Over the last five months life as we know it has changed radically. What was once merely the name of a popular beer suddenly became the word on everyone’s lips. Something quite innocuous abruptly morphed into something rather sinister. Covid-19 has alteredMore
Over the last five months life as we know it has changed radically. What was once merely the name of a popular beer suddenly became the word on everyone’s lips. Something quite innocuous abruptly morphed into something rather sinister.
Covid-19 has altered and will continue to alter our societies, economies and behaviours on a scale unmatched in recent history¹. For some the subsequent lockdown came as a welcome respite from the relentless busyness of modern life. For others, it came as a jarring and unsettling shock.
On an individual scale Covid-19 has forced us to change our behaviours and priorities overnight. We cleared the shelves of toilet roll, hand sanitiser, and long-life products. We started wearing masks and avoiding others like, well, the plague.
However, what has perhaps fallen to the back of our minds is the issue of climate change and, in many ways, this makes perfect sense. Biologically we are hardwired to address the most pressing threat first – in this case a global pandemic. The rest can be dealt with later.
The issue is that a similarly short-termist attitude has contributed to the situation we find ourselves in now.
The dangers of short-termist thinking
We have known for a long time that outbreaks of zoonotic diseases – that is diseases contracted by transfer of pathogens from animals to humans – pose a significant threat to humans². The likes of SARS, MERS, swine flu and Ebola attest to this. In 2003, a global containment effort against SARS helped prevent a wider outbreak. Of the 800 people who contracted it one in ten died³. Shortly after SARS there was an uptake in research surrounding vaccines and drugs to treat or prevent coronaviruses. However, the funding and impetus for such activity fizzled out quickly. Many in the scientific community felt the nature of SARS was exceptionally rare and unlikely to reoccur.
Just six years later, swine flu broke out and infected a quarter of the world in just a year. Luckily, the symptoms were mostly mild. In 2012, MERS was identified and contained after jumping from bats. The disease, which is deadlier than smallpox⁴, infected people in over 26 countries⁵ before it was contained. Then in 2014 the Ebola crisis hit – a disease that kills half of all its sufferers.
For the last 13 years, a pandemic like Covid-19 has been deemed a “level 5” threat to the UK with between one-in-20 and one-in-two chance of happening. The only other event to reach this level of threat was a “large-scale biological or nuclear attack”³. However, the risk of such an attack was deemed less than one-in-200.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that we find ourselves where we are now. In fact, given all the near misses we are in a comparatively fortunate position. The global pandemic we face is of a far milder virus than many previous threats. But if the experts had been saying this was a threat all along – why didn’t we address it and prevent it? Why was the UK government so underprepared for this scenario?
“Longer term priorities are consistently pushed to the back of the line.”
The reality is of course quite complex but a sort of ‘short-termist’ mode of thinking is among the most dangerous attitudes underpinning many of these issues. A political landscape in which longer scale projects or considerations are often superseded by easy electoral wins and popular, yet superficial policies has meant longer term priorities are consistently pushed to the back of the line⁶. This means planning for threats such as pandemics, nuclear disaster and climate change often falls behind the issue or news of the minute. In short, the present takes precedent⁷ A year ago, despite evidence to the contrary, the threat of a pandemic seemed an unlikely event that might occur in a distant future. All the signs were there but it was not a priority.
Our thinking and actions around climate change
The parallels of this attitude with our approach to environmental issues are alarming. The threat we face from climate change is not always as acute or immediately alarming as the spread of a novel disease. Nonetheless it could be significantly more devastating.
The statistics speak for themselves. The 20 warmest years on record have occurred during the last 22 years. 2015-2018 comprise the top four warmest years⁸ and 2019 broke nearly 400 all-time temperature records alone⁹.
According to the National Geographic¹⁰, of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced in the last 60 years the vast majority ends up as waste. In fact, only about nine percent of all plastic ever made has likely been recycled, meaning the majority ends up in landfill or pollutes our oceans for the 400 years it takes to degrade. By 2050 it is predicted the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish. Such levels of microplastics threaten entire ecosystems and consequently our health and food security.
