The Battle Of The Crises
by Erica Lees-Smith
“So,” said COVID-19 to the climate emergency. “Who’s the bigger problem now?”
Twelve months ago, just the idea of being in the middle of a global pandemic would have been laughable. So much has changed - our daily lives have been completely overturned by the now rather infamous microorganism, COVID-19. We’ve come to appreciate how dependent we are on social interaction in this alien era of distancing and isolation. Business-as-usual has become positively unusual, the media is saturated in the newest updates, death tolls and countless emergency measures have been implemented at top speed. As strikers, the question we seem to be asking ourselves is - where does climate change fit into all of it? I’ve now been striking with Climate Strike Leicester for over a year. We’ve grown so much, each strike characterised by a contagious momentum further igniting my own determination to ensure global climate justice. The striking community fills me with a profound hope for change - I was feeling so optimistic in January, so eager to see a year of genuinely changed hearts in society. But then, things changed. The reality check for me was probably the night it was announced exams were cancelled. Having been anxiously preparing to sit GCSEs myself, this was when everything suddenly hit home. We’d been handed the news that shattered all our goals from the last two years of education, given no clear alternative and left with only two more days of the academic year. It wasn’t as if I was blind to the terrifying situation that had been unravelling rapidly in Italy, China, America, but there was a definite sense of detachment from the problem before this point. Ironically, I suppose it was similar to the detachment from climate change I’d felt just a couple of years ago. It would be pretty irrational for us as strikers to pretend this is a ‘battle of the crises’ situation, a fight over which global issue will intoxicate us all first when it’s clear both are vastly changing humanity’s perspective of the world we inhabit. So, where does our battle for climate justice fit into the COVID-19 chaos which is causing us to question life as we know it? Well, I’ve whittled down three of the key things I think need to be considered by climate activists in a coronavirus world: Government response to each crisis Presented with a global emergency which has - for once - pushed the western world into submission first, we have a prime opportunity to directly compare the reactions of world leaders to each crisis. What’s been demonstrated in the last few months is how coronavirus is monumentally changing every aspect of our lives. This in itself presents a core similarity with the message climate activists have been communicating about the climate emergency for decades; the difference this time however, is a (mostly) very immediate response. We’ve been forced to entirely reinvent how we function as a society, seeing the introduction of strict measures for social distancing and pledges of vast economic investment from the government.
Yet, doesn’t it seem somewhat ironic that only now, when everyone’s business-as-usual is threatened, we can very quickly put measures into place to combat disaster? It’s hard to think about much besides this pandemic and its ramifications for key workers, put in unfairly dangerous situations; devastated families have been torn apart by social distancing; reports of domestic abuse are scarily high; thousands of people are wrestling with their mental health. The reality is, we shouldn’t be discrediting government action on the coronavirus. However, they have proven in this that they are capable of kickstarting radical change and thus, we can’t accept arguments that they can’t galvanise support for similarly radical change when it comes to the climate crisis.
Moreover, we can’t accept ignoring or even revoking environmental action, allegedly ‘justified’ by the coronavirus (e.g. the US Environmental Protection Agency has been suspended by Donald Trump during the coronavirus outbreak, meaning environmental laws don’t have to be enforced and companies won’t face sanctions for pollution¹). All school strikes have been cancelled to follow the scientific advice the World Health Organisation issued regarding COVID-19 and mass gatherings. We’re listening to science when it comes to both issues, so why won’t our leaders do the same?
The matter of global justice Global justice and equity have always been top priorities for the school strike movement. Coronavirus is once again highlighting how the toxicity of our selfish western systems fails the most vulnerable communities. We need to recognise the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 (and of course, climate change) on the global south, as well as this being a race and gender crisis. Just in the UK, 34% of critically ill coronavirus patients are from BAME backgrounds²; the number of NHS workers suffering most are also primarily black or brown people.
