The UN’s climate change conference, first planned for November 2020 in Glasgow, has been pushed back once again, from May to November 2021. At a superficial level this decision seems reasonable in the context of a global pandemic and travel restrictions in place prevent world leaders from attending. Yet it doesn’t take much knowledge of climate science to realise that any delay to international action on climate change could be deadly, especially given the harsh lessons we're being taught by the rapid spread of Covid-19.
I was one of over 4,500 health professionals from across the global medical workforce who last week signed a joint letter to G20 leaders calling for an economic recovery from Covid-19 that prioritises health and the environment. This necessity is brought into sharp focus by the coronavirus pandemic: we have witnessed our fragility when health, food security and freedom to work and travel are interrupted by a common threat. We also know how unnecessary death, disease and suffering could have been mitigated with adequate pandemic preparedness, properly funded health systems and environmental stewardship.
Not preparing for inevitable threats is a political failure. In the midst of this pandemic, we can’t lose sight of the other crises that await us. Climate change has been described as the "biggest threat to global health of the 21st century" with a decade left to act, but despite scientific consensus, we have been unable to reach coherent political will to act with the speed, integrity and vision required to limit catastrophic drought, floods, extreme heat, and poverty for millions of people. The Covid-19 pandemic and climate crisis are distressingly alike: existential threats unbound by nation state and destabilising to society as we know it. As least, the former now offers the foresight to not repeat our mistakes.
Our ability to prepare for the threat of climate change is not helped by delaying this important conference. Just six months ago, a carbon neutral, low waste, digitally delivered conference required justification. Today, this is simply our "new normal". So why is a postponed but face-to-face event still considered to be of added benefit? It only delays the urgent action required, contributes to the climate and ecological emergency through mass travel, and discounts the rapid shift in our ability to work well remotely.
Covid-19, in its misery, has forced us to reassess our priorities. What has emerged for many is community spirit and mutual support, a recognition of the importance of key workers (many of whom are underpaid migrants who would be unable to live in the UK under new immigration rules), the necessity of proper investment in health, the joy of cycling down streets with improvements in air quality that meant 11,000 fewer deaths in Europe this April alone, an understanding of the need for access to green spaces, an agreement that our homeless can be housed, and the knowledge that our food systems are fragile.
In order to achieve a healthy recovery moving out of this crisis, we need capture the spirit that brought us together to clap for carers every Thursday evening to demand the emergence of a fairer society. This means engaging with new ways of working that can enable decisive, global action on the climate at meetings like COP26, which move with the same urgency and will deployed to respond to the pandemic.
For nation states, it means integrating the calls from across the political spectrum to build better economies by creating new economic deals that protect public services, tackle inequality in our communities, provide secure and well-paid jobs and create a shockproof economy which can fight the climate crisis.
The vision, and the science, is there. Both at COP26 - in whichever form it goes ahead - and across the world. What we now look for is the political will to make it happen.
Dr Rita Issa is an academic clinical fellow in general practice and a climate campaigner. She is a signatory on the #HealthyRecovery letter and on the steering committee for https://www.buildbackbetteruk.org/