Katy Brown introduces Nerve’s Special Environmental Crisis Issue
Our special environmental edition of Nerve magazine is finally out. The articles will appear online over the course of the next few weeks. We give a platform to those working tirelessly on Merseyside to protect our environment, allowing them to publicise the issues they work on, and the campaigns they run. We also offer the page to local nature writers and poets and give space for many to muse on the ecological crisis. Nerve invites further contributions on environmental issues, on the current Covid-19 situation, and – as ever – welcomes articles on any topic. Though the Nerve office is currently closed you are welcome to get in touch via email or Facebook.
Everything is felt unequally in a system built on inequality
Capitalism is in crisis. The twin issues of the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic, together with the acknowledgement of the disadvantaged in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, have brought things to a head.
For far too long, people in ‘the developed world’ have assumed that the effects of climate change would not be felt by them, and seemed content to pay scant, occasional attention to disasters such as those wreaked by flooding in Bangladesh, and drought across Africa. This has been changing over the last few years though: drought has hit parts of the US, the UK has seen unprecedented levels of flooding, and wildfires devastated large parts of Australia at the beginning of this year. It is therefore no longer tenable to presume that these things don’t affect us all, notwithstanding the fact that we are more used to seeing them affect the poorest countries.
Covid-19 has similar lessons to teach us. Since there is a pronounced link between poverty and race, then it is inevitable that the higher Covid-19 fatalities reflect this, just as the disproportionately experienced impacts of climate change do. It is said that the virus does not discriminate but one’s circumstances make contagion more likely or less likely dependent on type of employment, facilities and space. People living in the poorest parts of England and Wales are dying at twice the rate of those in the richest areas and people from ethnic minorities are therefore disproportionately impacted.
The anomaly of a country with the wealth of the US being the worst affected in the world tells us that extreme Capitalism has no answer to Covid-19 and is in fact its enabler. The results of the US’s attitude of denial and inaction, both on the pandemic and on climate change, are good indicators of where extreme economic right-wing Capitalist thinking and a laissez-faire attitude to any of humanity’s crises leads. The consequences of the climate crisis for our species, other species and for our planet will be very much more devastating than Covid-19. Just as in most countries drastic and urgent action has been taken to curb the pandemic, we need to take immediate radical action on climate change.
There is still a climate emergency; the crisis is a systemic one
Environmental issues are as relevant and pressing as ever: Covid-19 and climate change are both symptoms of a broken system that sees the earth’s resources as infinite – purely for human use and abuse – and which prioritises profit above all else. The emergence of new diseases such as Covid-19 has been linked to intensive farming and deforestation 1. Disease transmission is then facilitated by globalised travel – another huge contributor to climate change.
There is overwhelming scientific and political consensus that climate change has already happened and is continuing, that it is caused by human activity, and that the current level of warming (0.8°C) is having devastating consequences, right now, across the world. Furthermore, this failure to limit temperature rises to below 2°C will cause runaway climate change, thus causing catastrophic global consequences for future generations.2 The effects of climate change have been felt already by many around the world for years. Parts of Africa, for example, have experienced changes in rainfall patterns for at least 15 years, with huge impacts on agriculture, pushing many farmers into poverty.3 Finally, last year, with the rise of school strikes and Extinction Rebellion, it seemed the climate emergency had finally entered mainstream consciousness.