On a global level, indigenous groups and communities living in less economically developed countries are guaranteed to face the brunt of the impacts e.g. because of more fragile healthcare systems. We have a responsibility as a privileged nation to ensure there is a safety net for these communities, protecting them from being completely destroyed by these crises, especially in the global south. Here, the effects of climate change are already a reality and coronavirus only worsens their suffering, exacerbating existing inequalities. But the problems don’t stop with heatwaves, droughts and the disease itself. The very corporations we fight to ultimately dismantle, such as fast fashion companies, have laid off hundreds of workers in developing countries as orders are stopped with shops shut indefinitely. These industries often have extremely harmful and exploitative working environments in ‘normal times’, but with business halted, it’s those at the end of the supply chain who are suffering the consequences. This poses a difficult ethical question to climate activists within the system vs individual change debate, as this has highlighted how in reality the industries notorious for exploitation and contributing to climate breakdown, are the ones keeping thousands of people afloat financially.
Effectively, because we haven’t had a just transition to a greener economy, the impact of immediately shutting down high carbon businesses is economically and socially unsustainable. It has left enormous numbers of previously struggling people thrust towards unemployment, without support, income or acceptable living conditions. The narrative that the ‘silver lining’ of this pandemic is the reduction in pollution might seem positive in the short term, but unless people are educated properly about a just transition through policies like the Green New Deal, these kinds of problems and injustices will continue to be embedded in society. We desperately need to be part of uprooting and challenging them in this period. Redefining "normal" In the last century, we have created a certain culture in schools, workplaces, through social media, technology and a drive for progress that puts academic success, profit and growth on a pedestal. Society has never been so busy, bustling with endless activity, deadlines, to do lists. Very suddenly, this has all been taken away as our main concerns become health, community and loved ones. We seem to have retrieved a sense of collective compassion for one another. Coronavirus is devastating so many people’s lives to a horrific extent, but I hope we can hold onto some of these more generous, selfless values as we emerge from this.
I hope we can begin to reject populist ideology and work alongside global communities rather than try to dominate them. I hope we can embrace a world where things like mental health and the environment are more treasured. I know, this may all seem very utopian and idealistic, but this pandemic has genuinely given us as climate activists the perfect chance to be part of shaping the world that emerges from this. We can’t afford to go ‘back to normal’, we have to redefine ‘normal’ as a more equal, caring, sustainable and just society. So how can we do this? First of all, we must find alternatives to real life strikes and demonstrations. The activism has to be sustained even though we aren’t able to be out on the streets, because we are still so far from the targets set in the Paris Agreement and from ensuring the government does comply with our demands³. Whether you choose to participate in #DigitalStrike online, listen to our new podcast Climate Cast Leicester (now on Soundcloud!), write to your local MP, share stats on your social media or join the international actions with Fridays for Future, there’s so many ways we can remind the public that our movement will not be silenced and in fact, our values and demands are more important now than ever before.
Use this strange void in time to educate yourself if you’re able, to research climate politics, environmental science, activism and tell others about it. But of course, don’t forget to be kind. It’s all very strange and as a movement it’s important we do keep pushing for change, but also that we remember to check up on one another and ourselves and can find ways to not feel quite so overwhelmed by it all. So stay kind, stay at home and keep fighting.
Links to articles/websites mentioned: Suspension of environmental laws - ¹https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/27/trump-pollution-laws-epa-allows-companies-pollute-without-penalty-during-coronavirus Disproportionate impact on minority groups - ²https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-52292569 Indigenous people (Guatemala) - https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/04/fears-grip-guatemala-indigenous-groups-coronavirus-sets-200416165256449.html Coronavirus impact on the fast fashion industry (Traidcraft Exchange report) https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59242ebc03596e804886c7f4/t/5e8b668d557b8b3687f6afff/1586194077410/Principles+for+a+supply+chain+bailout+package+during+COVID-19+pandemic.pdf Sign the letter to fast fashion companies here - https://action.traidcraft.org.uk/fast-fashion-crisis-take-action ³Our demands: https://ukscn.org/our-demands/