‘Mobilising for War’: Why COVID-19 is Not a Dress Rehearsal for Dealing with Climate Change

Many politicians and public figures are calling for the response to COVID-19 to be put on a war footing.  Emergency declarations and executive powers are being appropriated by the state.  Climate campaigners, too, have frequently called upon nations to mobilise as for war and to call down the emergency state.  Be careful what is wished for.  ‘Emergencies’ beget authoritarian governance.  The response to COVID-19 should not be seen as a dress rehearsal for dealing with climate change.

As the spread of Coronavirus continues around the world, we are seeing the widespread declaration of ‘states of emergency’ in numerous jurisdictions.  And the rhetoric, spirit and actions of war are being mobilised against an external enemy.  In the UK, the Government’s emergency executive Cobra is meeting regularly and there are daily briefings to the media by the executive about the prosecution of ‘the war’ on Coronavirus.

We are witnessing the politics of emergency in action.

As others have argued before, emergency declarations lead to states of exception.  Centralised powers determine the ‘will of the people’ and draconian measures are authorised.  To call COVID-19 an emergency is to concentrate power in the executive.  Civil liberties are suspended; citizens are placed in quarantine and their movements are surveilled by the state through police or through new face recognition or drone technologies; ballot boxes are closed and elections abandoned; Parliamentary scrutiny of the executive is a luxury that can be no longer afforded.

By calling out an emergency, one must be willing to accept the exceptional conditions this legitimates.  For good or ill.  Being ‘at war’ against a common enemy is an uncomfortable position for a liberal democrat to be in.  How does one challenge the state when its deployment of emergency powers does not meet the approval of the people?  How does one scrutinse or challenge expert advice offered behind closed doors?  The norms and modes of public accountability of liberal democracies are lost. 

Politics and public accountability changes in time of war.  When Prime Minister Winston Churchill in May 1940 offered the British people nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat” he was operating under emergency conditions and called upon the people to follow him.  Period.  Whatever they thought of his decision-making

The subsequent British air campaign to bomb German cities was not subject to a Twitter storm; the development of the D-Day strategy and its execution was not debated in Parliament; Churchill’s international diplomacy with Roosevelt and Stalin which fashioned post-war Europe was not scrutinised by a Parliamentary Select Committee.

Invoking World War 2 mobilisation for either COVID-19 or climate change is of course a poor analogy.  Our world is radically different from that of the early 1940s.  It is hard to see Britain being able to execute its war strategy against Hitler in a world of citizen photo-journalism, instagram and Twitter feeds.

So the point of my argument is this: climate campaigners need to be careful what they wish for.  By describing climate change as an emergency they have catalysed hundreds of jurisdictions into formally declaring a ‘climate emergency’.  And now, through the example of COVID-19, we see exactly what emergency politics looks like; we now see what placing society on a ‘war-footing’ really entails.  It is not attractive.

Declarations of emergency are serious, not to be undertaken lightly.  If climate campaigners are to continue to wish a climate emergency upon the world, then they need to be much, much clearer about what they think they mean by this.  What sort of politics do they wish to see unfold in the climate emergency?  What executive powers are to be appropriated? 

If calling a ‘climate emergency’ is to mean anything then it must mean a change to the normal mode of politics and decision-making.  And this may well not be for the better.  Once an emergency is declared, it can no longer be politics as usual

Some may say, ‘Well of course we would not endorse such coercive measures in the name of climate change.  We are not calling for a surveillance state, or the suspension of elections’.  But as Nils Gilman has recently argued, “such [emergency] rhetoric can … easily be (and, in fact, often has been) used to justify and promote deeply illiberal or worse solutions to environmental issues.”  Once a pathway to the emergency state has been opened, it is hard to restrain some to walk down it.

Determining whether or not such emergency politics and war mobilisation is warranted in the case of COVID-19 is not the purpose of this commentary.  It is rather to point out the full implications of becoming an emergency state, of mobilising fully as if for war. 

Taking decisive action against ‘the enemy’—whether Coronavirus or climate change—comes at a cost.  And that cost is reduced civil liberties and restricted democratic accountability.