There is no question that climate change and environmental degradation amount to a disaster happening in slow motion. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand on this issue. It is simply too important and urgent for us to do so.
Covid-19 should serve as a wake-up call for us to act. It is a reminder that assuming something will not happen because it has not happened yet or prioritising the short-term over the long-term can be fundamentally life changing. The message is clear: we must take swift, extensive and imperfect action wherever we can and we need to start now.
A call to action
Although the scale of this challenge can seem overwhelming and futile, every small change adds up to a larger pattern of change. As individuals, it is our responsibility to play our part in countering the impacts of climate change just as it is to socially distance to keep others safe from Covid-19. Below is an indicative list of ways you can make a difference.
- Become a conscious consumer.
Make small swaps and take small steps but consistently. Switch from disposable pads to reusable cloth pads or menstrual cups, go second hand, buy products with minimal packaging or source out local zero waste shops. Stop and think before you buy something. Think about the packaging, the air miles, the material, the water and energy required to make it and consider if the utility or convenience you gain is really worth that cost.
- Make small habit changes.
Bring a reusable cup for coffee, walk or cycle to places if you can, eat less meat or travel locally rather than internationally every so often.
- Learn to recycle correctly.
Recycle whenever and wherever possible and educate yourself on what can and cannot be recycled. Always clean your containers before recycling as contaminated recycling can mean a whole batch goes to landfill. In England less than half of all waste collected is ever actually recycled in part due to such rejections¹⁰.
- Take wider societal action.
Talk to others about these issues and encourage them to make a change, sign petitions, and support organisations fighting for better climate policies.
 Cheval, Sorin et al. “Observed and Potential Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Environment.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 17,11 4140. 10th June 2020.
 Dicks, Dr L. Viral diseases from wildlife in China: Could SARS happen again? 2003 – https://ejfoundation.org/resources/downloads/EJF_Viral-diseases-from-wildife-in-China-2003-final.pdf.
 Lambert, H. “Why weren’t we ready?”, New Statesman, 30 March 2020. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/03/why-weren-t-we-ready.
 Leslie, I. “Sars, Ebola and Mers were near misses that led us to believe Covid-19 would pass us by too”, New Statesman, 27 May 2020. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/international/coronavirus/2020/05/sars-ebola-and-mers-were-near-misses-led-us-believe-covid-19-would.
 World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis.
 Mackenzie, D. “We were warned – so why couldn’t we prevent the coronavirus outbreak?”, New Scientist, 4 March 2020. Available at : https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532724-700-we-were-warned-so-why-couldnt-we-prevent-the-coronavirus-outbreak/#ixzz6WWkDHRa0.
 Krznaric, R. “Why we need to reinvent democracy for the long-term”, BBC, 19 March 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190318-can-we-reinvent-democracy-for-the-long-term.
 Fisher, R. “The perils of short-termism: Civilisation’s greatest threat”, BBC, 10 January 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190109-the-perils-of-short-termism-civilisations-greatest-threat.
 McGrath, M. “Climate change: Last four years are ‘world’s hottest’”, BBC News, 29 November 2018. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46374141.
 “Climate change: Where we are in seven charts and what you can do to help”, BBC News, 14 January 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-46384067.
 “Local Authority Collected Waste Statistics – England”, WasteDataFlow, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 28 November 2019. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/env18-local-authority-collected-waste-annual-results-tables.
A recent documentary video by the BBC called to attention the climate change movement’s lack of diversity. Following Fatima Ibrahim, a climate change activist, the documentary argued that a lot of communities, such as the working-class and ethnic minorities, who feel alienated by the movement and do not feel the represented by it. It is simply not as inclusive and accessible to the wider public as it ought to be. Even the Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven, admitted that the movement has been “overly represented by white middle-class people” and claimed that progress is being made to fix the problem.
Sustainability, which is part of the climate change movement, is often presented in the media as a way to take action as an individual and include yourself in the movement. Unfortunately, sustainable living as a response to the climate crisis is not accessible to everyone, and the mainstream media often forgets to address this crucial point.
