Earth Day 2020: Reflecting on one crisis during another

The pandemic has underscored our collective responsibility to look out for one another and ensure that nobody is left behind — and how we are stronger when we do.

Ottawa (22 April 2020) — Today, Earth Day serves as a reminder that we cannot forget about the climate crisis amidst the global health crisis. In 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the theme is climate action.

This year, Earth Day comes during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many of us are preoccupied with other urgent matters — our health and that of our loved ones, the safety of front-line workers, the well-being of our neighbours and community members, and the security of our jobs and bank accounts. It may not seem like the time to talk about climate change.

But climate action is more a part of this picture than it may seem. Climate change is already here, a crisis we will return to once the worst of COVID-19 is past us. But also the pandemic reinforces its urgency and may illuminate some new ways to think about how to tackle it. It could even spur economies into action.

Climate change has not pressed pause

Even Prime Minister Trudeau, whose government has rightfully been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, said in a press conference last week that the present health crisis does not mean we can forget about the environmental crisis. The same goes for Canada’s climate policies and commitments.

Certainly, responding to the urgent health crisis, ensuring vulnerable populations and front-line workers are protected, must be prioritized. Doing so does not necessarily take away from pursuing climate action, and vice versa; they may actually reinforce one another.

Equity and sustainability must go hand in hand

As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, crises do not impact everybody equally. Not only has COVID-19, itself, impacted vulnerable populations more severely, but the pandemic's economic and social impacts have disproportionately affected vulnerable and marginalized groups, as NUPGE analysis shows.

Climate change follows the same uneven pattern, and it's projected to get worse without appropriate intervention. Experts have warned that vulnerable and marginalized populations are more likely to experience negative health outcomes, be displaced, or lose their livelihoods due to climate change impacts.

The pandemic has underscored our collective responsibility to look out for one another and ensure that nobody is left behind — and how we are stronger when we do. This perspective must inform our approach to climate action, too.

It takes political will to tackle a crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the damage done by years of austerity and privatization. The hardest-hit sectors, like primary health care, long-term care, and front-line social services, have long been starved for resources by neoliberal governments, making them highly vulnerable during a crisis that would strain even well-equipped systems.

The fact that we have seen many governments do a 180-degree turn, injecting large sums of money into health care and other public and social services, highlights the value of these critical sectors. But it also reveals what governments are capable of doing when political will (and public support) are present. Contrary to what we’ve long been told by neoliberal governments, they can invest the necessary resources to address a problem, provide critical services, and ensure that nobody gets left behind.

This is true for a number of issues and sectors, including action on climate change. It means that targeted investment and coordinated policy response to facilitate the transition to a green economy are possible. Doing so is not only necessary for a sustainable future but can also aid in the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Demonstrating what we’re capable of

In addition to highlighting what governments and the public sector are capable of achieving, the pandemic has illuminated what we, as individuals and as communities, are capable of.

Amidst the tragedy, fear, and anxiety, there have been numerous good-news stories of people banding together — showing support for front-line workers, helping neighbours through "caremongering" and mutual aid groups, or staying home to reduce the spread of the virus.

This confirms that we can take coordinated action when we need to, and can each do our part to address a crisis and to look out for one another. This is another lesson for climate action.

Reimagining our collective future

The crisis has reinforced the importance of public services, care work (and care workers), fair wages and benefits for all, access to safe and affordable housing, universal public child care, and the need to tackle income inequality and other forms of inequity. A common thread throughout NUPGE’s commentary during COVID-19 has been that these "realizations" — and the steps taken to protect workers, support public services, and address inequities in our society — must not disappear when the pandemic is over.

We must not slide backwards after the crisis. We must not return to austerity agendas, starved public services, or unbridled growth.

We must not slow or deprioritize climate action. The present crisis makes clearer than ever the need to transition to a more just, equitable, and sustainable economy. 

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE