Covid-19 & the climate crisis: A glimpse into a future of disaster capitalism

By Gary McDonald

Capitalism is yet again inflicting more shock and horror on the world that is bound to traumatise the global population, leaving scars that will be felt for generations. Just like the climate crisis, the writing has been on the wall for years for a possible pandemic with this ferocity. Considering this is the sixth major epidemic in the last 26 years it was only a matter of time before another struck.

Initially, the potential scale of the unfolding crisis was met with callous indifference by capitalist governments – reminiscent of their indifference towards the unfolding climate catastrophe. The pandemic has already resulted in the recorded deaths of over 125,000 people worldwide with the numbers ever-increasing. 

The intense spread of the virus quickly mounted into huge political pressure forcing governments worldwide to shut down large sections of the economy. In many cases these actions were forced upon employers by workers refusing to endanger themselves, their workmates, families & the wider community in the interest of profit making.

Shut-downs: emissions decline temporarily

The economic shutdowns as expected are having massive repercussions on carbon emissions worldwide, most notably in China, the production capital of the world, which is seeing huge reductions in carbon emissions of roughly 25% — primarily due to decreased traffic congestion and factory production levels. Air quality in China and in Northern Italy in particular have seen profound improvements as a result of the shutdowns. 

Considering that air pollution kills more than seven million people each year and shaves on average three years off of our lifespan, this is a welcome change albeit for the wrong reasons. These emissions reductions will only be short-lived if we return to business as usual post COVID-19, which is exactly what the capitalists have in mind.

After the economic crash of 2008, corporations worldwide capitalised on the resulting shock to the working-class population by pushing for decreased government regulations across all areas of the global market to maximise profitability. This resulted in drastic increases in global emissions. The same forces are at work once again. 

The Trump administration has been using the crisis as a reason to gut the minimal environmental regulations still in place at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in the US. The EPA recently announced the relaxation of regulations over numerous industries including oil and gas citing the pandemic as the reason. They will use any crisis to suit their agenda. The Chinese government is heavily utilising fossil fuels to kick start the economy now that some restrictions have been lifted. These actions must be vehemently opposed.

Pace of global warming picks up

The Earth is currently heating at a rate that is unprecedented in the planet’s history. In the span of 141 years of climate records, there has never been a warmer January than the January of this year, according to scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. February and March have also been scorchers. March of 2020 was the second warmest March ever recorded while also being the 3rd warmest month on record. 

This has been reflected in the melting of Earth’s ice sheets. Research has shown that the Greenland ice sheet experienced melting at a near record rate in the summer of 2019. In July, surface ice declined by 197 gigatonnes – which is roughly equivalent to 80 million Olympic swimming pools. The research carried out also demonstrated that 96% of the ice sheet underwent melting at some point in 2019, compared with an average of just over 64% between 1981 and 2010. 

This increased heating of the planet due to the carbon emissions of big business is directly responsible for the increased frequency and intensity of extreme hurricanes, wildfires, heatwaves and other extreme weather events. The effect of COVID-19 on society globally, is possibly a glimpse into the type of future we can expect in a world of much more frequent disasters as a result of the environmental crisis.

The potential of a workers-led economic policy

These shutdowns powerfully demonstrate who is the real force that powers the economy and who isn’t. If workers stay home nothing happens, the world can be brought to a standstill – the capitalist elites are impotent. It is this power that can and must be harnessed to force action on climate change. Workers at General Electric bravely took collective protest action in order to prevent GE from laying-off essential workers. This was in order to use their skills to retool the factories to be capable of producing the ventilators that are vital in the fight against COVID-19. Similar action could be taken to force factories into retooling towards building a sustainable renewable energy system. 

The temporary abandonment of the policies of neoliberalism – austerity, privatisation and the idolisation of the “free” capitalist market – in favour of state intervention to attempt to mitigate the worst effects of COVID-19 has shattered the Thatcherite narrative of their being no alternative to the neoliberal economic model, which has been a resounding failure in preparing for the pandemic and in actively dealing with it. States have had to take action in a way that was considered unthinkable by the establishment just prior to the outbreak. 

For example, the government of the Spanish State has temporarily taken control of all private hospitals and private healthcare companies until the crisis is over. The Irish government has been less adventurous in choosing to rent the private hospitals during the crisis at an undisclosed rate, which is still an ideological leap for Fine Gael given their history of championing privatisation. 

This demonstrates that significant adaptations and changes in the economy that were once considered outlandish, are not just possible, but necessary – in times of crisis, yes, but crisis is nothing new. We were already in crisis before the pandemic, it just didn’t affect the super-rich minority. If the same approach was taken to climate change, the supposed ‘unrealistic expectations and demands of the environmental movement’, as touted by governments, would be seen very differently.

System change: an urgent necessity

The fight for prevention of and protection against future pandemics post-COVID-19 will need to be intimately linked with the fight against the climate crisis. It will need to be a fight against a system that puts the profit of business before the needs of humanity and of the environment.

The expansion of the methods of industrialised farming being carried out by large agribusiness is resulting in the destruction of precious wildlife ecosystems. It is on the one hand birthing extremely dangerous new pathogens, and on the other, destroying our capacity to prevent the worst excesses of climate damage. The same profit motive that is driving agribusiness to engage in this destructive behavior is the same that drives Exxon or BP to pollute on an unprecedented scale. No amount of disasters will cause them to change.

Unless the capitalist system is done away with, human civilization will experience death by a thousand cuts, with each new cut cutting deeper. COVID-19 is the latest laceration and it is far from being the last. The longer we continue on this ecological and ecosystemic trajectory of radically altering the biosphere, the more dangerous and dire the ramifications will be in the very near future.

It is becoming increasingly evident to working class people that things cannot continue as they once were. This mood was summed up by the student climate activist, Greta Thunberg, when she stated “there is a lot of talk about returning to normal but normal was a crisis”. Now is the time to take action.

If ever there was a moment in time for replacing the anarchy of the capitalist market with economic planning, now is it. The system of the billionaires is the virus that must be eradicated to preserve a hospitable planet for ourselves and for future generations. 

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