Inequality, Climate Change, and Covid-19 too by Kimon Roussopoulos

As part of our response to Covid-19 we asked for articles, blogposts and new research on helping us to understand the impact of Covid-19 on inequality and highlighted four specific themes that we would like to explore: universal basic income, climate change, mental health, and food.

We are inviting you to read and comment and offer alternative thoughts or proposals.   The Cambridge Commons does not necessarily endorse any of the views expressed or ideas proposed – our intention is to encourage new thinking and a diversity of views.

Kimon Roussopoulos, founding Treasurer of The Cambridge Commons, offers his thoughts on Climate Change and its relationship with inequality below.  We thank Kimon for his contribution. 

24th April 2020

Will Covid-19, or its aftermath, be good for either equality or the climate? There is a long-standing debate in progressive circles about the interplay between climate change and inequality.  With the coming of the Covid-19 virus, a macabre new axis joins the discussion.  Is this another crisis that should not be allowed to go to waste?  The Cambridge Commons, founded to address inequality in the Cambridge area, later developed an interest in both climate change and other environmental policies, so this seems a good forum to debate this matter.

Because these three apocalyptic horsemen – inequality, climate and Covid (we await the fourth) are challenging humanity now, it seems natural to consider them together.  But they are actually so different that we’re comparing not apples and pears, but apples and apostrophes.  It’s worth taking a moment to review the fundamentals of these three challenges.

Financial inequality is an artifice of mankind, and in theory could be cured by a stroke of the right pen.  It exists in the minds and rules of humanity, who’s glory is the ability to believe in and acquiesce to abstract concepts (cf Harari’s Sapiens – in what sense does law “exist”?).  If some hacker reset every bank account to the same level, the physical world wouldn’t notice.  Fiscal inequality has waxed and waned since at the slaves built the pyramids, and it will be probably concern anguished liberals for as long as mankind exists.

The Greenhouse Effect is a natural phenomenon – trace molecules in air absorb infrared radiation, heating up the atmosphere, which in turn warms the oceans and the surface.  By adding more molecules, man is turning up the temperature.  (Pre-industrial CO2 levels made the planet habitable: it would be otherwise be about 30 °C colder.)  We have emitted enough for sea levels to keep rising, nature to change and some regions to become uninhabitable. Developed countries long knew and could have prevented the worst, but chose buck-passing to later generations, or expected that their countries could adapt.  (I remember debating this as a teenager in 1982.)  Cutting emissions helps; geoengineering tricks might help, but carry risks.  Talking, passing laws (alone), picking up litter, saving the rhino and displacing emissions to other countries doesn’t help. The climate has visibly changed in living memory, and severe consequences are expected in coming decades.  Mitigation needs to be multinational – shutting down the whole of the UK alone would delay consequences by mere months.

Covid-19 is “bad news wrapped in a protein”. Each particle is about 1/500th of a hair’s width. Viruses, which co-evolved with life over billions of years, are not conventionally alive, and have no plan or guiding intelligence; they just happen to get copied in living cells, in a manner that can kill the host.  In 4 months Covid-19 has travelled around the world, infecting perhaps one in 250 and killing around 200,000, mostly the elderly (very approximate figures).  Its advance appears slowed by severe “lockdowns”; some death rates have stabilised.  No cure or vaccination is expected for a year, if ever.

These are at heart three independent challenges to humanity (there are some weakly confounding factors, like population growth).  Many progressive campaigners in recent times have argued that there is a link between climate change and inequality, and that solving one will help solve the other – now, they ask how Covid fits this benevolent idea.  This author does not believe there is any law of nature, cosmic coincidence or deity ruling that “what is good for climate change must be good for equality”.  There are plenty of actions that would help climate stability but and hinder equality, and vice versa.  Subsidising petrol so poorer people could afford to take jobs further from home is bad for the climate; raising petrol taxes to reduce emissions so that only the rich can afford to drive far to work is bad for equality.  Campaigning against both limits the tools one can call up against either.  Perhaps one should fight the fight one is best equipped for, as the skillsets required are different.  I am hopeless at persuading people to be fair, but sufficiently technically expert to see many efforts against climate change that are ineffective or counterproductive.   Inequality may be susceptible to good intentions, but physics cares not a whit: you have to get the actions right.

