As we pause in sorrow at the 15,000 UK and the 150,000 global lives already lost to the coronavirus, it is also time to remember the sorrow caused to the families of the 40,000 UK lives the NHS says are lost every year and the seven million globally to air pollution. A pollution largely caused by fossil fuels and other global warming gases.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that 600,000 children under five die every year from air pollution, largely due to pollution-induced pneumonia.
The Covid-19 pause has caused a collapse in car and plane travel. Our skies have gone silent and the roar of car traffic has disappeared, allowing bird song and the whispering of the wind in the trees to be heard again in our cities. But they are not only beautifully silent, the air is also beautifully clean.
Many NHS and essential staff are cycling to work for the first time, as the quiet streets have made them feel safe, as they avoid the current infection risk of public transport.
Families with young children can be seen again enjoying the sun on bike rides, which enable them to exercise while safely observing social distancing guidelines.
We are all, rich and poor, global south and north, experiencing the catastrophic consequences of governments failing to listen to expert warnings to take the necessary action to protect us from pandemics.
The latest warning, after years of similar warnings, that governments were not taking sufficient action came on 17 September 2019, from Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO.
Commenting on the report published that day outlining the leadership action, he said: “As leaders of nations, communities and international agencies, we must take responsibility for emergency preparedness, and heed the lessons these outbreaks are teaching us. We have to fix the roof before the rain comes.”
The rain came and the roof was leaking all over the place.
But that very same month on 23 September, Ghebreyesus gave another stark warning, not on pandemics, but on the terrifying global health threats, from lack of action on the climate emergency.
He outlined the risk from a range of horrific pandemics that the climate crisis was exacerbating. These included anthrax, bubonic plague, malaria and dengue fever. The World Bank says that there may be potentially a billion climate refugees within 30 years.
The Covid-19 pause has shown what dramatic action is possible when global governments, media corporations and populations together agree to take the action necessary to protect the vulnerable 1 per cent of the population threatened by the virus.
It tore open the Overton window of what is actually possible to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies that threaten all of humanity, not just the minority threatened by the coronavirus.
Going back to business as usual is not an option if we want to save humanity and what is left of nature.
Governments must finally listen to the warnings from the global experts on the climate crisis and undertake the deep civilisational changes necessary.
No longer should we listen to the pleadings by the fossil fuel lobbyists and their billionaire supporters.
So, how should a responsible government respond to the warnings and opportunities that this terrible crisis has given us?
It would mean keeping the majority of our airports closed. The 70 per cent of flights taken by just the 15 per cent richest in our society are intolerable in this emergency.
All of London’s runways, other than Heathrow 1, should be mothballed, until and if a sustainable method of flying is developed. Heathrow 1 would provide the minority of necessary flights still required.
We would keep our towns and cities devoid of unnecessary traffic. Even the AA agrees that the insane £27bn road-building programme announced in the recent disastrous ‘tarmac budget’ by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, should not go ahead.
It should be invested instead in the creation of a network of car-free residential communities, linked by a national protected cycleway network.
It would mean the world’s central banks banning the global banks from investing another pound in new fossil fuel projects and the planned $5tn of fossil fuel investments to be invested in green energy infrastructure instead.
It would mean closing down our factory livestock industry, as we convert to a largely plant-based and organically grown diet. This would allow vast swathes of the UK countryside to become wild again and for the razed forests and destroyed peatlands and the wildlife they nurtured to be restored.
It would mean people with gardens growing some of their own food and community allotments being created all over the country, as we dug for climate and ecological victory.
It would mean retraining our car manufacturing workers into highly skilled solar-panel, wind-turbine and energy storage manufacturing and installation workers.
It would mean retraining vast numbers of the Covid-19 unemployed to carry out a nationwide water and energy efficiency retro-fit of the UK’s housing stock, ensuring everybody lived in net zero carbon housing.
The list goes on of what the vision for what a green recovery from the coronavirus tragedy will look like. But the crucial question is will our leaders and media now listen to the warnings about the climate and ecological emergencies, as they refused to listen to the warnings of an imminent pandemic?
If they don’t, the sorrow will not be just over the thousands of Covid-19 deaths, but sorrow over potentially billions of preventable deaths and the elimination of nearly all that is left of nature from the climate and ecological emergencies.
There must be no more fossil-fuelled business-as-usual. This time the warnings must be heard. There must be no going back.
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