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The climate does not need a virus to fix it

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

So we’ve been in this situation for a while now. Watching the tide of the virus spread out like a soundwave outwards from China until it rippled into our lives in Europe. Now some of us are weeks into quarantine, others begin their journey into social distancing now. Governments in disarray, and a world turned upside-down. Netflix is having a field day.

But it’s not all bad, some sources say. You may have seen, on Twitter or Facebook or in the papers, people pointing out the benefits of the coronavirus for the climate. Emissions have dropped drastically in all badly affected countries. Social media says dolphins have returned to the rivers in Venice. You may have seen arguments that the coronavirus is actually a good thing: it’s the planet protecting itself from the human plague. Statuses that say this is what we ‘needed’ or even that it’s the cost of our climate inaction.

You may have seen, for example, headlines declaring that the coronavirus is ‘good’ for the climate, like this:

Or some vegan and animal rights groups sharing content like this:

The appeal of such an argument is clear: it’s an easy gateway for activist groups and climate action organisations to make their case that we only do the right thing for the climate when we’re forced to. It’s also easy to argue that if we really care we can make a difference in a short space of time, and human behaviour directly impacts the planet. COVID-19 provides easy marketing material. But it’s a risky game and increasingly an ugly side to eco-awareness is showing: eco-fascism.

Generally speaking, eco-fascism refers to the use of dictatorial and extreme measures to protect the environment, regardless of the human cost – for example, hoping for a disaster that will wipe out sections of the population to bring down overall carbon emissions. In the present day, it’s a disturbing mix of extreme left-wing environmentalism and right-wing conservatism centred around planetary health.

As social media continues to share the environmental benefits that the coronavirus and the government lockdowns are having, the line between treating these benefits as a silver lining, and seeing them as a sign that the virus is ‘good,’ grows blurry.

Of course the coronavirus will have an impact on the environment. Global mobility helped spread the virus further than it needed to go, and after the lockdown it’s likely there will be a social shift in attitudes towards overseas travel, business trips and everyday expenses. But the belief that there will be significant environmental change as a result of the pandemic is narrow-minded: we need to look at the broader context of effective climate action to really understand what lasting change is.

Keeping humans inside their homes and shutting everything down is not a solution to the climate crisis. It’s temporary and unsustainable and fails to fix the underlying systems that create such environmental damage in the first place. We won’t fix capitalism by staying inside. The ocean will not clean itself and the rich will stay rich and protected and powerful.

Here’s the thing – those most affected by the coronavirus are people living in poorer communities, with insufficient healthcare and sanitation, usually with very little ability to influence or engage in politics. I shouldn’t have to spell this out but it is not good to celebrate the thousands of poor people dying because it might potentially mean that there’s dolphins in the canals again, or to imply that this is the result of us not all going vegan.

Firstly, it’s a false correlation. The poorer countries usually have lower emissions anyway, and are not the principal cause of the climate crisis. In the same way, veganism is not the ‘cure’ to the virus. The escalation to a pandemic was a cocktail of factors working together including widespread global mobility, improper or insufficient hygiene, and an uncoordinated and delayed governmental response. Secondly, the virus has no impact on the power systems that keep the wealthiest percentage of the population in full political and economic control – and who are the most protected, with all their healthcare needs met.

Lastly, the coronavirus is not good for the climate. The temporary benefits the media are reporting fail to look at the wider picture. The dolphins are not back in Venice. When we are all locked inside and economic activity grinds to a halt and governments drop everything to funnel billions into emergency responses, the environmental policies in the making take a backseat. The EU had to postpone their meeting on the budget that will decide their political activity for the next few years, and when policies are postponed – the people who will be helped by those policies suffer.

Applauding the virus as a chance for the Earth to ‘breathe’ and to show humans that ‘we are the virus’ is a damaging and dangerous mentality. It carries with it the implication that fewer humans are better and in doing so, opens up the gateway to far-right arguments that certain groups of people ‘expendable.’ After all, if some people have to die for the planet it may as well be them not us, nationalists will argue.

We should never co-opt people’s suffering to push our own climate agenda or treat the virus as anything other than it is: a global tragedy and a crisis that kills innocent people. If COVID-19 teaches us anything about the climate, it should be this: our response to the pandemic so far as individuals, as societies, and as nations, shows us that we have the capacity to make extraordinary decisions and survive harrowing circumstances in order to protect each other. When we see something as a true emergency, everything stops so that we can channel all resources into tackling it. 

We need to apply this to the climate crisis: realising that at the end of the day, there is no greater social, economic or political priority than building a planet that is safe and sustainable for everyone to live on. We all stay inside to avoid spreading the virus to others. In the same way we need to change our lives to protect those around us who are worse affected by the climate crisis and realise that until all of us are safe, none of us are safe.

About the Author: Cass Hebron is the founder of Wild Magazine and a recent BA English Language and Linguistics graduate of the University of York. She currently works in the media team at the Oxfam EU office in Brussels. Follow her on Twitter @casstaways or Instagram @coffee_and_cassataways.

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