We are living in an emergency; most of us have never seen the world in a state like this. The COVID-19 public health and following economic crisis are putting great hardship on millions of people and demand responsible leadership. However, there is also an opportunity in all of this. It is as if the world has come to a halt and here is the chance to start in a new way. Arundhati Roy recently wrote in her much-cited article in the Financial Times that “the pandemic is a portal”. And it is: This crisis exposes inequalities more clearly than ever before and discloses who really is causing the much greater emergency that is yet to come in its full force: Climate Change. We need to be active citizens to expose and punish the ones that are creating the path to an uninhabitable planet.
“The Earth can finally breathe again,” is something I have heard plenty of times in the last weeks. And yes, there is data that air pollution has temporarily been greatly reduced but emissions are expected to drop by only 4% in this global lockdown. “Slowing down” the world in the manner currently happening obviously has a very small effect in emissions, while the “little people” are paying the high costs for it: Millions of people are losing their livelihoods due to the lockdown, parents don’t know how to take care of their children’s schooling while earning a living and domestic violence is on the rise. They are currently paying a huge price for a tiny reduction in emissions, while they were never the ones contributing the most to climate change. This is clearly not a solution to avoiding the climate crisis.
The real impact is made by fossil fuel companies. In fact, just 90 companies are responsible for ⅔ of global CO2 emissions; Chevron, ExxonMobil, and BP at the forefront. And they are not stopping their business in this pandemic. Quite to the contrary, fossil fuel giants are taking advantage of the situation. As 350.org founder Bill McKibben wrote recently in The Guardian, the big oil companies “saw their opening” and in the middle of the global lockdown transported workers across North-America. The building of new oil pipelines in times when the oil price was negative, is exempted from the orders and declared “critical”. Politically, this influence of the fossil fuel industry is obvious, but morally it is incomprehensible. These constructions are taking place in close proximity to indigenous communities, who have in the past lost up to 90% of their population to introduced diseases. Indigenous people are being held hostage: Either they protest while putting their communities at an extreme health risk or they stay in and watch how their land is taken away in front of their eyes.
It has become clear: Your individual choice to not use a plastic bag is not going to stop the climate disaster. The fossil fuel lobby is doing all they can to make us believe that the climate crisis is caused by our individual behavior. But they have a clear agenda. Only stopping the fossil fuel industry that is ruthlessly exploiting our shared home and the financial institutions funding them, can give us hope for a livable future.
The COVID-19 crisis can lead to a paradigm shift if the stimulus packages all over the globe now prioritize our future. The so-called “free market” that is full of subsidies for not-future-friendly industries, needs to be changed. Subsidies need to be taken away and shifted towards green technology and efforts towards an equitable society.
How is this going to happen? People, now more aware than ever of where inequality and emissions stem from, need to demand a change from their elected representatives. We need to expose banks like Chase, who are pumping endless investments into fossil fuel extraction. We need to be persistent. We need to not be fooled by headlines but go deeper. As one example among many for this, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel is being praised all over global media for having agreed to a green stimulus but simultaneously the German government is currently about to bail out Lufthansa Airlines with absolutely no strings attached.
If we, coming out of this crisis, decide to fly less, drive less, and maybe just take our lives a little bit slower - great. But wanting to avoid the climate disaster ahead of us, we need to go further. What we really need to do is take our responsibility as citizens seriously and hold our elected representatives accountable. We need to make them realize that there are a lot of opposing interests to the fossil fuel lobby. And that we are many.
This global pandemic can really be a turning point. However, it is not going to happen by itself. If we care about a liveable future on planet Earth, we need to educate and organize ourselves and be an active part of shaping the economic recovery of our societies.