After Covid-19, the Climate

Anne Orford

If there is a silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is what it might mean for the climate crisis. Not only have attempts to control the virus led to a reduction in carbon emissions, they have also led to a significant shift in the way individuals, institutions and politicians discuss our responsibility to protect vulnerable groups in our societies.

By late last year, it seemed clear that decades of attempts to coax governments and business leaders into taking seriously the risks posed by the climate crisis were leading nowhere. Yet faced with the far more immediate threats posed by a global pandemic, states that for decades had been committed to neoliberal thinking have slowly begun to embrace such radically old-fashioned ideas as planning for the future, relying on scientific expertise, or calling on their constituents to make sacrifices in order to protect vulnerable members of society. Environmental campaigners and journalists have begun to document the effects that the shut-down of factories, cancellation of large conferences, postponement of sporting events, and limitations on freedom of movement have had on carbon emissions.

For those of us who work in universities, the possibility that academic life can go on despite a major reduction in air travel may prove to be a turning point. In recent years, many faculty had begun to reflect critically on the carbon footprint of academic conferencing. That conversation intensified after Greta Thunberg sailed from Stockholm to New York to take part in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. Yet most of us continued to decide that our careers, the connections we made from attending events in person, the insights we were bringing to the world, or simply surviving in the hyper-competitive and entrepreneurial world of the modern university, justified continuing to travel regularly rather than rethinking our addiction to a carbonised academic lifestyle.

As the Covid-19 situation began to unfold, however, that calculation shifted. The week before last, faculty at my law school in Melbourne received an email advising us that we should cancel all non-essential travel for the foreseeable future. Many employees of universities, companies, hospitals and research institutes received similar advice. If travel was avoidable without major impact – because it could be postponed, or we could attend online – it should not proceed. If we believed our travel was essential, we could present our case to the dean. Yet with medical experts engaged in disaster management planning, trying to conjure up extra intensive care beds, ventilators, protective equipment and medical staff in preparation for the tsunami of acute respiratory cases that will arrive in the new few weeks, our reasons to travel seem far less compelling than the reasons to stay still and play a part in delaying the spread of the virus.

Numerous governments have now introduced social-distancing policies to win time for front-line medical staff and for the elderly patients who will be at most risk in the crisis phase. The contrast with the way that governments have approached climate change regulation is stark. In the early days of the environmental movement, the international lawyer Edith Brown Weiss developed the principle of intergenerational equity, arguing that we have obligations to future generations. Yet international lawyers long ago stopped discussing such principles seriously.

Instead, it became conventional wisdom that the appropriate framework for thinking about negotiating climate agreements was rational choice economics or game theory, with the guiding assumption that rational actors – from genes to individuals to states – will always pursue their self-interest at the expense of others. The idea that people might be willing to make sacrifices for the general good, let alone for a different generation, seemed utopian. Our ‘way of life’, as George H.W. Bush bluntly declared at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, is ‘not up for negotiations’.

Yet in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, government leaders are now directly, and properly, calling on all of us to make whatever sacrifices we can to slow down the rate at which this disaster unfolds. That includes closing schools and universities worldwide to delay the spread of infections among students in order to protect their grandparents’ generation.

A similarly stark difference can be seen in the way that governments engage with experts and corporate lobbyists. The response to Covid-19 has relied heavily on the advice of public health experts, statistical modelling and logistical planning. The idea that ageing leaders might dismiss the whole crisis as fake news or partisan politics is not sitting well with a public looking for guidance, clear advice and funding for vital testing and medical infrastructure. The entrenched model of corporate lobbyists shaping the priorities of government decision-makers is coming under increased scrutiny.

The Australian government imposed travel bans on China, South Korea and Iran, but exempted travellers from Northern Italy until the evening after the Formula One teams had arrived for the Australian Grand Prix. The news that Ferrari had weeks ago demanded ‘assurances’ that it would not be faced with any regulatory surprises has raised questions about the role of lobbyists in increasing risks to human life and health. Yet when it comes to climate change, the dismissal of scientific expertise and the commitment to protecting corporate investors from the risks that future environmental or health regulations might pose to their bottom line have been central for decades.

The regulatory responses to the crisis of Covid-19 remind us that there are many ways in which individuals, communities, law-makers and states may respond to a crisis, and that policy-making can be driven by something other than appeals to self-interest. Ideals of intergenerational equity, the collective good and making sacrifices to protect the vulnerable have reappeared in political discourse. Perhaps, once the Covid-19 pandemic is finally over, governments may be ready to bring that wisdom to bear on the crisis of climate change.


  • 18 March 2020 at 11:03am
    hag says:
    Not to put too fine a point on it, Covid-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by teaching us how to respond to a crisis? Go without the little luxuries in life? Tighten that belt? See the big picture?

    Tempting thought, but wishful; I think that after this crisis we will enter a period of consumer excess. We already have, in some ways, because of the urgent need to keep the loo rolls rolling.

    Policy-wise, up ahead I only see decades of finger pointing, wagging, and pulling. Greta was yesterday, Covid is now, baby Yoda is next.

    It occurs to me that the problems the virus both exposes and exacerbates have to do first of all with production (means, focus, ownership...), not consumption; and with waste (rats in the Amazon warehouse).

    I fear that this debacle won't even be a very useful rehearsal for the end times. There is NO good news here.

    • 24 March 2020 at 10:55pm
      TheLRBisGoodForYou says: @ hag
      Greta is the future. As you will have noticed the news is full of how the covid-19 crises is impacting pollution levels, to the benefit. Hopefully governments cannot, now, ignore the evidence before them and will implement freer working arrangements (e.g. remote working) on a permanent basis.

  • 19 March 2020 at 12:55am
    Graucho says:
    There are historical precedents for public reaction when a period of severe constraints comes to an end. The Restoration after Cromwell went, the roaring twenties after WW1, the 1960's (rationing went on long after WW2 was over).

    • 23 March 2020 at 12:27pm
      ledmatt says: @ Graucho
      Rationing ended in 1946 in the US and 1954 in the UK, so I think you're stretching your point with the 60s.

  • 25 March 2020 at 6:48pm
    pgillott says:
    Whilst the reduced emissions owing to lockdowns are temporary, maybe new ways of working will indeed "take", in the longer term. Maybe, too, there’ll be political change – though I suspect there were similar hopes after the 2008 crisis.

    It seems concerning that CoP26, the next annual climate change conference in Glasgow scheduled for November, is seen as the most important one since that in Paris in 2015. Already, the UK government’s credentials for leading it looked shaky, and that was when minds weren’t inevitably focussed on Covid. And Extinction Rebellion’s and others’ ability to raise awareness of the issue in advance will surely be severely constrained, as long as social distancing is in place. Perhaps in the end postponement will be seen as the least bad move.

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