Opinion: We failed to prepare for pandemics, we cannot do the same with climate change

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Author Laurie Laybourn-Langton says global governments must learn the lessons Covid-19 and take immediate action to tackle climate change.

IN LATE FEBRUARY, the UN Security Council held a meeting to discuss how the climate crisis is a threat to international security.

As David Attenborough told the meeting, “we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains…[and]much of the rest of civilisation will quickly break down.”

It’s in this context – a world facing up the vertiginous stakes of the climate crisis – that the Irish government has published its revised Climate Action Bill.

Like many countries around the world, Ireland is committing to net-zero emissions by 2050 and big cuts – 51% in the Irish case – by 2030. It’s an essential move and only the start; the “starting gun in the race of a lifetime,” as Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth puts it.

But, as the UN Security Council’s meeting betrays, the stakes are far higher than the framing of the Bill would have us think.

We are in an environmental emergency. Its effects aren’t limited to those we often see on documentaries or the leaflets of green campaigners, like rising sea levels and emaciated polar bears. We’re also talking about famine, drought and disease, and how their higher incidence will destabilise nations and entire regions.

This threat has been recognised for years. Back in 2014, the US Department of Defense was already describing the environmental change as a “threat multiplier,” set to aggravate existing problems like poverty, political instability, and social tensions. 

Lack of cooperation

Things are getting worse. Scientists have now concluded that we are in a state of “planetary emergency” of overwhelming complexity and severity; the delicate web of life is being forced apart.

This is why security and defence planners have been attending environmental science conferences for decades. Their mandate demands a longer-term view of the world, and they have long foreseen a more dangerous future than their political masters. 

The geopolitics of the melting Arctic — a “whole new ocean” — is but one example of how, with the wondrous accommodation afforded by the stable past being over, we are effectively arriving on a new planet and in a new normal, an extreme normal. No normal.

International relations need to catch up. Proposals at the UN include better early-warning systems to spot destabilising environmental shocks and expanding the mandate of peace operations to deal with them.

Security

Meanwhile, the security implications of climate breakdown are invoked as a tactic to spur action to lower carbon emissions — “If we don’t do that, then this could happen” — which could reach across political divides, rooting a global problem in the context of a pressing national threat.

But using a security frame could come with risks. Poverty, conflict, forced displacement and the other complex consequences of a more environmentally destabilised world are as much issues of human rights, social and economic justice, and moral responsibility as they are of national or regional security in the traditional sense.

In an interconnected world, these issues are inseparable. Focussing on one particular frame could dimmish attention on others, a blunt, short-term response to a complex, ongoing set of problems.

This leads to costly, self-defeating folly, like that in the wake of the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, undertaken ostensibly for reasons of security.

Simply defining something as a security priority doesn’t necessarily stimulate an effective government response. For over a decade, pandemics have been classed as a preeminent national security threat by most governments, yet the erosion of healthcare capacity prior to Covid-19 and faults in the subsequent response has exposed a lack of preparedness.

So perhaps a security frame isn’t the right starting point. In the face of a global threat, arguments for tackling the root causes of the environmental emergency should be made in their own right, not as a corollary to security.

It is now clear that avoiding the very worst of nightmarish futures primarily requires fundamental changes to our economic systems, and beyond just swapping dirty technology for clean alternatives.

The pandemic has presented an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our societies, one in which previously unthinkable questions are being asked, such as whether restrictions on government investment are merely a political choice and if perpetual material growth is desirable or even possible. It’s in this context that Ireland’s Climate Action Bill and the rhetoric around it should be judged. 

It shouldn’t have needed the disaster of the pandemic to make us realise that a persistent lack of investment in social and health institutions and high levels of inequality makes our societies less safe, stable and humane.

But the vertiginous stakes of the environmental emergency mean we won’t have the chance to retrospectively realise that shared security isn’t possible without deep changes to how our societies are structured.

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Laurie Laybourn-Langton is a researcher and author, including of Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown, published by Verso Books on 20 April. He tweets @Laurie_L_L.

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