Long before coronavirus came to dominate public debate and probably our lives for some time to come, scientists warned about the destructive impact we have on our planet. Myriad warnings on how we are changing climate, destroying habitats and killing millions of the pollinating insects our lives depend on, are so dire, so very challenging that there was almost a visceral rejection. The scale of the challenge, the grimness of the advice was, and is, so daunting that trying to imagine an individual response was often overwhelming. This uncertainty, this psychological vulnerability was shamelessly and dishonestly exploited by some politicians and business sectors. It still is.
The consequences of that denial were underlined by the United Nations World Meteorological Organisation yesterday when they reminded us of what we already know: The world is “way off track” for hitting targets to curb rising temperatures as the signs of climate change accelerate. Last year was the second hottest on record, with a global average temperature of 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. The years 2015 to 2019 were the five warmest on record and 2010-2019 was the hottest decade since records began. Each decade since the 1980s has been hotter than any preceding decade stretching back to 1850, according to the UN report. Despite once-in-century weather events ever few months our world’s response remains delusional and inadequate. We will inevitably pay a price, the only question is how steep it will be and whether we can survive it or not.
A domestic version of that deny-and-drive-on culture was highlighted yesterday when the Water Advisory Body reported we are still losing vast quantities of water through leaky pipes and that waste has grown over the last two years. All of this has been well flagged for years and years but delusion prevailed. No way, we won’t pay indeed.
Yet, determination persists in some quarters. Another metric published yesterday showed more people have changed to try to avert catastrophe. Almost one-in-five — 18% — of private cars registered last month were hybrid or electric. That’s treble the 6% registered in February, 2018. This shows again that individuals are often ahead of government when it comes accepting science and embracing change.
Ultimately, coronavirus may not be on a par with climate collapse but its immediacy, its growing presence in our cities, towns, institutions and businesses means our response must be clear and purposeful. It may also need to be more forceful than is usual in a society like this. That a person may be a carrier but not infected adds pressing weight to that position. There are those, as there are on climate and vaccines, who scoff and say we overreact but none of them live in Italy. Austria has closed its borders with Italy. Harvard, Trinity, and UCD have sent students home. Flights to Italy have been cancelled. Markets totter, opportunity evaporates. If we ignore these warning as we ignored climate warnings we face a second set of unbearable but avoidable outcomes. There has not been, in living memory, a moment when a strong, unwavering sense of common purpose was more important.