The dust storms that devastated the US prairie during the Great Depression were the worst ecological disaster in American history. They were also, partly, manmade. Decades of farming in the Great Plains had rid the topsoil of its native grass, leaving nothing to prevent fields crumbling to dust when drought struck in 1931. Across the Dust Bowl in midwest America, millions of acres of farmland were swept away in brown blizzards. Forced off the land, hungry families headed west in search of new jobs and lives. The dust blew so far east that it settled on the White House lawn.
Almost 90 years ago the US president’s response was not to lie about the scale of disaster or blame others. Instead, Franklin D Roosevelt launched one of his New Deal’s signature relief programmes: the Civilian Conservation Corps. Its mission was to put unemployed Americans to work. More than 3 million people planted 3bn trees, built shelter belts across the Great Plains to reduce the risk of dust storms, and created 700 state parks. FDR’s legacy survives, but his policy is venerated more in name than in deed.
That needs to change. The world faces mass unemployment caused by the Covid crisis and a climate emergency which could spell the end of humanity. But there is no sign in the UK of the effort required to combine our need for jobs with the pursuit of alternatives to fossil fuels and a concomitant reduction in greenhouse gases.
The coronavirus pandemic and the environmental crisis share the same roots: humans’ success as a species in arrogating global resources for themselves and the consequent ecological disturbance. This is increasing viral exchanges – first from animal to human, then from human to human – on a pandemic scale. Our environmental footprint is too large for the planet, leading to accelerated species extinctions and atmospheric chaos. Both the Covid and climate catastrophes are not misfortunes that befell us. They are part of a pattern of decisions that we humans are taking. We need to make different choices.
Parts of the Conservative party are keenly attuned to the political salience of greenery. This week the environment minister Zac Goldsmith put his name to a letter calling for a “global shift towards more sustainable forms of agriculture and land use [which] would provide a strong opportunity for job creation”.
These are fine words. But we must judge the government on its actions. There’s no sign that cabinet ministers are pushing to transition to a cleaner world with a Green New Deal or seeking to emulate FDR in putting the jobless to work in conservation. We ought to be importing production techniques that emit fewer greenhouse gases and strengthen food security. Instead we are opening up to foreign businesses that may do the opposite.
Liz Truss, the trade secretary, appears to want to agree a deal with Washington that could see the UK accepting imports of climate-unfriendly US factory farming that it previously rejected, or letting American-made cars that emit higher levels of CO2 on to Britain’s streets. Trade deals that privilege industrial competitiveness without taking into account the cost of carbon provide a strong incentive for Britain to offshore greenhouse gas emissions to meet its net-zero target.
The absence of politically powerful interests outside of business pushing for global cooperation over health or the environment is a concern. The threat of a boycott by British supermarkets helped derail a Brazilian law that could enable the faster destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a planetary rampart against the rise of future zoonotic diseases. But MPs sit powerless to vote on such matters. Under government plans the Commons won’t have oversight of, or votes on, trade deals. Instead, after the Brexit transition ends, ministers gain unchecked powers over trade.
The size, speed and scale of action provoked by the Covid-19 outbreak show what is possible if governments can set aside short-term thinking. Ministers must adopt the same approach to the climate emergency. They should drop beggar-thy-neighbour policies and back meaningful ways to enforce rules for global green goods – or else the government will be pushing a form of globalisation that diminishes the chances of human survival.