Where have all the leaders gone?

Photo by Annie Spratt

There are terrifying parallels between our Government’s response to the Coronavirus and their response to the climate emergency. On Monday 12th March, 2020, our Prime Minister stood before the country and acknowledged that ‘many more families would lose loved ones’. Four days later, he told us all to ‘avoid pubs, clubs, theatres… and non-essential contact’.

He didn’t legislate for a lockdown, or introduce enforcement measures. He simply announced the severity of what was coming, and then left it up to us as individuals to decide what action to take. It was only after another long week of the virus spreading catastrophically that he finally confined us to our homes.

In climate terms, we’re now in that week of dithering and confusion. Even the Government admits there’s an emergency, and acknowledges the horrors that will follow if we don’t act. Yet our leaders have allowed the burden of action to shift onto companies (who too often hide behind their short-term fiducial duty) and onto us as individuals.

The fact is that changes at the individual level will not meet the scale of change that’s needed. Despite my well-intentioned suggestions that we recycle our crisp wrappers, or swap our plastic sponges for cotton scrubs, such actions will not save the planet. They might help raise awareness, but they’re a sticking plaster over a gaping abscess, a placebo for environmental angst, like telling yourself it’s okay to fly off to your Spanish holiday home every few months because you use a refillable coffee cup at the airport.

71% of global carbon emissions come from just 100 companies. While they continue with business as usual, unchecked by legislation, my choice of recyclable toilet roll isn’t worth a wipe.

The climate crisis is a consequence of our individual choices, but it’s the economic system that dictates those choices. It’s the economic system that makes electric cars more expensive, and puts a premium on locally grown food. It’s the economic system that makes it ‘cheaper’ to fly domestically than take the train, or allows Amazon to avoid tax as we ask them to ship that appliance from China rather than source it from the UK.

Within a system like that, those individuals unable to afford to focus on tomorrow because they’re so desperately trying to afford today cannot be blamed for their choices. When the system allows the ‘wrong’ choice to be so much cheaper, individual responsibility becomes less a matter of choice and more a matter of privilege. No individual should be blamed or shamed for participating in the only system available to them.

The Coronavirus has shown that we’re capable of radical change in the face of an emergency. But it has also shown that action can’t be left to individual discretion. We need our leaders to lead. We need them to be clear about the scale of the emergency, and to legislate change so that, every time an individual is faced with a choice, the system nudges them to do what’s best for our future. Concern for the environment is now sufficiently mainstream that, if our leaders dare to lead, we’ll follow.

That’s not to say we individuals don’t have a role. We still need to get the little things right, like changing our lightbulbs to LEDs, cutting back on flying and signing up to a truly green electricity supplier. But it’s not enough for us to restrict our efforts to our own little lives. Our individual responsibility is to push for collective change. That means voting the right people into office, then holding them accountable. It means lobbying your local supermarket, and pushing for change at work. It means ensuring your pension isn’t invested in fossil fuels, and that your bank isn’t financing high emitters. It means taking to the streets, or simply signing petitions from the comfort of your armchair. It means calling for the leadership we so desperately need.

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