14 Apr 2020 20:32 IST

Covid-19: Environment: 1; Activists: 0

Suddenly, melting polar ice and rising oceans seem far removed from human and economic survival

These are bittersweet times for the environmental movement. With entire countries under lockdown, greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted. Smog, the unhealthy mixture of haze, smoke, and other pollutants has all but disappeared in our big cities, making it easier for residents to breathe. Wildlife is returning to our neighbourhoods, reclaiming space that we had unscrupulously taken away from them. It is a utopian world that the movement has always dreamed of.

Except that the costs to realise this condition have been paralysing. With economies practically shut down, governments have pledged nearly $10 trillion to spend on economic revival, and central banks have begun printing money. In a blow to environmental activists, the virus, an invisible enemy, has forced the world to contend with problems a lot more acute than those triggered by climate change. Because, suddenly, the threats of melting polar ice and rising oceans seem so far removed (and pale) from today’s pressing problems of primal human and economic survival.

Indeed, asserting that the environmental threat is a clear and present danger has been the Achilles heel of the climate change movement. Activists like Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement have aggressively promoted the Green New Deal as the only way to confront what they claim is Earth’s existential crisis, even though climate scientists disagree about the timeline. Greta Thunberg personified this impatience when she chastised world leaders at the UN to develop better climate change policies, with her trademark “How dare you!” sneer.

But history has shown that people are driven to act only if a societal condition does present an imminent issue. Millions of Indians fought in our freedom struggle because they agreed with Mahatma Gandhi’s argument that we could handle our destiny far better if the British left. The civil rights movement in America and the anti-apartheid battles in South Africa both offered protesters immediate relief if they won. Not ten or twenty years later.

Costly goals

Environmentalists want to elect friendly governments to outlaw the fossil fuel industry altogether, switch to 100 per cent clean and renewable energy, and completely change society’s structure. In February 2019, the American Action Forum estimated that such policies could cost between $51 and $93 trillion over ten years in America alone, with a potential cost at $600,000 per household, orders of magnitude higher than the pandemic’s global cost to date.

Covid-19 has shown that the degree of personal sacrifices needed to fight the virus are extremely steep but justified because the battle is literally a matter of life and death. Millions have been forced to stay home and shutter businesses, many losing opportunities that may never return. People are worried about how to feed their families, knowing that reliance on government handouts may be inadequate. And work, life, and travel may never be the same again when things return to normal.

Counting on the right leadership

Environmentalists have also made similar dire arguments about what would happen if no action is taken to combat climate change but, compared to today’s pandemic-driven realities, the world sees that many of their claims are exaggerated. For a movement that has already embraced “climate change” as its driving call — after abandoning the ineffective term “global warming” — the best byproduct of the pandemic has been that people have been forced to see both sides of the equation. The enormous benefits of cleaner air and bluer skies, but also the outsized human costs that have made these possible. Activists win on the former but lose on the latter. And this fact is likely to become a serious blow to the movement.

Worse, Bernie Sanders, the one politician who had made it his life’s goal to help enact the Green New Deal, finally dropped out of the American presidential contest, leaving the movement with no American leader of heft who can lobby for their vision. Every activist had closely tied his/her career to Sanders prevailing in the race. Without American environmental leadership, little is likely to change at the global level. This was evident when Trump pulled America out of the Paris accords and the recent Madrid conference was a bust.

These are tough times to be a climate change activist.