We are undoubtedly living through historic events at present. The word of the moment when describing governments’ response to the crisis created by the spread of this virus is “unprecedented”.
Here in the UK, our governments have all felt compelled to both restrict personal freedoms and provide funding for our health services as well as the incomes of employees who lose their jobs (although not yet, as I write, the self-employed) to a level which is, well – unprecedented.
While the Westminster government had already indicated that public spending would soon be ramped up for infrastructure projects, their response to this latest danger has been a promise to spend “whatever it takes” to defeat the COVID-19 virus. This spending is on an entirely different scale altogether – unprecedented, in fact.
They have also asked us all to stay home when our journeys are not essential ones, ensuring that large parts of the economy will grind to a halt.
And the public reaction to all of this? Notwithstanding some reluctance here and there to conform to pleas for social distancing, there’s been little public opposition in principle to either the curtailment of our personal freedoms or the scale of public spending. Whatever it takes is fine, it seems.
So far, so good. But I can’t help wondering why a similar approach hasn’t been taken by the powers that be towards the other existential crisis facing us. I refer, of course to climate change.
As well as his solemn promise to spend “whatever it takes”, Boris Johnson also insisted that he’d follow scientific advice to defeat the virus. He also took pains to point out that many tough decisions would have to be taken. The same principles of following scientific advice, spending whatever it takes and making tough decisions apply to fighting the climate emergency.
But even though the climate emergency is already well advanced no such determination has been displayed. Why not?
Could it be that the virus has no respect for wealth or privilege and – being invisible – is almost impossible to avoid, whereas climate change mostly impacts the poor and powerless, most of whom live elsewhere, out of sight and out of mind?
I’m thinking here not just of the Pacific islands gradually disappearing under the rising seas but also the houses washed away in these islands as our own coasts are eroded by increasingly severe winter storms or – even closer to home – our coal tips sliding into Welsh valleys following the sustained and severe rainfall which we can expect to experience more regularly with rising global temperatures.
There is also a feeling of immediacy to the threat of coronavirus, while the gradually building climate emergency is – wrongly – perhaps thought of as a problem for that future generations will have to deal with.
In terms of solutions, though, the parallels between the two crises are unavoidable. Both are potentially devastating to our way of life – indeed, to human life itself. Although the financial and societal costs involved in addressing them are enormous, these are dwarfed by the costs of inaction.
Last – but by no means least – there’s widespread public acceptance (indeed, eagerness) that such action can and must be taken.
Any leader worthy of the name would address both issues with the same urgency.