By Maya Evans

In a week when the Coronavirus crisis sent millions into isolation in their homes, and the NHS was braced for an influx of patients, Planet Earth sent its loudest warning shot to date – human behaviour needs to change. COVID-19 is thought to have originated from the capturing and selling of wild animals for meat. This lack of respect towards other living creatures reflects the general lack of regard for our ecosystems such as the large-scale burning of fossil fuels, which is causing the planet to rapidly warm. What we are seeing today is a relatively small indication of what to expect in
20 to 30 years time, unless we take immediate drastic steps to change. 

In the same week UK Covid-19 lockdown was declared (23rd March), Hastings Borough Council played its part in preparing to avert catastrophic climatic change by passing its emergency climate change strategy and action plan. This follows the climate change motion of last year, pledging to go carbon neutral by 2030. Since then, HBC have been working on a strategy, with a key focus on renewable energy.  

The Covid-19 crisis has, for now, put our ambitions and action plan on hold.  But this tragic crisis has demonstrated a number of optimistic lessons for the task of tackling climate change. 

Government action

Maybe most importantly, the Government can make dramatic and radical decisions overnight and, when necessary, it can throw a LOT of money at a crisis.  Covid-19 has proven that, within a week, big money can be freed up, legislation passed, and human behaviour can dramatically change via a three-word message ‘stay at home’. 

In the same way that climate change has been a scientifically proven fact for decades, a global pandemic has been on the cards for over 10 years. Bird flu, swine flu, SARS, MERS – all triggered warnings which the government ignored, leaving the NHS without the appropriate resources and government without an adequate action plan. 

Global pandemics and climate change also share another thing in common: many people, mostly the vulnerable, are sadly going to die. The key difference between runaway climate change and Covid-19 is that a pandemic will eventually subside; sadly the same cannot be claimed for the planet post-climate tipping point: once the global temperature increases more than 1.5c, there’s no return to ‘normal’ and many more lives will be at risk.

Lessons to be learnt 

The UN’s Environment chief, Inger Andersen, said this week: “Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis: not taking care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves”. 

Incredible stories about the planet miraculously rejuvenating in just a few weeks are now appearing, everything everything from NASA images showing air pollution levels plummeting to dramatic improvement in the clarity of water in the canals of Venice. Optimistically, the planet has demonstrated an incredible ability to bounce back. However, the current dramatic energy scale-down has been hurting people and is unsustainable, which is why now is exactly the time to lay the foundations for a just and sustainable transition – a less chaotic scale-down which will benefit people and the planet.

Transition has now proven to be relatively easy and fast – within a week leading arms companies BAE Systems and Airbus re-skilled their workforce and tools into making desperately needed ventilators. It has been a longstanding demand of climate change activists for the multi-billion-pound arms industry to transition into making cutting edge renewable energy technology. Only a few months ago Jeremy Corbyn was ridiculed for suggesting that the British Forces should become a global emergency climate crisis response service. Today we see the British military mobilised to build the Nightingale Hospital in East London and distribute food parcels to the elderly. 

No temporary fix

Inspiringly, we’ve seen 700,000 step up to help the NHS, while in Hastings HEART volunteers have signed up for activities such as calling vulnerable people who are self-isolating and delivering essential supplies. All of this speaks to a community spirit, mutual aid and a sense of solidarity that can be harnessed to tackle climate change. The last few weeks have seen the world participate in a mass action never witnessed before – this precedent is key for our future fight against climate change.

What we’re seeing now is the practice run for the impacts of climate change. Once this crisis is over, we cannot go back to business as usual. It cannot be a temporary fix. This is the wake-up call telling us that things need to dramatically change, and it can potentially signpost us in the right direction.

The writer is cabinet member for Climate Change on Hastings Borough Council.

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