We need a circuit breaker for the climate crisis too
Updated: Apr 1
As the world descends into another week of grappling with the coronavirus, it has become clear that the virus is more than just a public health crisis. Observers have pointed out many striking parallels between Covid-19 and the climate emergency, describing the pandemic as a “dress rehearsal” for the collapse that will follow unmitigated climate change.
For one, capitalist orthodoxies, which extol free market competition, economies geared toward profits and hyper-individualism, have colossally failed in the face of a pandemic that demands decisive, whole-of-government action, collective action and solidarity. In the United States, for instance, a lack of coordinated federal measures has caused chaos among states and municipalities, throwing them into bidding wars as they compete with each other for essential resources.
The authoritarian playbook has also proven to be ill-equipped to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus. Although the Chinese government has now managed to slow the infection rate to a trickle, its botched early response to the outbreak in the city of Wuhan, in which local authorities attempted to suppress reports of the epidemic, sowed the seeds of today’s global health emergency. Draconian lockdown measures may also be infeasible in the long run as experts caution that vaccine development may take more than 18 months.
We are only as strong as our “weakest link”
Other structural vulnerabilities such as wealth inequality have also been illuminated. Safe distancing is more feasible for those who can afford a car; working from home is similarly a more accessible option for the wealthy. On the flipside, these measures are both physically and economically impossible for migrant workers who live and work in crowded quarters and others who depend on daily wages to survive, placing these populations at higher risk of local transmission. It is futile to mandate that people be socially responsible without ensuring that the right conditions are in place for them to do so.
The pandemic has further underscored our interconnectedness, both within and across national borders. A pandemic like Covid-19—and, by extension, a global phenomenon like the climate crisis—does not respect the artificial constructs we use to distinguish or dissociate ourselves from other communities. We are learning that these mammoth challenges are not ones we can weather alone, and that we are only as stable, secure and safe as our most impoverished. This is especially true in Singapore, a country highly dependent on food imports. As more of our neighbours shut their borders and the global supply chain becomes increasingly disrupted, food security concerns are looming. We are beginning to realise just how important regional solidarity is in times of crisis.
For many of us young Singaporeans who did not feel the effects of SARS in 2003 or the earlier financial crises, the coronavirus is our entrypoint into understanding disruption and the unnerving fragility of our current way of life. These circumstances have more than just tangible consequences; they also challenge our psychological resilience. In addition to individual mental health concerns, fear and anxiety about novel and life-threatening situations test our social fabric. We have seen the virus bring out the best (mutual aid, community fund-raising) and the worst (hoarding, violent racism and “othering”) in people in Singapore and the world at large.
What the pandemic teaches us
There are important lessons to be learnt from our current response to Covid-19 that should be applied to climate action. We disagree with the editorial by the Straits Times which suggests that we should see the temporary reduction in emissions as a silver lining in this crisis. If anything, it underscores the need for proactive climate action that has justice at its core. Reducing our emissions must not be done at the cost of human casualties and suffering. In India, for instance, the nationwide lockdown has left the country’s most vulnerable populations struggling to find food or shelter. Hundreds of migrant workers, who moved to cities to find work, have been rendered jobless and homeless by the measures. Many have begun long journeys on foot to return home, and more than a dozen have died in the process. This is no way to respond to a crisis.
The now widely-known concept of “flattening the curve”, in which immediate action is needed to greatly reduce future risks, applies to climate change as much as it does to the spread of the virus. In the past month, several governments have demonstrated that they are capable of taking swift action to increase public spending and support the people most affected by the pandemic—Singapore’s response being among one of the most lauded. We therefore call on the Singapore government to implement a green transition premised on equity, collaboration and compassion, in order to quickly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as decisively and effectively as it has dealt with the fallout from the coronavirus.
We are not alone in calling for bold climate action: in the midst of the pandemic, scientists and health experts have urged governments to redevelop the global economy for a fossil fuel-free world with the same zeal. And unlike the current measures to tackle the coronavirus, some have argued that mitigating climate change involves policies that are far less disruptive economically, socially and culturally.
More broadly, it is clear that we cannot return to business as usual, or what many consider to be “normal”. In just the span of a few months, several crises have unfolded from our normal state of affairs, from Australia’s deadly bushfires to our current Covid-19 pandemic. As author Naomi Klein observes, “[N]ormal was a crisis… Normal is deadly”. Beyond flattening the curve, we have to raise the bar when it comes to our political, economic and social systems in a post-pandemic world.
The urgent need for deep structural reforms
We are encouraged by the Singapore government’s Unity and Resilience Budgets, which provide assistance to workers directly impacted by the pandemic, as well as cash payouts and benefits for low-income workers and the unemployed. However, we take concern with the fact that most of this assistance is being distributed through businesses and employers, rather than directly to workers. As observed by Dr. Teo You Yenn and Dr. Ng Kok Hoe, the belief in a trickle-down model of help has inherent limitations in a crisis that demands immediate relief for affected communities.
We also believe that more extensive measures are needed as the stopgap nature of the intervention is lacking in imagination. While some temporary measures are necessary, what the pandemic has inadvertently exposed is Singapore’s urgent need for deep structural reform. Social policies such as wage protection, job security and social safety nets must be strengthened so that those who are more vulnerable will be able to build up buffers against future shocks. In Singapore, many of those on the frontlines of the battle against the coronavirus are also among the lowest paid compared to their peers. While showing gratitude for our care workers is a thoughtful sentiment, we must do more to give them fair compensation for their essential and invaluable service.
We must also reassess the foundations of our economy. The oil shock that was triggered by the coronavirus has revealed the fragility of a world built on fossil fuels. As SG Climate Rally has argued in our 2019 Calls to Action, we need to transition away from a model that has become plainly irrational. We urge the Singapore government to use this opportunity to nudge businesses toward a low-carbon economy, for example by creating green jobs and traineeships through the SGUnited Jobs and Traineeships initiatives, and directing financial support to investments that can help companies reduce their carbon emissions.
A crisis is arguably the time to make structural changes. The disruption compels us to confront the deepest cracks in our systems while forcing a hard reset on many aspects of our lives. Systemic climate action does not stand apart from addressing the fallout from the coronavirus: it seeks to address the very structural issues that have brought entire communities to their knees. The Singapore government’s stimulus measures should also accelerate a just transition away from fossil fuels in order to make our society truly resilient—not only to the current pandemic and economic recession, but also to the growing risks and impacts of the climate emergency.
The will to act
Covid-19 presents us with a formidable common enemy. Many now understand what it means to be rendered vulnerable by a crisis that has been intensified and perpetuated by a handful of powerful but irresponsible actors. We understand what mass panic and isolation feel like, and that sacrificing some non-essential activities for our long-term wellbeing is not only rational but necessary. We understand the immense value of care workers and others, who provide essential, low-carbon work, and an ethos of extending compassion far beyond themselves. We understand that individual action, such as choosing to stay at home or meticulously washing our hands, has a role to play but that a coordinated response from governments and large corporates is crucial to swiftly address structural gaps and avert calamity.
Now, we must act on this understanding to prevent another crisis of far greater magnitude. We must demand for systemic change.