A short walk yesterday evening on the seafront in Scarborough at first sight didn’t seem much different to any other on a chill mid-March evening. A handful of people about, a few joggers, a boat coming into the harbour. The pubs were open but empty (that’s not unusual midweek). Pizza Express was open (with two diners) but Ask was closed. A chippy was open, the faint aroma of boiling beef dripping is hard to extinguish here. Snatches of conversation I caught were of the ‘has she got it I’m not going anywhere near her’ variety, which suggests the message is sinking in, having said which such conversations were often had before Coronavirus showed up.
Superficially, I haven’t noticed a huge difference on the streets here in Scarborough. Perhaps one thing has changed, which is that shoppers used to go up and down the main drag without any bursting shopping bags. Now everyone seems to have a full shopping bag. Perhaps the virus is reviving the high street. Supermarket shares are up 10% when everything else is in freefall.
At last we seem to have grasped a narrative which everyone now understands, even if the response in some quarters is patchy and in many cases purely self-serving. The problem is, we expect this crisis—even a very deep crisis—to be over and done with sooner rather than later. It’s temporary and will pass. So stock up enough bog paper and you’ll see your way through. But what of the greater crisis—the climate emergency, an emergency which has been shoved out of the way by something whose toll on life could be miniscule in comparison (and as things stand is actually just that—miniscule)? I suggest that people will generally react to Coronavirus with a willingness to take advice, to obediently follow guidance and hunker down—all on the understanding that this will see us beat it in the not too distant future. The same is not true of climate change.
Why is this so? The evidence is, is that climate change is already claiming 100,000s of lives. Floods, fires, more powerful storms, death and destruction on a massive scale. The problem is partly the understandable reluctance of scientists to explicitly link a particular weather event with climate change, but also the still powerful influence of the climate change deniers, many of whom sit in presidential and prime ministerial offices, beholden to current economic interests.
In many ways, the now panic-stricken global response to Coronavirus is inexplicable when compared to the lackadaisical international response to climate change. On Coronavirus, all we’re waiting for is the vaccine, which if we’re lucky will be delivered possibly in a few months time, given the amount of effort being put into it. There’s the difference: you can develop (with state support) a vaccine for a virus, but we’ll never take seriously the thought that there’ll be a vaccine for capitalism—which is the longstanding impediment to tackling climate change. Oh! I think I’ve put my finger on it! (I’m not looking for the Nobel Prize for Economics here by the way—this is so very basic. But has anyone won the Nobel Economics Prize for doing something devastatingly stupendous on climate change and the ‘economy?’ I don’t
recall . . .)
Perhaps the great thing in our response to the virus is that it shows that society is compassionate—it wants to protect the vulnerable. This time round that mainly seems to mean the elderly, those with ‘underlying conditions’ many of whom are already on the way out, to put it bluntly. When it comes to climate change the rhetoric shifts from our grandparents to our children and grandchildren. But for them, there is no urgency, action can always be delayed. The future is abstract and all we’re worried about is today.