Why the Covid-19 crisis could change the way we talk about climate change

Share this article

A lot has been written about the impact of Covid-19 on climate change – how the transition to a ‘new normal’ could provide new opportunities for a greener way of life. As someone who studies the effects of language on the way we live, I’ve spent a lot of my time in lockdown looking for signs that the way we describe the world is changing. It’s seemed to me that there’s a lot of talk about the potential for change, without much evidence that our discourse is any different.

On the subject of work, our language shifted overnight. As recently as March we were still routinely referring to ‘low-skilled workers’. Then suddenly they become ‘key workers’ – a term that will stick for years to come. The most successful branding agencies in the world couldn’t have pulled off a rebranding that swift or effective. Our relationship to work is changed forever.

But there has been no such rebrand for the climate or ecological crises. Lots of pictures from space showing temporary drops in pollution, and the odd case of wild animals invading abandoned city streets, but no change in our language. Unless…

What matters most

One of my other lockdown tasks has been coordinating Cornwall Green Party’s response to a consultation by Cornwall Council on how planning rules should adapt to the climate emergency. Policy language is weird at the best of times, but one of the things that struck me is the repeated use of terms like ‘ecosystems services’, ‘natural assets’, ‘green infrastructure’, and ‘natural climate solutions’.

All these terms have emerged under the heading of ‘Green Growth’. It’s the way the Conservative government in the UK has tried to reduce carbon emissions and protect biodiversity without having to change the basic structure of the economy. Anyone serious about ecology will tell you it can’t work. The climate and biodiversity crises are the result of an economic worldview that treats the natural world as a resource to be exploited. Treating ecosystems as a ’service’ might prolong their economic value, but only in the way you might feed a slave to ensure they can keep working your land. Damning moral critiques aside, one day they’re gonna turn on you.

The Covid-19 crisis is likely itself a result of ecosystem damage – as this warning from some of the world’s leading wildlife scientists makes clear. But there is a much more significant, if less obvious, aspect of this crisis which may have changed the way we’ll talk about climate change in the future. It’s that our collective global response, with all its variations, has one common theme: the economy is not as important as our health.

It sounds like the most obvious thing in the world. Of course the economy is not as important as our health! What’s the point of an economy that harms us? Yet that’s precisely what it’s been doing, over generations, as profits are valued over people and planet, and we are all – the poorest and most vulnerable especially – placed at risk.

It’s true that without a functioning economy we also suffer. But we need a change in our language to describe what it means to us and how it works. I think Covid-19 might have brought us that change through the most obvious, but underused, word: health.

Ecological Health

In political discourse the language of ‘growth’ is often set against the language of ‘wellbeing’. Rather than measuring gross domestic product GDP, the argument goes, we should measure wellbeing instead. At an academic level ‘wellbeing’ is a more nuanced word. But it isn’t a word we use in daily life. ‘Health’ is, and it’s at the very heart of what we value – whatever our politics.

Covid-19 has forced us to face this very simple fact – and to sacrifice our economy for the sake of our health. It’s a very challenging time, as the fallout has very damaging consequences for so many people. But that simple change in priority – from economic growth to health – might be the key that unlocks a different kind of future.

Rather than ‘ecosystems services’ and ‘natural assets’, we need health. Rather than ‘green infrastructure’ and ‘natural solutions’, we need health. Ecological health, to be specific. Not ‘natural’ health, because ’nature’ is a word that often suggests something separate to humans. Not ‘environmental’ health, as ’the environment’ suggests a background to the human foreground – we are part of the environment to bees as much as they are to us. We need ecological health. Our health is fundamentally intertwined with the health of the ecosystems of which we are part. And the climate emergency is the greatest threat we all face.

A new way to speak of the world

‘Health’ is a way to think about many different things, including our shared experience together. If I am well but you are sick, we are not healthy. If I am rich but you are poor, we are not healthy. No doctor would say self-harm was healthy, just as killing the life systems of the planet is not healthy. We rightly talk about both mental health and physical health, and increasingly speak of them as two parts of one experience. No one has a monopoly on the definition of health, but we know what disease looks like when we see it.

‘Health’ is a word that can cope with the complexities of our life together. It requires personal responsibility, but also requires consideration of the systems and cultures that perpetuate certain behaviours. Quitting smoking is notoriously difficult. Quitting crude oil is even harder. A combination of bold personal choices and a supportive health environment is required for us to make the changes we know we so desperately need.

And health helps us talk about the economy. Just as growth is vital at certain stages of life, but a major health risk at others, so economic growth is not an inherent evil, but needs to be balanced with a willingness to shrink sometimes by working off the flab. Our collective health doesn’t require the endless accumulation of more stuff. Less is often more, both in body mass and happiness.

New normal, new possible

When health is the guiding priority – as it has been during this Covid-19 crisis, at least in public discourse – ‘new normals’ become possible. Multi-billion pound businesses have been stopped in their tracks by simple government precautions. For the sake of our health the same should be required of major polluters. The government has stepped in with vast sums of money to compensate people for not doing things that would put our health at risk. The same is required for workers in industries with high carbon emissions. There are economic questions to be addressed, of course. But the priority is our health.

The ongoing struggle to translate the facts of climate change into a sustained and radical public response is not going away because of Covid-19. We remain weighed down by political and personal inertia. But the language we’ve reached for over the last few months to describe our priorities give us new resources for that work. We know we have to change, but we can’t get beyond the world as it is. Acknowledging the threat to our health – and framing our response as a health response – might be a way for us to think ecology differently and articulate it together in ways that make change real.