COVID-19 emergency response proves that an ambitious Green New Deal is possible

The measures taken to stop the pandemic have set a new standard for our collective response to the climate crisis
Photo: sgbirch / flickr
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If a few months ago I suggested that we should shrink the cruise ship industry as a response to the climate emergency, you would probably have rolled your eyes. But now that the cruise industry is on the verge of a shutdown that could bankrupt major operators, does it seem so impossible?

The startling fact is that, with some obvious exceptions, politicians are doing a lot of what the scientists and public health experts say is necessary to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. In B.C., for example, the provincial government has called for the immediate cancellation of events with over 50 participants and a moratorium on all international travel. The federal government has shuttered the cruise ship industry almost completely. And by doing so, they are creating the understanding that big necessary changes are possible in an emergency. It’s just a matter of political will and follow-through.

We have now seen how common sense about what’s possible can shift faster than we could ever imagine.

This should not really be surprising. Our political institutions have centuries of experience dealing with epidemics and wars. The understanding that uncomfortable or even shocking changes are needed in an emergency is deeply embedded. We know that governments chose to greatly increase economic equity and food security during WWII, because it was necessary to get people behind the war effort. If you want social cohesion, people need to have a stake in society.

I’m not suggesting that most of the politicians who have so dismally failed on what was the threat of climate change will all spontaneously start acting to prevent deaths, misery and economic collapse now that we are in the midst of the climate emergency. But, in responding to the current pandemic, a few might discover they like doing what is necessary.

We have now seen how common sense about what’s possible can shift faster than we could ever imagine. All of a sudden, universal paid sick leave seems feasible even in the long term. Six weeks ago, this would’ve been dismissed as an unrealistic pipe dream.

In a matter of weeks and days, air travel has been greatly curtailed globally. The government of Canada is now suggesting that “travellers return to Canada via commercial means while they remain available.” This suggests that regular commercial flights could soon end entirely.

Perhaps now the once-crazy idea of banning short-haul flights, the ones that could be easily replaced by a bus, ferry or train trip, will begin to be seen as common sense. Two years ago, this still seemed like a crazy idea in Europe. But, largely thanks to a bunch of teenagers regularly walking out of school to demand effective climate action and adults organizing, a recent poll showed that 62 per cent of Europeans now support a ban on short-haul flights. In the coming months, phasing out short-haul flights in favour of improved ground transportation might well be able to get majority support in Canada.

If we can change everything for one kind of emergency, why not do it for another? In the months and years ahead, maybe we can finally do what the experts say is necessary, like rapidly reducing the number of cars in our cities.

Concern about the climate emergency has soared over the last two years, much like concern about the new coronavirus has soared over the last month.

Today, in Canada, if a politician ignored public health experts and promoted a counter-productive response to the pandemic, they would be immediately attacked by the experts, media and the general public. But when it comes to the climate emergency, politicians can still get away with saying the most outrageous things.

In December, for example, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of infrastructure and communities, claimed that a project to increase the capacity of an urban highway would “reduce carbon emissions for our children and grandchildren.” The response to this whopper from experts, media and the public was almost non-existent. Similarly nonsensical claims by politicians about how increasing fracking for gas exports is an effective climate action have been criticized by some, but have tended to go unchallenged in the mainstream media.

It is time to up our expectations of ourselves and our governments. Demand effective government responses to the pandemic that don’t leave anyone behind. Help your neighbours in this stressful time. And don’t wait until this unique tipping point passes to spread the word about the need, and new possibility, for a Green New Deal that effectively addresses the even bigger existential emergency we face as a global society.

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