After months of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people just want to get back to “normal.” We will overcome this crisis. But “normal” means continued climate disruption and species extinction, growing inequalities, increasing pollution and health risks and the possibility of further new disease outbreaks.
We should aim much higher than “normal.” The COVID-19 crisis shows it’s possible.
Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have declined substantially as people fly and drive less. A Stanford University study found better air quality in China during the pandemic shutdown may have prevented 50,000 to 75,000 premature deaths, saving up to 20 times more lives than have been lost there to COVID-19.
But a pandemic isn’t a good solution to climate chaos. We can and must change our ways. Hyper-consumption, car culture and burning fossil fuels are putting our future at risk.
It’s time to rethink economic systems adopted in the mid-20th century when resources were plentiful and built infrastructure was lacking, when the human population was much smaller and the U.S. promoted consumerism as a way to keep the postwar boom going. It’s time to conserve energy and shift to cleaner sources. It’s time to help workers in sunset industries train for and find employment in industries that will shape our future. It’s time to rethink the ways and hours we work, now that technology has entered every sphere of our work lives.
But some are eager to get back to environmental degradation and climate-altering activity. Around the world, corporate supporters are convincing governments to roll back environmental regulations and protections under cover of the pandemic. We’ve seen it in the United States, Brazil and Canadian provinces including Ontario and Alberta.
In the latter, where government and media would have you believe bitumen extraction is the only industry that matters, one minister revealed the petro-politician mindset.
“Now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people,” Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage recently said on an oil well driller podcast.
“At least she’s being honest,” teen climate activist Greta Thunberg responded in an interview.
Why are these politicians and their corporate and media cheerleaders so determined to spend billions on pipelines for a product that costs more to produce than it fetches on the market? Why do they throw their support behind an industry that employs fewer people all the time, thanks to automation and market forces? Why, when the world is switching to renewable energy, with numerous clean tech economic opportunities, do they want to double down on a fading industry that should have begun its phase-out decades ago. Why do they want to wastefully sell and burn a finite product that has many other uses?
Why are Canadians subsidizing and bailing out what has been the most profitable industry in human history when those billions could do so much to put us on a healthier path?
Is there no foresight, no imagination, no courage?
The pandemic has created a lot of misery and havoc, especially for the most vulnerable. But it’s also given us a glimpse of the possible. It’s shown that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. It’s demonstrated that working regimes can shift. It shows that co-operation and altruism will get us through.
It’s also exposed the folly of those who reject scientific evidence and common sense, something we’ve seen for years with the climate crisis but that’s heated up among those who see simple, life-saving measures like social distancing and mask-wearing as an infringement on their freedom.
So many solutions could be implemented immediately — from a four-day workweek to maintaining road closures and restricting car traffic.
When one per cent of humanity owns almost half the world’s wealth, and that one per cent is largely behind the push to get the economy rolling no matter the human cost, then we know change is necessary. That U.S. billionaires added $282 billion to their wealth in just 23 days during the pandemic while ordinary Americans were losing jobs and struggling to get by further illustrates the current system’s absurdity.
Tackling the pandemic is a start to addressing the other crises we face, including climate disruption and species extinction. We can’t afford to miss the opportunity.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.