The coronavirus has swept across the globe over the past 3 months, with infections now confirmed in 184 out of 197 countries.
However, I had found it difficult to visualise the true scale of the crisis before I saw the above image of the IFEMA conference center in Madrid. Just a mere four months ago I had observed the opulence and the wastefulness of the COP25 climate conference held in the very same rooms where now there is a field hospital. The stark contrast between the decorated, ostentatious pavilions and lavish events that were held at COP25 and the harsh, clinical nature of the field hospital is truly astonishing. What a difference four months can have.
This pandemic is doing something that even a mere four months ago seemed impossible – it is challenging our notions of invincibility and the incredible levels of safety and health that have been enjoyed in the West for decades now. Issues that have plagued the Global South ever since colonial times are now affecting the Global North. Once again, the harsh inequities of our global system are brought to the fore. It is highly unlikely that the global response to COVID19 would be anything like it is now if the outbreak was centered in Maputo instead of Milan.
Others have already commented on the striking parallels between the climate crisis and the coronavirus, but I believe that the difference in our responses to these crises is best summed up by comparing the two images of the IFEMA, four months apart. On the one hand, we have been holding lavish COPs for 25 years now, and we have accomplished next to nothing in terms of concrete climate action. On the other, we can lockdown entire countries, close borders and create hospitals in mere weeks.
This is not to say that the coronavirus does not require prompt and decisive action – it does, but so too does the climate crisis. It may indeed prove to be a deciding turning point in the fight for climate action – there is a window for systemic change to occur that is opening right now.
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
— Milton Friedman
Although it may seem odd to quote Milton Friedman considering how in many ways the climate crisis can be traced back to the neoliberal ideology which he championed, he is correct in his analysis of how real change is brought about.
The challenge thus becomes to ensure that the ideas that are lying around are ones that bring us as a society forward. We need to leverage the same kind of decisive action that we have been using to fight the coronavirus to fight the climate crisis – there will be no time for complacency when this pandemic passes.