LONDON – As COVID-19 spread earlier this year, governments introduced lockdowns in order to prevent a public-health emergency from spinning out of control. In the near future, the world may need to resort to lockdowns again – this time to tackle a climate emergency.
Shifting Arctic ice, raging wildfires in western US states and elsewhere, and methane leaks in the North Sea are all warning signs that we are approaching a tipping point on climate change, when protecting the future of civilization will require dramatic interventions.
Under a “climate lockdown,” governments would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose extreme energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling. To avoid such a scenario, we must overhaul our economic structures and do capitalism differently.
COVID-19 is itself a consequence of environmental degradation: one recent study dubbed it “the disease of the Anthropocene.” Moreover, climate change will exacerbate the social and economic problems highlighted by the pandemic. These include governments’ diminishing capacity to address public-health crises, the private sector’s limited ability to withstand sustained economic disruption, and pervasive social inequality.
These shortcomings reflect the distorted values underlying our priorities. For example, we demand the most from “essential workers” (including nurses, supermarket workers, and delivery drivers) while paying them the least. Without fundamental change, climate change will worsen such problems.
The climate crisis is also a public-health crisis. Global warming will cause drinking water to degrade and enable pollution-linked respiratory diseases to thrive. According to some projections, 3.5 billion people globally will live in unbearable heat by 2070.
Addressing this triple crisis requires reorienting corporate governance, finance, policy, and energy systems toward a green economic transformation. To achieve this, three obstacles must be removed: business that is shareholder-driven instead of stakeholder-driven, finance that is used in inadequate and inappropriate ways, and government that is based on outdated economic thinking and faulty assumptions.
Far more is needed to achieve a green and sustainable recovery. For example, governments might use the tax code to discourage firms from using certain materials. They might also introduce job guarantees at company or national level so that human capital is not wasted or eroded. This would help the youngest and oldest workers, who have disproportionately suffered job losses owing to the pandemic, and reduce the likely economic shocks in disadvantaged regions already suffering industrial decline.
Finance needs fixing, too. During the 2008 global financial crisis, governments flooded markets with liquidity. But, because they did not direct it toward good investment opportunities, much of that funding ended up back in a financial sector unfit for purpose.
Finally, we need to reorient our energy system around renewable energy – the antidote to climate change and the key to making our economies energy-secure. We must therefore evict fossil-fuel interests and short-termism from business, finance, and politics. Financially powerful institutions such as banks and universities must divest from fossil-fuel companies. Until they do, a carbon-based economy will prevail.
The window for launching a climate revolution – and achieving an inclusive recovery from COVID-19 in the process – is rapidly closing. We need to move quickly if we want to transform the future of work, transit, and energy use, and make the concept of a “green good life” a reality for generations to come. One way or the other, radical change is inevitable; our task is to ensure that we achieve the change we want – while we still have the choice.