Drowned out by Covid-19

1st June 2020

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Ceyda Ceylan

Robert Blood examines COVID-19's impact on the environmental movement

Not long ago, business was bracing itself for a new wave of climate activism. The climate movement, epitomised by Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg's Fridays For Future, was preparing to make 2020 the year of 'Climate Action by Popular Demand', when heads of state would be forced to address the greenhouse gas problem.

What a difference a couple of months makes. COVID-19 has swept climate change off the front pages, and the social lockdown has stopped all physical public protest. Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future have been neutered, just as the economic shock is delivering the reductions in fossil fuel use they had been demanding. (Ironically, this will enable established groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to regain influence after 18 months of being out-shouted).

Angling for attention

The activists' initial reaction was to convert physical protests into digital ones – with varying success. A social media 'thunderclap' sounds dramatic, but few companies are likely to panic because of a larger-than-usual rush of hostile tweets from known critics. Even less impactful is projecting slogans onto buildings at night when no one can see them, as Greenpeace has been doing. More extreme groups have threatened internet attacks, such as corporate website shutdowns, but none have materialised.

Gaining the media's attention is also difficult. NGOs have tried to stay relevant by giving their arguments a COVID-19 angle: more than a third of NGO campaigning in March and April mentioned the disease. Even animal rights groups have joined in, demanding an end to livestock production as a cause of animal-to-human virus transfer.

“People want to feel their lockdown sacrifices have been worthwhile“

Climate and environmental groups have been using political networks to lobby for economic bailouts to be tied to environmental conditions, and to be withheld from major polluters such as airlines.

In Europe, the leading green and centre-left groups, supported by the European CEOs of several leading companies, called on the EU to commit to a greener, more sustainable world after COVID-19 – not dialling back on the Green Deal, but doubling down. This seems a smart move – it keeps the environment at the top of the agenda, and recognises that many people want to feel their lockdown sacrifices have been worthwhile.

Harking back

The green movement is emulating morale-boosting efforts from the Second World War. In 1942, when fighting was at its peak and the end was far from sight, the UK government published a 300-page White Paper on healthcare and social welfare reform by an academic economist.

While not intended to be implemented during the war, the Beveridge Report gave Britons the conviction that a better world would emerge. As a result, the Labour Party won the 1945 general election, and the NHS, along with expanded education, social security and pensions systems, quickly followed.

The environmental movement has grasped that COVID-19 is a crisis of similar dimensions – and, as the saying goes, never let a good crisis go to waste. However, it is unlikely to have the debate to itself. The economic desperation caused by the lockdown will mobilise other sections of society to speak up, and some are already arguing that it's time for less regulation, not more.

Whoever succeeds, Europe and many other regions will change dramatically during the coming five years, beyond simply the need for economic recovery. This will be the most important 'new reality' that business has to face.

Robert Blood is founder and managing director of NGO tracking and issues analysis consultancy SIGWATCH

Picture credit: Shutterstock


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