And so to Covid-19’s rude insertion into the picture.  Its march has been slowed by ‘temporary’ restrictions that would never normally be countenanced, but the side effects of the lockdowns are growing daily; mass unemployment, a shuddering halt to much economic activity, a massive rise in debt as bills continue but incomes are cut, rises in other illnesses, and massive drains of state funding to keep the wheels turning.  On paper whole industries – travel, hospitality, entertainment, luxury goods, personal services – are probably bankrupt.  In coming months some predict new food shortages: few nations feed themselves.  These shocks are leading to calls to loosen or abandon the lockdowns.  There is a reasonable argument that the lockdown’s side effects are causing more harm, including death and illness, than the disease itself – and more unequally.  The tension between fighting disease and the economy will probably squeeze out all other considerations over the next year.

Probably in 2 or 3 years Covid-19 will be defeated by drugs, or it will become so endemic that we will no longer fight it, and the restrictions will be fully lifted.  At that time, how will the prospects for equality and climate change reduction have altered?

One way or another the world will be poorer, and unequally so. Speculators will have made paper fortunes, but industry will have been less productive for a period, so there will be less “real stuff” around.  We might not miss “Made in Chelsea” series 20, but we will miss food, clothes, schooling, home maintenance, and working computers and smartphones. How states’ spending manifests will be largely hidden in an opaque web of “perpetual bonds”, “national debts”, currency variations and other complexities that few understand, and different nations will act differently – Keynesianism, or austerity.

Some have noted that plagues and wars bring greater equality in their wake (qv Schiedel’s “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century”).  This has been ascribed to a shortage of workers; their bargaining power rises.  This seems unlikely to be a factor with Covid-19 unless it mutates nastily, and we should not hope for this: although the Black Death killed 30-50% of the population, historians still debate whether the peasants were later better off due to their collective bargaining position, or simply because the reduced population meant there were more crops to go around.

Other precedents suggest to this author that, on an individual day-to-day basis, the world returns to the state of “business as usual” as soon as it can.  The Roaring Twenties were not that different from an extension of the Edwardian Summer/Belle Epoque before the Great War; from our perspective the 1950s, in style and fashion and attitudes, don’t seem all that different from the 1930s.  The economic crash of 2008 was a massive dislocation but daily life seemed to go on for most much as before.  In each case most of the population remembered the “before” behaviour and returned to it. My expectation is that in 2022/3 we will all pick up the pieces and get back to the “life as normal” we are now fantasising about – with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer; and MacDonald’s, the Premier League and the Olympics in place of Roman “bread and circuses”.

For climate change things may get better.  As I type so little oil is being consumed that in East Texas producers will pay to you take it away.  A downwards blip in greenhouse gas emissions is inevitable, but it will be almost insignificant – and we will have lost the time not dealing with climate change (eg COP 26 is delayed).  When industry and consumption picks up, there will be an opportunities to do so in a less carbon intensive manner, though, and I suspect this will happen to some extent.  The driver will probably not be green ideology (why would this suddenly work when we’re poorer, when it didn’t work when we could better afford it?) but cash – green electricity will be cheaper; the low-cost airline model will seem riskier; electric cars, on the cusp now, will have crossed it by then.   Electronic meetings are becoming normalised.  In many ways we could well consume a bit less carbon-intensive energy.

The observation is often made that the reaction to Covid-19 shows how quickly mankind can change: so why don’t we do it for climate change?  While this is a seductive argument, the answer must be that “well, we did know about climate change, but we didn’t change for it”.  The lesson seems to be that people will go to enormous lengths, temporarily, to avoid something that could infect them now and kill them next week.  They will do little to avoid something that they don’t really understand, that might cause trouble mostly in other countries in the future, to which their contribution is tiny, and anyway “why don’t the Chinese/Americans/X pull their weight?” (insert antagonist as appropriate).

I warily agree with the macabre argument that this crisis is an opportunity to advance against inequality and climate change.  However I fear that mankind is mostly going to let the opportunity pass.  If and when we escape Covid-19, I anticipate an orgy of consumerism as we celebrate, and then a period of “business as usual”.  I do expect in 5 or 10 years another crisis will force us to act.  If we’re lucky, that crisis will be climate change, which at least we know how to deal with – some mitigation might still be possible.  If we’re unlucky, it’ll be a worst virus, and if we’re really unlucky it’ll be “antibiotic resistance” running rampant, which could set much medicine back 100 years.

I hope everyone gets through this crisis healthy.  I hope that activists are successful enough to prove my predictions wrong, and that all readers live long and prosper despite the risks!  After all it might never happen.  And anyone none of us ultimately, are getting out alive.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top