2020 was a hell of a year, and for obvious reasons, climate change took a bit of a back seat as we dealt with the immediate challenges of the pandemic. A year into this crisis, I wanted to reflect on how the UK government has handled things, and what that could mean for how they tackle the climate crisis going forwards. As of March 2021, over 120,000 people have died after contracting coronavirus, with many more hospitalised and suffering for months afterwards with the effects of Long Covid. The pandemic has highlighted vast inequalities in society, from the way we treat elderly and disabled people, to the disproportionate number of deaths among Black and other ethnic minority communities.
One reason for the UK’s shameful death toll is the fact that time and again, the government failed to respond quickly enough to the evidence in front of them and delayed introducing lockdowns and support for businesses until thousands were already being treated in hospitals. Despite being able to see the unfolding crisis in Europe, we were late to introduce the first lockdown in March 2020, which we were assured would only last a few weeks, but was not lifted until the summer, by which time over 45,000 people had died due to coronavirus. Having apparently learned nothing from this, we had a semi-lockdown in November and were once again late to lockdown around Christmas – as a result, more people have died during the second wave than in the first wave of the pandemic. All this poses a stark contrast with countries like Australia and New Zealand, who have been quick to impose local and national lockdowns when coronavirus cases have been detected.
Another criticism that has hounded the government over the last year is accusations of cronyism and corruption. From giving PPE contracts to unsuitable companies, to giving key roles within Test and Trace and the vaccine task force to friends and family members of MPs, vast sums of public money has gone to companies with links to the Conservative Party. As a result, the Good Law Project launched a legal case against the government, which found that Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by not publishing details of government contracts in the right way, and that the Prime Minister misled Parliament by claiming that the contracts were available to see. Additionally, many have raised concerns about the large amounts of public money spent on consultants during the pandemic.
Summer 2020 saw the overwhelming global response to the death of George Floyd and the widespread awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. As conversations about structural racism became headline news, we were able to reflect and learn about ways in which institutions around the world perpetuate racism and injustice. However, as the conversation has gone on, many MPs have chosen to focus on so-called ‘culture-war’ debates about whether it’s OK to keep a statue of a racist up, rather than talking about the fact that Black people are much more likely to be stopped and searched, criminalised, and subject to violence from the police than their white counterparts.
Later in the year, public attention once again focused on the refugee crisis, and rhetoric from the government and the likes of Nigel Farage presented vulnerable people fleeing conflict as a threat to British people. Since then, the Home Secretary Priti Patel has discussed the possibility of detaining asylum seekers on boats, and allowed the housing of asylum seekers in accommodation that was deemed unacceptable, leading to many contracting coronavirus. At present, refugees can be detained by the government indefinitely while they wait for their asylum claims to be processed, and despite past mistreatment of refugee women at the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre, the Home Office continues to plan the development of new facilities in which to detain refugee women. Groups like Women for Refugee Women have long campaigned for an end to the inhumane treatment of refugees, and currently have a petition that you can sign to ask Priti Patel to stop building new detention centres for women.
The start of this year finally marked the end of the Brexit process, which aside from being a logistical nightmare, has led to an isolationist approach from our government. Back in April 2020, we failed to work with the EU on an PPE procurement initiative that could have helped secure PPE for the NHS. Additionally, the government chose not to work with the EU on the vaccine rollout, and clashed with the EU over the supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine in January. The buying up of vaccines by wealthy nations has also raised concerns about health inequalities between rich and poor nations; while Europe and North America rapidly vaccinate their citizens this year, many African and Asian countries are unlikely to have rolled out the vaccine until the end of 2022.
So what does all this tell us about how our government might tackle climate change? Climate change is a different challenge to the pandemic, and one where the effects are not always seen as clearly in our day-to-day lives. Impacts like increased droughts and extreme weather events may be more evident outside of the UK, but ignoring the problem until it’s on our doorstep will not solve anything. As in the pandemic, acting sooner rather than later will save lives that could be lost due to extreme weather and resource scarcity, and reduce the economic impact (it’s cheaper to build effective flood defences now than to pay for thousands of damaged homes in the long run).
Much of the world is already feeling the impact of climate change, and it’s more important than ever that governments put the interests of ordinary people ahead of those of businesses and those in positions of power. If the government can be swayed into giving PPE contracts to companies that have never sold a facemask before, will they prioritise the interests of fossil-fuel companies over that of people whose homes may be flooded due to climate change?
In terms of how we work with other countries, our unwillingness to work with our closest neighbours in the EU could hold us back as we tackle the climate crisis. Climate change and coronavirus are global problems which require international solutions, and therefore collaboration and compromise between different nations. We can’t solve climate change alone, so we must learn to work with other countries in our approach.
Like the pandemic, the climate crisis disproportionately affects people of colour. This is the case in developed nations, where ethnic minorities are more likely to live in areas with high rates of pollution and therefore suffer from ill health, and in the Global South, where resource scarcity due to droughts and extreme weather events like flooding will lead to large numbers of displaced people. The buy-up of vaccines has highlighted how wealthy countries use their power and influence to support their own interests, but this needs to change if we truly want to support those most impacted by climate change. Given the UK government’s dismissive attitude to the Black Lives Matter movement and lack of compassion for the comparatively small numbers of refugees that currently make it to the UK, it seems that our leaders will lack the will to support both their own citizens and those from overseas who will suffer the worst effects of climate change.
The recent awareness of the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill has caused widespread concerns about government plans to restrict our freedom to protest. Protest is a vital tool for social justice movements, and this legislation seems to target large scale protests like those for Black Lives Matter, and the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests we have seen in recent years. For there to be climate justice, the voices of the most marginalised voices in society must be heard, and giving the police additional powers to suppress protests is likely to impact those who hold the least power the hardest. As well as presenting a threat to democracy, this Bill raises further questions about just who the government is willing to listen to.
Despite the unequal distribution of vaccines between nations, the rapid progress of the vaccine rollout here has given many in the UK a glimmer of hope. As I write, over a third of the UK population have had their first dose of the vaccine, and it seems like things are mostly going to plan. If the government can apply this level of organisation and determination to tackling the climate crisis, we might stand a chance of seeing some real change in our post-Covid world, though this should not come at the expense of people in other countries.
As we begin to step out of the shadow of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to think about how we can work towards a greener, more equal future. This year has reminded us how vulnerable we are and shown us how a crisis can deepen existing inequalities. While the government has let us down in many ways over the last year, it’s vital that they don’t do the same when it comes to climate change. Some funding has been announced in the last year for green initiatives, including investment in wind power and banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, but much more still needs to be done. It’s a while till we can have our say at the next General Election, but we can still put pressure on our MPs by writing to them and telling them that climate change isn’t something we can ignore until it’s too late. Remind them that they have the power to act on climate change, and the time to act is now.