by Charlotte Hall
It was already early April by the time I noticed that the sky was breathing. Lying in the grass on Headington Hill in the sunset, tinned Pina Colada in hand, I was tracing a circle of wispy clouds that had congregated at the outermost borders of the park. Directly above me it was like looking at the sunset through a fishbowl, but beyond that, the colours subsided into a grainy purplish texture. It took me a while to realise this border was where the air pollution began, and that it was only here, directly above the park, where the trees had sighed their way through to the actual sky.
'Lockdown was the big break our planet had been waiting for.'
Around the same time, phenomena like this were unfolding all over the world. Suddenly, there were stars over London instead of the mysterious orange smog we call night. There were clear blue skies over Los Angeles and Jakarta. In India, the Himalayan mountains became visible from Jalandhar for the first time in 30 years. Our planet seemed to be coming up for air, exhaling deeply after decades of holding its breath. Lockdown was the big break our planet had been waiting for.
One of the initial positives of the Covid-19 induced lockdown was the interest and optimism it sparked for the climate crisis. Parallels between the two global issues saturated news and social media alike, almost to the point of a cliché. The government’s drastic intervention into everyday life in order to curb the spread of the pandemic saw a corresponding drop in greenhouse gases. No surprise when transport was forced to standstill, shops, offices and hospitality venues switched off their lights and machines for months on end and people were drone-shamed for driving to the Peak district.
Since the drop in air pollution was so visible (and, for asthmatics like me, so breathable), with before and after images circulating on every social media platform, the Covid-climate analogy was an easy one to make. News platforms across the political spectrum were churning out listicles on “5 Things Covid Teaches About Climate Change,” and a rallying battle cry echoed through Twitter and Instagram. If the general public could bandy together as a community to fight against a single threat, and the government was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to encourage and enforce their actions, then maybe the same could happen for other issues facing our planet. We could learn from this crisis. We could use this gut-wrenching period as an opportunity to build new, sustainable lifestyles.
'Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising at an alarming rate. We remain in crisis.'
The problem is: we didn’t. Emissions shot back up in the weeks after lockdown ended. The Great Smog 2.0 resumed. Summarily, the overall CO2 drop during lockdown was “in fact no bigger than the normal year to year fluctuations in the carbon cycle,” according to the World Meteorological Organization. Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising at an alarming rate. We remain in crisis.
So where did all that determination for change go?
The parallel drawn between the Covid-19 crisis and environmental change was provocative but short-lived. It was a fallacy drawn up and promoted by overworked, underpaid journalists and bored activists in lockdown, and it was and is a deeply flawed comparison that, in my opinion, has done a surprising amount of damage to the perception of the climate crisis.
One of the ideas that popped up often in this analogy has been that the pandemic is in some way necessary for the planet. This is mother earth’s distress call, making us all stop and pay attention – really pay attention – to the damage we are doing. The more extreme re-hashing of this idea, buried in the depths of Twitter and Reddit as these things usually are, is that Covid-19 is a population-controlling bioweapon designed by eco-terrorists. Either way, this is a very human-centric way of looking at things, and seems to say more about human psychology – our urge to give things a bigger significance, an overarching meaning or reason – than it does about either crisis.
'it makes it very easy to overlook reality: the pandemic has not been good for the planet.'
The danger in this portrayal of the virus, is that it makes it very easy to overlook reality: the pandemic has not been good for the planet. It is an open secret that plastic waste is going through the roof. Roads are littered with disposable masks, gloves and hand sanitizer bottles. Most restaurants use plastic and Styrofoam take-out boxes. Online shopping outlets, which continue to boom, are one of the number one users and distributors of single-use packaging.
Even elements that seem positive, like reduced energy demand, have had negative knock-on effects in a market-driven system that innately disregards environmental considerations for profit. When oil prices plummeted in May 2020 - a development that could have inspired investors to shift their funds toward cheap sustainable alternatives - oil companies instead pumped huge amounts of money into the creation of new plastics. This was because the low oil prices mean that it was more expensive to recycle plastic than it was to make new plastic - or ‘virgin plastic’ as it is euphemistically named. That is to say, recycled plastic costed £57 more per tonne than new plastic. But margins are everything, I guess.
Fundamentally, this idea that the pandemic is here to ‘show’ or ‘teach’ us something is a selective apophenia. The pandemic is in fact a symptom of the climate crisis. Deforestation and man-made wet markets are driving animals together that would never usually encounter one another. Pathogens that cause disease leap across species, evolve and are transported across the globe via our own international networks. The rapid spread of the virus through densely populated urban areas and across oceans is thanks to the same system that are driving climate change: a global consumerist network geared towards short-term profit over longevity. Because of this, it is quite likely that as our climate continues to spiral, new pandemics will become increasingly frequent.
One crisis is not a metaphor for another. They are intricately linked. Addressing one emergency will therefore inevitably have some impact upon the other. But if we want to see long-term solutions, climate action needs to be a priority, not an afterthought.
'There is no vaccine waiting to be discovered that will make us immune to the consequences of environmental change...'
For this reason, the most detrimental idea behind the comparison between Covid and climate is the false narrative it creates. From the beginning of the pandemic, the virus has been considered a temporary problem. We sat patiently on our hands through two lockdowns, coped with job losses, mental health problems, and constant fear because we believed it was temporary. When the vaccine is in wide circulation, we look forward to things going back to ‘normal’. This is not an option for the climate crisis. There is no vaccine waiting to be discovered that will make us immune to the consequences of environmental change, so we can go on living as we do. The ‘normal’ we want to return to is the one that is killing our planet.
The idea that the pandemic is ‘doing good’ for our awareness of the climate, that it is providing an opportunity for reflection, that we are making progress, is an illusion. If anything, it has bred more passivity, more resignation than ever before, even among activists, at a time when the increase in atypical weather around the world should be propelling us into action.
I visited Headington Hill a while after the first lockdown had ended. It was full of groups of people barbecuing and picnicking, litter was spilling out of the bins and down the slope of the hill - and things did feel ‘normal’. When the sun went down, the fishbowl-effect was gone, the colours were fighting their way through that grainy layer of airborne dirt again – and nobody said a word.
Charlotte is an English and German undergrad currently exploring the urban jungle of Berlin for her year abroad. A ferocious dreamer, writer and secret romantic, she loves exploring themes of nature and identity. She‘s not above a good verbal spat, however, and most of the time can be found debating feminist and environmental issues with her friends and family.