‘Unprecedented’ was the buzzword of 2020, a signal of the devastating pandemic that swept through populations worldwide, and it’s not over yet. Researchers state that with so much still to learn about Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), we could be in ‘recovery-mode’ until at least 2025. One thing that this pandemic has brought into stark relief is our vulnerability as humans, and with scientists warning us of connections between the spread of infectious diseases and climate change, 2020 could be the wake-up call we needed!
One of the ‘PR problems’ of climate change is that for many of us, it seems too big and overwhelming to deal with. We are also separated from the natural world in our urban environments, so the threat of a climate crisis isn’t directly witnessed or felt. When it comes to a global human health pandemic though, the risk feels more immediate. And, we have been forced to make changes to our work, travel and leisure arrangements which has had positive flow-on environmental impacts.
So, what can we learn from 2020 that could propel us into a net-zero emissions future?
The Climate Change-Pandemic Relationship
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE, says that although we don’t have direct evidence that climate change is influencing the spread of COVID-19, we do know that it transforms how we relate to other species on the planet.
‘Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs.’
To avoid more pandemic events and a substantially altered existence on earth, we need to make immediate and aggressive changes to our fossil-fuelled lifestyles. 2020 showed us that we’re highly capable of making these changes simply because we had to be.
A Renewed Focus
The spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and efforts to contain it forced many of us to slow down. We paused our fast-paced consumer-driven lifestyles due to lockdown restrictions. We changed our work arrangements to more flexible and remote options (if we were lucky). We stopped getting in cars to drive an hour to meetings that could be held via Zoom. We stopped boarding aeroplanes to fly interstate or overseas for conferences that could be hosted online. Less travel led to a reduction in burning of fossil fuels.
In short, we gave ourselves and our natural environment some much needed breathing space.
‘The International Energy Agency expects global CO2 emissions to drop by 8% this year’. Natural fluctuations in CO2 levels and the fact that carbon doesn’t just disappear means that we’re yet to see any downward trend in atmospheric CO2 levels. And we may not. It looks like CO2 is continuing to increase at the same rate as previous years which means that we need aggressive investments in renewable energy sources to tackle global warming.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap Report 2020 states that, ‘despite a dip in greenhouse gas emissions from the COVID-19 economic slowdown, the world is still heading for a catastrophic temperature rise above 3°C this century – far beyond the goals of the Paris Agreement. But UNEP’s Emissions Gap points to hope in a green pandemic recovery and growing commitments to net-zero emissions.
Renewed hope and focus on reducing emissions have been demonstrated at all levels; individual, government and corporate. However, it will take concerted effort to translate this into longer-term meaningful change, with some countries already surpassing pre-COVID emissions levels!
Working towards a new life and net-zero emissions will require us to make permanent lifestyle changes and collaborate with each other and our governments. Kenneth Martens Friesen, Ph.D. states in his book, Energy, Economics and Ethics, ‘energy consumption in the world today is intrinsically connected to ethics.’ He is referring to the need for strong, ethical leadership. And unlike previous generations that witnessed slow societal transformation through the use of fossil fuels, we don’t have the luxury of time. We need excellent leadership. Now. It might just be that our new ‘leaders’ will be everyday members of local communities. There are examples of successful grass-roots leadership across the globe already, and they often start with passionate individuals who have a deep love of their local community and natural environment.
For individuals, a slower-paced life and less travel allowed us to walk in our local neighbourhoods; to spend more time outdoors and observe our immediate environment, maybe even discovering the natural wonders on our doorsteps. We developed a richer appreciation of our immediate surroundings, which has deepened our connection to country, and home. Speaking on the Dumbo Feather Podcast, Travel Writer and ‘Master of Stillness’ Pico Iyer described how he and his wife had begun taking walks around their flat in Japan. They had lived in the same place for 28-years but never walked even 2-minutes from their home prior to lockdown. Iyer said something that I think we’re all guilty of to some degree, ‘I sleepwalk through my everyday life to a dangerous extent.’ He was referring to our habit of taking things for granted, especially those that are very close to home.
With a heightened awareness and appreciation of our natural environment often comes a desire to fight for its preservation. This is where inspired individuals can harness storytelling to communicate their passion/s and motivate others to join them in a collective pursuit of ‘better’. Again, the pandemic has proven that humans are already powerful collaborators.
The Power of Human Collaboration
2020 saw social injustice and disadvantage amplified. Those who were already in need, suffered more. Some who had only a small financial buffer lost jobs and suffered housing and food insecurity for the first time in their lives. Oz Harvest Founder and CEO, Ronni Kahn said that 1-million more Australians have required food relief since the beginning of March this year (quoted in May, 2020 – I’m sure this number has grown further since then). Oz Harvest have expanded and diversified their operations substantially throughout this year to meet growing demand.
The work of Oz Harvest and many other charitable organisations (driven by their largely volunteer workforces) has shone a light on the potential for humans to rally together and achieve phenomenal things under pressure. Being proactive and empathetic towards others in our communities will be a major driver behind the social and environmental reforms that we so desperately need.
Scientists have also cited the pandemic as a key driver of more effective collaboration. Nevan Krogan says he was inspired by his team’s work during the pandemic, dropping individual tasks and working together. He said, ‘when results are shared openly, science can progress so much faster.’ Where there is need (and money is invested), humans do rise to the challenge!
Strong leadership is required to achieve change, and this doesn’t necessarily come from traditional government and corporate models. It often comes through the collaboration of like-minded individuals in movements such as the ‘Extinction Rebellion’. Founded by Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook in 2018, Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a global environmental movement with the following demands:
1. Tell the truth.
Governments must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
2. Act now.
Governments must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
3. Beyond politics.
Governments must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
There are also other examples of individuals and collectives who have challenged traditional governance models to motivate change. One of these is in the story of former Mayor of Frome (pron. ‘froom’), Peter Macfadyen who led a council of 10 independents to ‘reclaim local politics from the systems and political parties that were failing them.’ Much of Peter’s philosophy is bedded in the idea that we should ‘disrespect power’ in the sense of questioning traditional rules and processes to see if there’s a more productive and efficient way to govern. His time as Mayor of Frome demonstrated the potential for making substantial change by using existing wisdom within a population to make decisions. And when we’re talking about climate change as such a large-scale issue, we really do have to start somewhere. Logically, that somewhere is where we live, and love.
Peter cites Rob Hopkins’ writing on Transitions Towns as a brilliant resource for starting local and implementing change. Transitionnetwork.org also has some excellent, practical resources about ‘Transition’:
‘Transition is a movement that has been growing since 2005. It is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local. By coming together, they are able to create solutions together. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on connection with self, others and nature. They are reclaiming the economy, sparking entrepreneurship, reimagining work, reskilling themselves and weaving webs of connection and support. Courageous conversations are being had; extraordinary change is unfolding.’
A Path Forward
Through lockdown restrictions many of us have discovered more sustainable lifestyle choices that we could continue with in the longer term. We needed this year to prove to us that we are powerful collaborators and change-makers; humans already have the tools we need to enact social and environmental transformation. Now, it’s a matter of digging in our heels and getting the job done!
Let’s hope that the human resilience we have witnessed to-date carries us into a period of social, environmental and economic recovery. And not only recovery but leads us into a more sustainable and viable future. We can do this by empowering individuals and communities to take action in small ways; to keep learning, questioning and campaigning.
We can each do something.