Coronavirus and Climate Change: Lessons for Restructuring Society

The coronavirus outbreak is changing the world at a scale and pace not seen since the Second World War. Billions of people in lockdown. Governments taking measures never before implemented. It’s a crazy, unprecedented time, and millions on the frontlines are doing their utmost to save lives and livelihoods. But, for many of us, it is a time of sitting at home, of living quietly, and perhaps of careful thinking.

Many have been reconsidering things that before may have seemed as permanent as the stars in the sky. The roles of community, interdependence and international cooperation are all up for discussion, and that brings it a realm of possibilities. And of all the lessons that the outbreak has carried in its wake, two stand out:

Lesson 1: Society is not indestructible, and things can suddenly go wrong on a global scale.

Lesson 2: We have the capacity to completely upend the way society functions in a matter of weeks.

These are crucial lessons for many reasons, but especially for dealing with the most significant existential threat we face: climate change. They shatter the illusion of a permanent, unmovable ‘way of life’, and bring the potential for structural change into sharp focus. That is something to be seized upon.

A preview of the future.

One way or another, climate change is going to drastically change the way we live. Broadly, this could happen in one of two ways. Climate change could force our hand — make us adapt every aspect of society to a drastically changing world, whether we like it or not. Or alternatively, we could lead those changes, thinking about how to mitigate the causes and impacts of climate change to quell this sudden upheaval. The latter is infinitely preferable.

What we are seeing currently is more similar to scenario number one. The world has had to adapt, rapidly, and this has been with significant losses to life and wellbeing. Both coronavirus and climate change are global threats, ignorant of national borders and, to a certain extent, of wealth. In other words, we’re all in this together.

It is also notable that both are less bad the faster we act. Countries that reacted quickly to the arrival of coronavirus, such as South Korea, have contained the threat more effectively than those that dallied. On a slower scale, climate change is the same — and time has already been ticking for decades. But it’s not too late.

Try turning it off and on again.

The global economic downturn we are experiencing may make the 2008 financial crisis seem tame in comparison. This is bad news for our current way of life, and for the wellbeing of many, but it does also offer a unique opportunity. Many of the arguments against ‘changing the system’ are that it will cause disruption. Well, that disruption is here now anyway. We might as well make the most of it.

Predictably, the coronavirus crisis has led to a significant drop in global carbon emissions, as whole chunks of the global economy have simply shut down. However, there is no guarantee that industry will not just pick up the slack once the crisis is over, as has been often seen after previous recessions. There is already evidence that China’s coal and cement industries are reawakening. This is despite the decades-old suspicion that GDP and its relatives are highly questionable measures of human happiness. Alternatives, such as New Zealand’s ‘wellbeing budget’, challenge the assumption that we should jump back on this bandwagon. Now is the time to re-evaluate exactly what it is we value, and plan accordingly.

The way we lived, past tense.

The way we live has radically changed. Our working lives are perhaps the most significant example. Many have faced significant hardship: the current situation is simply incompatible with their line of work, another reason why dealing with the crisis effectively is so crucial. But others, especially desk-based workers, have found themselves in an alternative lifestyle.

Offices have shut down, business trips are off the cards. Video calls and conferences are the new norm. Could this be a mini turning point? For instance, many of us are all too familiar with the daily commute, but many office workers are fast discovering that, practically speaking, there’s no good reason why they need to trek into the office each and every day.

This has accelerated what economists call this the ‘declining cost of distance’, where advances in technology have made the working-from-home lifestyle progressively more feasible in recent years. Even though the commute will inevitably resurface, organisations will likely be more receptive to employees working from home at least one or two days a week. That alone could drastically cut traffic congestion and pressure on public transport, not to mention helping out work-life balance.

There’s also the matter of flying. Airlines around the world have landed their fleets, halving the number of commercial flights. For many, this has meant people are unable to see family, or have been prevented from the holiday of a lifetime. They are to be deeply regretted. But many other flights are far less necessary, and these ones are due for some scrutiny. For instance, 12% of all flights are taken for business. That’s not insignificant. If our travel habits are changed for good — now we’ve realised that important conferences can be done over Skype, and you can do your laundry at the same time — these flights may just dry up.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have been forced to break habits, and chances are many of them won’t be resumed. Do we really miss that daily coffee to go? Does that client fifty miles away really care if I don’t meet them in person? Is driving around ‘for the fun of it’ actually that fun? In terms of the environment, the World Economic Forum described society as “sleepwalking into catastrophe”. Perhaps this is the moment we will be roused from that slumber.

Rapid change is possible and preferable.

The most important lesson is that, when pushed, society can reform itself in a matter of weeks. For decades, we have been under the illusion that the way we run society is the ‘only way’. At personal and societal scales, people over-value the status quo and under-value benefits of change. However, we now have a bit of inside perspective of what rapid change looks like in modern society. Yes, parts are uncomfortable, and errors of judgement and oversight have led to undesirable outcomes; yet we all agree that, in the case of coronavirus, action is better than inaction. The same stands for climate change.

So, what’s next? When we emerge from this crisis, we will have vastly enriched our knowledge of how society reacts to rapid systemic change. This clears up a lot of uncertainties. For starters, we know that society is not invincible, and it is perfectly possible that things can go wrong at a global scale. This undermines the argument for maintaining ‘business as usual’ and means that the faux stability of capital-led society is no longer an effective façade. It’s the catalyst we need to bring about widespread change for good. We will look back on this as an unpleasant time, tragic in many cases, but by learning valuable lessons we can ensure that this hardship is not in vain.

Having studied zoology at university, I have now turned to scientific communication. I write a bit of everything, but climate change features most strongly.

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