A lot of the proponents of sustainable living make it seem like switching to more environmentally-friendly lifestyle is easy, which it can be – for the middle class. However, to the people who do not have the same privileges, such as the working class, sustainability is not a choice they can make. This is because sustainability requires a lot of disposable income which a lot of people do not have. Not only that, but it takes also a lot of time to research and plan how to switch to a sustainable lifestyle. In a world where time is money, that can be simply unachievable.
Of course, this is not meant to disparage sustainable products and conscious consumerism. The reason why ethical and eco-friendly products are more expensive is because such products tend to cost more to produce. Paying workers fair wages and sourcing materials in an ethical way are two examples of why making sustainable choices will drain your bank account much faster than going for cheap, unethically produced commodities. If you are in the position to buy items that are better for the environment and for the people who make them, it is by all means commendable to do so. However, even though there are good moral reasons behind the high price tags of sustainable products, there are a lot of companies that falsely present themselves as sustainable in order to cash in on the movement.
Fast Fashion’s Faux Ethics
With all the attention it has been receiving in the media, sustainability has become a bit of a trend in the last decade. A trend that has been consistently exploited by one of the world’s biggest polluters – the fast fashion industry.
Take H&M for example, who have a special ‘Conscious’ clothing line that is portrayed as more sustainable than their other items. Their website states that “57% of all materials sourced by H&M group are either recycled or sourced in a more sustainable way.” But what does that even mean? What does “in a more sustainable way” entail? In a 2019, H&M Norway came under fire from The Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA), who accused the retailer of illegal marketing and “making unsubstantiated claims that play on environmental emotions“. It’s easy to see that H&M’s ‘Conscious’ range, and many other brands’ equivalent ranges are nothing but a marketing ploy designed to mislead and pull in the segments of consumers that would otherwise avoid the brand. Furthermore, it doesn’t change the fact that H&M is a fast-fashion brand, so even when you buy from their so-called ‘Conscious’ label, you are still giving your money to a company that perpetuates the destruction of the environment and contributes to the unethical treatment of workers who make the clothes.
If you want to make truly sustainable fashion choices, go for second-hand clothing, and always strive to buy less. Take good care of the clothes you own, and try to re-purpose them once they are no longer wearable.
BigCorps and Shifting the Blame
Making environmentally-friendly choices as consumers is important, but it distracts from the bigger issue which lies with the multimillion and multibillion companies and industries that are the main culprits in the climate crisis. Did you know that a third of the world’s CO2 emissions can be tracked to just 20 companies? These include well-known names such as Chevron, BP and Shell. Considering the current climate (pun intended), it’s not exactly desirable to be on this list. Many of the companies have made empty promises to cut emissions in the coming decades, but one company has done something downright evil to make themselves appear better in the eyes of the consumers.
Most people alive today will have know about or at least have heard of the carbon footprint, but not many people will know how it became so popular. Decades ago, in an attempt to shift the accountability for the exploitation of the world’s resources from the corporations to the individuals, our very own BP started a marketing campaign which sought to make individuals feel more responsible for climate change. This was done by allowing them to calculate their own carbon footprint and find out about all the things they were doing to harm the environment. The sad thing is, it worked rather well. We are already doing so much as individuals, and yet we are made to feel guilty even when we don’t have the choice to live sustainably.
So what can we do? Bringing down mischievous corporations and industries and finding (and funding) affordable, truly sustainable alternatives seems like the right goal. But that is a topic for another time. Yes, buying less, re-using what you have, and choosing second-hand are some of the important things we can do, but even importantly, we must keep learning and asking questions. How can we make sustainable living more accessible to all? What barriers do people in different situations face when it comes to making sustainable choices? What about the people who don’t have the privilege of choice? What must be done to force heavier regulation on the world’s biggest polluters? How can we help?
We must keep the conversation going, keep fighting, and keep improving as the inhabitants of Earth. After all, we only have the one.