As the epidemic of Covid-19 reaches its peak and slowly recedes, the media, the politicians, and the intellectuals are actively sharing their thoughts about the post-Covid future.
Some are active proponent of a changed world, perhaps more attuned to men and nature. They advocate a more generous social contract, and call for an end to divisions, class and cultural warfare, and a return to science-based policy making. Others are more pessimistic, seeing the vast challenges caused by weaker economic prospects and a virus for which we have still no cure and no vaccine.
But what does it take for humanity to build a significantly changed world. The answer to this question depends on the nature of the crisis, more specifically it will hinge on the following four crucial variables: is the crisis man-made or natural? And is it fast-evolving or slowly-evolving in terms of public perception?
Firstly, let’s examine examples of fast-evolving and man-made crises. Two come to mind: World War 2 (WW2) and the 2008 financial crisis. They were both brutal but in obviously different ways. They both came out of the blue. Of course, in retrospect, and with the benefit of hindsight, historians came to the conclusion that the world had clear advanced warnings of the calamity set to be unleashed. But for the people at the time, it came suddenly. One, WW2, was massively murderous, traumatic, and could only be stopped by a worldwide alliance determined to annihilate the Nazi regime. Out of the ashes, a new world order was born, that of multi-international institutions working for peace and prosperity (UN, WHO, FAO, WTO, etc…), a slow but significant decrease in the number of conflicts and their death tolls, a rapid decline in world hunger, and increased levels of aid for international development. Science and technology experienced a golden age.
The 2008 financial crisis had opposite outcomes. The causes of the crisis were laid out years before with bankers inventing novel financial tools (credit default swaps, for example) that they didn’t understand, without the cash reserves to manage the risks. It started with the brutal demise of Lehman Brothers. As a result of further bank collapses, hundreds of billions of dollars, pounds or Euros of public money had to be spent to rescue them. States accumulated vast deficits. As a result, governments started austerity programmes that cut local, health and education services to the bone. And, of course, in many countries, science budgets decreased dramatically.
Fast-evolving natural crisis
A fast-evolving but natural crisis is the one we are experiencing now: the Covid-19 pandemic. It is difficult to find a crisis of such amplitude in history without having to go back more than a hundred years, the flu epidemic of 1918. But this was a very different crisis coming shortly after World War 1. Out of the ashes of WW1 and the flu epidemic the new shoots of a changed world grew. The League of Nations, precursor to the UN, was set up. Science and innovation thrived again and governments stepped in for the first time to fund science on a large scale. It is likely these positive developments will have arisen out of the trauma of WW1 alone, not the flu epidemic. Unfortunately, in 1929 and well into the 1930s, the Great Depression put an abrupt end to progress. Here again, a large-scale economic crisis resulting in rampant inflation and mass unemployment sowed the seeds for societal instability and stalled science budgets. There is a common thread here: “the economy, stupid!” (as Bill Clinton would have it). There is nothing good to expect from a collapsing economy!
Slow-evolving man-made crises
When it comes to slowly-evolving and man-made crises, there is one, also of epic proportion: global warming. The science of climate change is unambiguous: global warming is man-made. It is the accumulation of greenhouse gases by humanity that is the cause of it. Every indicator points to the fact that the climate crisis is of extreme gravity. The WHO provides a conservative estimate of 150,000 deaths annually due to climate change and predicts that between 2030 and 2050, global warming would cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year from heat stress, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhoea. Catastrophic floods and hurricanes have killed scores of people in developing countries and some in the developed world. Millions have already been displaced from their homeland: according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, there were 18 million new disaster-related internal displacements recorded in 2017. Closer to home, in Europe, global warming is everywhere for everyone to see: glaciers disappear in the Alps, this winter was the warmest winter ever recorded, and we’re going through a very unusual sunny April.
No emergency ?
Yet, very little is being done, and even less will be done post-Covid19. Very little is being done because the climate crisis is slowly-evolving and therefore hardly perceptible to most humans, particularly those inhabiting the rich world who will bear the brunt of the costs of the transition to a carbon neutral economy. Only brutal fast-evolving crises lead to change, not slowly-evolving ones. We know the Antarctic ice sheet is melting at an unprecedented pace, we know of the extraordinary weather conditions in Greenland, the arctic, the Northern frontier of Canada, we know of the higher frequency of extreme weather in Western Europe. But most days are characterised by rather uneventful weather conditions; for some like in the UK it is rather an improvement on the constant rain, and in the Western world, there is nothing happening yet we cannot cope with or adapt. This kind of crisis is the worse type in terms of making humanity aware of the necessity of change. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 crisis will do nothing to help us solve the climate emergency. On the contrary: facing millions of unemployed people and an economy gone over a cliff, having to steer an uncertain future through a pandemic for which we have no cure and no vaccine, governments will have other things to think about. Already industry and agriculture are calling for the relaxation of environmental regulations in order to let them restart the economy. Who would blame them? In truth, the climate crisis will only draw serious attention when it reaches levels of brutality comparable to wars and pandemics. Will it be too late then to avoid further catastrophe. Hopefully not!
This post is also available in: FR (FR)