to transition away from fossil fuels. But they also know that keeping fuel prices down for their own citizens is the real vote winner.


It’s not just NIMBYism preventing a more comprehensive response. Much like Covid, climate change is a faceless killer. This makes a difference. Whilst prices rose across the world last year, Americans, when polled, generally said that they would shoulder the extra burden to defeat Russia. Nations have shown time and again the sacrifices they are prepared to make for the right enemy. But climate change is not a belligerent foreign power. If only it were. If Iran was the one causing global warming, we’d have it licked by now.


Instead we’re left with well-meaning, far-reaching, but wholly inadequate climate policies. A massive proportion of Westerners now say they want to take action to halt climate change, but only if such action has a minimal impact on their lifestyle. The current approach can be summed up in the words of deified naturalist Sir David Attenborough who tells us that all we must do to combat climate change is to “live the way you want to live but just don’t waste.”


A comforting thought, but false. The amount consumed (and therefore emitted) in rich countries is inherently unsustainable, to say nothing of the billions who live in developing countries and who aspire to the same standards of living. We must radically reduce our collective overconsumption to cut the Gordian knot. Such radical policy proposals that will never win mainstream political support includes banning short haul flights, taxing meat and dairy, and regulating private car usage.


Easier then to continue propagating the lie. Our lives need not change; technology will save us. The goal of 1.5 has now become one of those impossible goals that we still profess to believe in, like a two-state solution in Palestine or England winning a major trophy. Pay lip service to the dream whilst resisting any policy decision that could bring it to life.


To take one recent example, look at how the American media responded to rumours that President Biden is considering increased regulation of gas stoves (despite the fact he has categorically said that he isn’t). This is what The Wall Street Journal editorial board had to say about it:


“There really is a culture war coming over gas stoves, and everything else involving fossil fuels, because climate has become for the left a matter of core cultural identity. Progressives want to impose their values on the lifestyle of everyone else, including in the kitchen. If subsidies don’t work, coercion follows. When they can’t win the political debate, they resort to brute government force.”


None of this is true, of course. More’s the pity.



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