Is the response to COVID-19 a precedent for Governments to take drastic actions to tackle climate change?

COVID-19 has seen unprecedented change to our lives. The UK has effectively shut down large sections of the economy, effectively nationalising the wages of large parts of the private sector and introduced personal restrictions on citizens’ ability to move freely and leave their homes. Most countries have adopted a similar approach.

Given the gravity of the situation, which has now been compared to a war economy, a question has emerged: ‘How will COVID-19 change us?’

Some public figures, especially those advocating greater levels of state intervention or control (especially of the economy), look to the creation of modern social democratic states, with their vastly expanded welfare systems, using the Second World War as a precedent.

Former Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who led his Party to its worst defeat since 1935 only four months ago, has now claimed that the Government’s response to coronavirus proves he was “absolutely right” about public spending at the 2019 general election, and that huge investment in the state is the best way to ‘fix social wrongs’.

Other commentators view this as a unique opportunity to permanently shift the degree to which the state is responsible for providing welfare to its citizens.

Whether they are correct or not has yet to be seen – there are those who disagree with that assessment. Some will be quick to point out that the UK Government’s approach aims to keep private enterprises afloat during the crisis and is not taking the opportunity to nationalise strategic industries. That is certainly not full blown Corbynism.

Whatever the fundamental changes society undergoes post-COVID-19, there can be no debate that a global precedent has been set. In response to a major health emergency, Government can do a lot in response and money appears to be no object. In the months ahead, there will be those who will begin to ask if that sort of response ought to be applied to other types of emergency.

Specifically, should Government respond to the ‘climate emergency’ in a similar fashion?

In order to tackle what many would argue is the greatest existential threat to humanity itself, and certainly our way of life, perhaps Government making similar interventions in our lives and the economy is necessary.

After COVID-19, It may be much easier to justify massive amounts of spending on tackling environmental issues, spending that could be for rolling out EVs, widespread home insulation or just direct investment into low carbon generation. The voting public may be happy for, or even expect, large sums of money to be spent in order to tackle this ‘emergency’.

Measures could go even further. Following the precedent set by the response to COVID-19, the public might demand that drastic measures can and should be implemented by governments to tackle climate change. There might be calls for the state to curtail certain economic activities, or limit access to certain types of transportation.

Given that the widespread economic shutdown in response to COVID-19 has led to a fall in emissions, there are those who would argue that a shutdown of this nature is a simple and effective measure for reducing emissions.

As governments have expanded the safety net for those who lose their employment due to an emergency or crisis, as we have seen in response to COVID-19, this sort of extreme measure could be easier to justify.

It will all depend on how the world changes post COVID-19. A shift to a more interventionist state is plausible, but equally possible is a strong public reaction towards the state’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The public may in time revolt against the economic disruption, which will likely lead to the loss of many jobs and the closure of many businesses, and curtailments of personal liberty.

In that scenario, it is equally plausible that any efforts for future governments to tackle climate change through the introduction of higher spending (and more taxation) or limiting certain economic or social activities, may be politically impossible. Climate change may viewed be too far away, or too abstract for the voting public to support any more restrictions on their lives.

It is interesting to note that the reason why Government has reacted so quickly to COVID-19 and not to climate change is that the threat is and was so immediate whereas the impacts of climate change have been slow to materialise. That may make it a hard sell to a public wary of increasing spending, or restrictions on their day to day lives.

So, in answer to the question ‘how will COVID-19 change us’ – when it comes to climate change, the answer is probably quite a lot.

Written by Evan Byrne, Madano, Energy and Environment.

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