We are currently living through two global emergencies. Covid-19, an acute onset crisis, and the climate and biodiversity emergency, which is chronic. Both of these are urgent and require an immediate response.
How we respond to crises reveals much about our priorities and ideologies. Harold MacMillan, the former British Prime Minister, was once asked what he most feared in politics and replied, “Events, my dear boy; events.” These complex events expose our assumptions, test our philosophies, and challenge our imagination. How the media frames them, how our political leaders engage them, and how committed we are to contributing to their resolution all shape the possible range of outcomes.
Ask the expert
Both the Coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis will have devastating consequences which will affect the most vulnerable people in our societies. Yet Ireland has responded to these emergencies very differently. In both of these emergencies the scientific community is offering warnings, advice and solutions. These are not similarly heeded.
In the weeks since Covid-19 was discovered, the response to the emergency has, in Ireland, been guided by scientific and public health experts. The public is encouraged to follow the advice about social distancing and hand hygiene as much as possible. The Irish Government for its part has taken action to facilitate and support these actions with communication and the closing down of public facilities including schools, colleges and créches. We have been advised to cancel or postpone large public gatherings. They are increasingly being joined by funding mechanisms to attempt to mitigate the devastating effect that the pandemic will have on the economy. These are necessary precautions given the immediate threat of the virus and we are deeply grateful for the relentless work being done by Ireland’s medical experts around Covid-19 and applaud the Government for how they have thus far handled this crisis.
In contrast, climate scientists, conservationists, and even the epidemiologists who have guided our response to Covid-19 have spent decades – sometimes their entire careers – trying to influence the political and public discourse to recognise the dangers of climate and biodiversity loss. Climate change and biodiversity loss is a food and water security issue as well as a public health concern. Disease outbreaks and pandemics like we are suffering now are the predictable outcome of the path of environmental destruction we are currently on.
The slow onset of the climate and biodiversity emergency means that implementing the solutions necessary to stem this problem were always put on the long finger. We have had time normalise the incremental changes brought on by climate change and biodiversity loss. We barely notice now the silence that was once filled by the noise of our disappeared birds and wildlife. Winters filled with frosty nights are a thing of the past.
This chronic problem now has acute manifestations in the form of wildfires and flooding, and still the willingness to listen to the increasingly desperate pleas of the scientific community to act now is absent. Incremental behavioural change is being lauded as the correct response to climate change and not the drastic changes to energy, infrastructure and industry that are needed. We are advised to cycle more, but the infrastructural changes to facilitate widespread uptake of this are not being made. When the airlines come looking for a bailout, they will receive it, but similar funding for high-speed trains has not been proffered.
Media and political discourse
The immediate distinction that can be made between the handling of the two crises is the sheer difference in volume in the coverage. For the past several weeks there has been non-stop, wall-to-wall reporting of the Covid-19 pandemic and response. Experts in immunology, microbiology and infectious diseases are rolled out on news and current affairs programmes to dispel myths and give solid fact-based advice and information. Covid-19 is mentioned in every section of media outlets from travel, health, sports and economics. It necessarily highlights that this crisis impacts every facet of our lives and both our behaviour and lifestyles need to change as well as the systemic structures that are in place around us.
Compare this to decades of insufficient media coverage of the climate and biodiversity crisis. Ireland, in general, has particularly low coverage of the climate crisis, with peaks around major events such as global climate strikes and COP meetings. This is worrying, as research indicates that public concern about climate change is largely derived from media consumption. We were treated to a week of constant media coverage from RTÉ in November 2019, but this proved to be exceptional rather than the new normal.
Where there is media coverage of this emergency it is predominately framed as a political or ideological debate, emphasising the personalities or parties involved, rather than the extent of the challenge. The overwhelming scientific consensus is not effectively communicated as the format of point/counter-point continues to prevail.
The political response to the emergencies are also strikingly different. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, when announcing the partial lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19, acknowledged the need to sacrifice, stating, “I know that some of this is coming as a real shock, and it’s going to involve big changes in the way we live our lives. And I know that I’m asking people to make enormous sacrifices. But we’re doing it for each other.” This contrasts starkly with the perceived role of the Government to ‘nudge us’ to make small changes in the fight against climate change.
The sentiment that we are ‘doing it for each other’ is of course the correct and proper light in which to consider our sacrifices. But we must ask if this sentiment should apply to other circumstances. In the debate about the Shannon LPG port importing fracked gas, concerns of the health of people in the US were met with ambivalence when compared with the concern of our energy security. Clearly enormous sacrifices for people and the economy are dependent on who will suffer.
The lack of consistency in response to different types of crises is a worrying characteristic of successive Irish Governments. When our leadership takes an approach that listens to experts and follows advice only as they choose, we should not be surprised that the media and citizens behave similarly.
In consistently failing to plan long-term for chronic emergencies, we fail to implement effective preventative and mitigating action for the climate and biodiversity emergency. Doing so will ensure that we expend all our energy fighting acute emergencies that manifest.
When considered critically, the chronic is as significant as the acute. Covid-19 is our immediate concern, but climate and biodiversity breakdown remains the context for all our collective challenges. The Taoiseach speaks eloquently of how we are “living in the shadow of what is to come.” This is true of both our crises. The only way to respond is decisive, collective action informed by the best reasoning available to us. Anything else will add to the trauma already accumulating.