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A reactive, rather than a preventative, response to crises is an all too familiar approach adopted by humanity. Yet what happens when we encounter a problem for which a reactive response will not suffice? The climate crisis poses one such threat. 

History is riddled with examples where governments fail to prepare for issues that are more than likely to arise in future. Perhaps this is rooted in the fact that our societies are inherently built around the short term. For businesses, the main motivation is often to make immediate profit so shareholders can be appeased, whereas for governments the focus is on balancing annual budgets and appealing to voters to win elections. 

The situation regarding COVID-19 illustrates this reactive approach in action as, despite many experts and the World Health Organisation stressing for years the threat posed by a potential ‘disease X’, many countries were woefully unprepared when this current pandemic emerged. For instance, the UK conducted a pandemic drill in 2016 called ‘Exercise Cygnus’ which revealed significant shortcomings in its EPRR pandemic response plan. 

Rather than working to rectify the key issue of ‘surge capacity’ that was flagged, Jeremy Hunt, the then health secretary, and Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, were not adding to PPE supplies and were reducing NHS bed numbers as part of austerity measures. The impetus to procure PPE and increase hospital capacity through projects like the Nightingale hospitals only came months after COVID-19 had forced the entire UK into lockdown. 

The response to the 2008 financial crisis also contains a remarkable resemblance along these lines. For years, banks in the UK were allowed to operate underregulated and unrestrained, with repeated warnings from economists being routinely ignored. Instead, it took a global recession to force action and it was only after the economic crisis transpired that the Prudential Regulation Authority and FCA were established to impose stricter regulations.

We must learn from these past mistakes and respond differently to future existential threats. Unlike pandemics and economic recessions, the climate crisis will not simply ‘pass’ after five to ten years. Many of the effects are already starting to be felt, be that through more severe forest fires burning millions of acres of land in the US and Australia each year, or a greater number of floods in the UK brought about by some of the wettest years on record in recent times

We are already at risk of falling into the same trap unless we make substantial changes in the near future, with coronavirus making it abundantly clear that humanity is not invincible. This time we should listen to the warnings, such as the World Bank claiming our current trajectory means climate change could push 100 million more people into poverty by 2030.

The lockdowns across the globe have already offered us a glimpse of what may happen if we drastically reduce our emissions. Analysis has shown that this caused a 60% reduction in Nitrogen Dioxide levels in parts of the UK, as motor vehicle usage was reduced by 48%. Similar findings were ubiquitous worldwide. By altering our lifestyle habits and increasing our usage of sustainable energies we could go some way to replicating this effect in times of normality, leading to considerable health benefits.

Much like with the 2008 crisis, the solution seemingly lies with governments as the onus is on them to implement the regulations and reforms needed to facilitate the change that is needed. However, current governmental systems are impractical as they promote short-termism and politicians trying to win immediate votes. Inevitably, this leads to issues like taxation and welfare taking centre stage, whilst longer-term issues such as climate change are put on the back burner. 

How do we go about fixing this conundrum? The answer need not be a radical overthrow of our current electoral systems. Maybe instead it is to form an independent government-owned, climate authority, similar to how the Bank of England is run, with long-term objectives to regulate emissions, reduce fossil fuel subsidies and invest in greater sustainability programmes.

What is clear though is that promises from leaders like Theresa May to make the UK Carbon neutral by 2050 are not enough, especially when she will have been out of office herself for over 30 years by that time. Mere words are not adequate. We must learn from our previous mistakes by taking preemptive action towards future problems. The current Prime Minister’s commitment to generating enough wind power to supply all UK homes is a step in the right direction. 

The main drive for innovative solutions to crises must no longer be after they have already occurred, as this unnecessarily exacerbates the social and economic impact of these events. Let us use this pandemic as a wake up call and make this the last time we face an existential problem unprepared when preparations could have been made. 

The main drive must now be to find ways to solve the climate crisis, otherwise history is destined to repeat itself. We need action, and we need it now.

Cory is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

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