Clear skies, but clouds loom
Many have already commented on the potential environmental benefits that may come out of the pandemic, and that have already been observed in terms of cleaner air and lower emissions. Recent weeks give us an insight into how we could live differently in ways that could reduce our environmental impact. It is welcomed that the government is encouraging people to walk and cycle as they return to work, with funds for “active travel infrastructure” already announced in Scotland 4. But we should exercise caution in being too optimistic – already big corporations are trying to use the current crisis as an excuse to roll back environmental regulations, as getting the economy going again is prioritised above all else. America’s $2.2 trillion stimulus package comes stripped of environmental requirements,5 and many governments are putting in place huge rescue packages for airlines. Figures show that in China, while coal and oil consumption was much lower in early March, levels of both – along with those of nitrogen dioxide pollution – were already returning to normal even as we headed into April.6
Let Covid-19 serve as a cautionary dress rehearsal
Covid-19 should serve as a wake-up call for humanity – we are not invincible. We cannot continue exploiting nature as we do currently without any comeback. If tackling climate change is humanity’s final performance, then maybe Covid-19 can serve as a dress-rehearsal, which may give us some idea of how we’re likely to perform and where we need to improve. So far, the results are mixed. Interestingly countries with women in charge – New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan and Iceland seem to be faring best.7 Scientists have been modelling climate change for years – with terrifying predictions of what to expect, but are governments using such information to plan ahead to protect us? The current situation indicates that the answer is a resounding no. We now know that the government was briefed about the failings identified by ‘Exercise Cygnus’, the 2016 pandemic simulation exercise: a lack of ventilators and PPE were highlighted as being weak spots and yet the government chose not to act on this intelligence.8 Why should we believe they are acting any more responsibly towards climate change predictions? We need to pressure government at all levels and take action into our own hands to stop environmental destruction, both locally and globally.
The Tory agenda has not changed
In recent weeks we have seen things we never would have expected from a Tory government, with the re-nationalising of the railways and the economy put on hold in the interest of public health, but we should be under no illusions. It’s significant that the first thing the prime minister felt impelled to do after leaving his sick bed was to discuss a trade deal with the US president. Even as this crisis unfolds, the Tories are following the same neoliberal agenda they had planned when they were voted in. The government is currently using the pandemic as an opportunity to transfer key public health duties from the NHS and other state bodies to the private sector, without proper scrutiny. The outsourcing of PPE procurement and the building of the Nightingale hospitals are two high profile examples.9 We should expect no different when it comes to environmental matters. Right now, just at a time when many people are discovering new ways to work and communicate, the Department of Transport has decided to approve continued work on the controversial HS2 high speed rail link project, which has been highly criticised for the trail of destruction it is already wreaking on natural habitats along its route, including ancient woodland. This huge, costly project has never seemed more redundant, and the money could be better used elsewhere – the NHS being the obvious contender – if the scheme were simply scrapped. Yet the government has decided to forge ahead, even evicting campaigners from a protest camp along the route, flying in the face of lock-down guidelines.10
We can’t go back to normality – normality was the problem
But not going back to normality will require a massive collective effort, and a refusal to go back to business as usual. This crisis has shown us that mass behavioural change within a small time frame can be achieved when there is a clear message, and people are helped to understand that it is imperative. This is what is necessary for us to reduce our carbon emissions on the scale required to adequately address climate change. It has also shown that when government wants to act, and enforce such mass behavioural change, it can. But when it comes to climate change, they are choosing not to. So, we have to take the lead and do it ourselves.
Whatever the crisis, think global act local
Like Covid-19, climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution. It is not the only environmental threat we face, but it is inextricably linked to the other pressing environmental issues of our time: habitat, biodiversity and species loss; air and sea pollution. The local environmental problems highlighted in this issue are as important and relevant as ever, and we should remain vigilant, as there may be attempts to push through environmentally harmful projects locally, while they think that no-one’s looking, and physical protesting is more difficult. The global crisis of Covid-19 has led to local solutions, such as people generally looking out for each other more, both informally and through the creation of more formal mutual aid and community support groups. The environmental crisis also requires a think global – act local approach, with responses and solutions coming from the grassroots having a vital part to play in solving this problem. It is through this lens that we must view the importance of the projects, campaigns and writing featured in this issue.
Thanks to Sandra Gibson and Tayo Aluko for contributing time, information and effort to this editorial, and to everyone else who has helped make this online endeavour possible: Tracey Dunn, Paul Green, Rob Harrison, Paul Hunt, Neil Morrin, Colin Serjent. Finally a huge thank you to all the contributors for your patience and ongoing efforts, updates and communication during these challenging times – we look forward to finally getting your articles out there!
- Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and co-author of Neoliberal Ebola: Modelling Disease Emergence from Finance to Forest and Farm.
- A Response to Merseyside Pension Fund’s Report: “Carbon Risk – Climate Risk Options” – Fossil Free Merseyside
- New Internationalist 371 September 2004