Our leaders weren't prepared for coronavirus. If they make the same mistake again, the environmental crisis will destroy society

The devastation brought by storms and other extreme weather, the grinding hunger resulting from degraded land and dying crops – even pandemics – are all made more likely by our destruction of the natural environment

Laurie Laybourn-Langton
Wednesday 24 June 2020 11:22
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The coronavirus pandemic has brutally reminded us of some home truths about risk. Catastrophic things can happen – and they can occur very quickly – overwhelming societies, particularly if they’re not well prepared. It is in this way that the Covid-19 crisis gives us a window into the future – a future in which societies are stressed to the limit by the consequences of environmental breakdown.

The environmental crisis is already changing our world, making highly damaging threats more likely and more severe. The devastation brought by storms and other extreme weather, the grinding hunger resulting from degraded land and dying crops – even pandemics – are all made more likely by our destruction of the natural environment.

These individual shocks ripple out through our interconnected economic and social systems. For example, a single destructive storm in an important food-growing region can cause localised damage, destroying homes, livelihoods and food, disrupting the country for weeks or months to come. But the storm will also impact people who live far away, as globalised food supply chains are disrupted and food prices rise, possibly threatening the stability of countries who can’t absorb the cost and are already experiencing political and economic problems.

Now imagine such crises happening more often and with greater severity, crashing into a world not only reeling from the last shock but suffering the consequences of the slow grind of steadily higher temperatures, less water, and poorer soil.

In all, the environmental crisis is creating a world more destabilised than in living memory. This trend is set to accelerate, as the destruction of nature is only increasing. This is a future in which countries are already struggling with the after effects of the pandemic — poorer, beset with unemployment and political disagreement — and in which the cost of environmental shocks, like storms and heatwaves, begin to add up, pushing societies further into crisis.

As these shocks get more extreme, so do the costs. The environmental crisis is changing the very nature of risk, creating a world of ongoing, all-encompassing destabilisation.

This is why leading scientists and international organisations now routinely warn that societies will simply not be able to cope in such a world. Instead, they will become overwhelmed by the constant state of destabilisation and uncertainty created by the environmental crisis.

Accordingly, militaries around the world are preparing for such a future, one in which, as the US director of National Intelligence concluded, “global environmental and ecological degradation … are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent.”

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research argues that the UK isn’t ready for such a world. The government hasn’t openly developed a sophisticated understanding of how environmental breakdown is creating a highly destabilised world and what this means for the UK. In fact, it’s failing even to meet its existing plans for preparing us for the nearer term impacts of climate breakdown, like heat waves and flooding.

It’s also failing to adequately stop the problem by rapidly reducing our overall environmental footprint. And it’s not doing enough to deal with the injustice at the heart of the environmental crisis; those least responsible for the problem are hit hardest. This point is particularly important: cooperation during a crisis is hard when discontent at injustice is so high. The environmental crisis tests our society’s ability to cooperate to the limit.

Time is running out, but all is not lost. The pandemic shows us how much agency we have to overcome threats. It is through science, cooperation, and the power of collective institutions like government that we are able to anticipate, respond and even prevent huge global crises.

The pandemic must be the final reminder of the fragility of our world and our place in it, the wakeup call that needs to be heeded. If not, we are lost.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is an associate fellow at think tank IPPR and lead author of We are not ready: Policymaking in the age of environmental breakdown.

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