The climate crisis has, is, and will likely kill thousands of times more people than Covid-19 - yet why aren’t governments and international institutions responding to it with the same urgency? Thoughts, questions, accusations like this have been posed by many environmentalists.
On Thursday 5 March, scientists at the European Union’s CS3 declared that Europe has had the hottest winter on record by far. UK’s floods and Australia’s bush-fires are just two of the recent environmental disasters stoked by the climate crises.
On top of these alarming symptoms of the crisis new research, on 5 March, showed that the world’s “structurally intact” tropical forests reached “peak carbon uptake” in the 1990s. Carbon uptake has been declining ever since. Forests act as a “carbon sink”, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it within wood, plant matter, soil, etc. Over the 1990s and early 2000s, they performed half of all terrestrial absorption or sequestration. This allowed them to remove around 15% of all human-origin carbon dioxide.
The recent study shows that, per unit area of intact forest, there has been a one third decrease since the 1990s, mostly in the Amazon. Rising temperatures impact on the health of trees, increasing their mortality rate. This, in turn, decreases the forest’s ability to absorb and store carbon.
This change is separate from - compounding the impact of - deforestation, and the destruction of forests. The net result is yet another vicious cycle: more warming drives even faster warming.
The severity of the climate crisis is in no doubt.
The fossil fuel industry - the key engine behind the climate crisis - is tightly integrated into modern capitalism. Historically and to this day, fossil fuels are the main energy basis upon which capitalist industry is built.
This industry is thus welded to fossil power, and an insatiable drive for ever-more economic growth welded to fossil capital, and increased consumption of fossil fuels. Additionally, and because of this, the wealth and power of the fossil industry is immense, as is the infrastructure of this industry that will have to be abandoned or dismantled in any transition.
This provides one major systemic obstacle to tackling climate change, an obstacle which isn’t there to block emergency responses to pandemics. Beyond fossil fuels, capital’s unquenchable thirst for ever-greater profits make it incompatible with ecological limits.
This difference means, too, that much more money is needed to tackle climate crises than to tackle Covid-19. Ample money exists, in the bank accounts and wealth of the rich, but they resist attempts to remove it for the necessary public spending.
The proportionate speed in which Covid-19 is spreading and causing concretely observable and attributable harm is greater than global warming. The dog-eat-dog nature of a capitalist economy cuts against long term planning. Companies much fight for the lowest costs, the greatest output, creating the widest profits and allowing the largest reinvestment - right now. To fail to do so - even for aims which may theoretically pay off in the medium-term - risks economic ruin here and now.
The bosses’ governments do sometimes act contrary to the immediate interests of capital, where doing so benefits capital in the longer-term. Statutory education comes at a cost of wealth removed from the rich, via taxation. It also removes, or partially removes, many young people from being at work, from creating wealth for the bosses. In part, working-class movements forced the state to institute statutory education. In the medium term it however also provides a more skilled and agile workforce, ripe for even more profitable exploitation; helping capital.
Companies themselves, when they have large enough reserves, make some decisions for their medium-term interests over immediate profit.
Covid-19 is localised in a way amenable to an emergency response within the logic of competing capitalist states. A state which implements emergency responses to reduce Covid-19’s spread and impact will, within a short time period, measurably reduce economic and social harm to itself as a state. Likewise, to a lesser extent, even within one corporation.
Less so with global warming. If one country or corporation takes steps to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, that has a positive impact. But the impact is global, benefiting rival states and companies no less than the one making the reduction. The impact is less measurable or predictable than against Covid-19, less so still when concerned only with for the agent making the change. The benefit, so to speak, is spread wide and thin.
There are, of course, many ways in which capitalism falls short in the face of threats such as Covid-19. Capitalist agriculture makes such viruses, and their spread to humans, more likely than necessary.
The risk was predictable. Greater research and into vaccines for combating the family of viruses to which it belongs - coronaviruses - should have been done some time ago. When no epidemics were occurring this was not profitable. With a publicly owned and run pharmaceuticals and healthcare research programme, we would be in a better position. Or even simply greater public investment, internationally!
The atomisation and neglect for workers of the capitalist economy is another major issue. Where workers are underpaid and not given any or sufficient sick pay, many are coerced to attend work and create profit for their bosses even when they are ill, and might do best to stay at home - for their own and other’s benefit.
The ways in which capitalism blocks tackling the climate crisis point towards a solution beyond capitalism. Short of - and moving towards - that, there is much that we should fight for.
Workers’ control of the energy industry, rapidly phase out fossil fuels. Nationalising the banks and expropriating the wealth of the rich, to fund a transition. Organising movements - at work, on the streets, in unions and Labour - to force the necessary changes at every level.
From workplace and company modifications to programmes by local and national government; from continent-wide policies to international agreements; and beyond.