Environment

Pollution Has Killed Five Times as Many People as COVID This Year

Dirty air is just as much of a crisis as the coronavirus, but politicians refuse to give it the same kind of attention.
September 25, 2020, 8:00am
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A young protester at a Fridays for Future demonstration in London. March, 2019. Photo: Jake Lewis

It’s time to wake up. On Global Climate Day of Action, VICE Media Group is solely telling stories about our current climate crisis. Click here to meet young climate leaders from around the globe and learn how you can take action.

Below, Frances Fox – a member of the UK Student Climate Network – reflects on what has happened since the network’s first climate school strikes.

A year ago, on Friday the 20th of September, 2019, 7.6 million young people across the world walked out of school. They took to the streets to join strikes, calling on world leaders to take action on the climate crisis. 

After decades of climate campaigning, the issue has only recently come to the forefront of public consciousness, the catalyst being a teenage girl saying “enough is enough” and igniting the global Fridays For Future youth movement. Since them, have leaders listened to us and the undeniable science we’re highlighting, or taken any concrete steps to improve?

The simple answer is: no. Some have paid lip service – declaring a climate emergency but doing nothing about it – while others haven’t even done that. Our leaders are failing us and future generations.

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Men in New Delhi covering their faces to avoid breathing in polluted air. Photo: Pascal Mannaerts / Alamy Stock Photo

If you want an almost parodic example of the issue not being taken seriously enough, you need only look to the most recent UN COP25 Climate Conference, in November of 2019. Brace yourselves: the main sponsors for a conference whose aim was to reduce world emissions were an oil spill of Spanish fossil fuel companies. How are solutions meant to be found when those causing the problem are bankrolling the conversations? 

Carbon markets (Article 6), loss and damage (mitigating the effects in countries on the frontlines of ecological breakdown) and net zero talks were the main topics on the table. NGOs and activists hoped for a resolution on Article 6, concrete plans to achieve net zero emissions and a focus on mitigation in the global south. 

Needless to say, nothing was achieved at COP25 – everything was pushed to the next conference – as high polluting companies and shortsighted politicians caused constant barriers. UN secretary general António Guterres said he was “disappointed” and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis”.

A huge issue at the conference – and in the climate crisis conversation generally – was that the most affected people and areas (MAPA), who contribute the least to the crisis yet experience the worst effects, were completely ignored. 

Listening to politicians make vague commitments, it’s easy to view the climate crisis as something that will only impact us 30 years from now. Unfortunately, this is not this case. My friend Mitzi Jonelle Tan campaigns with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines. Her home country is the world’s most vulnerable to extreme weather events (according to the Global Peace Index 2019), as well as one of the most dangerous places to be a climate activist, since a law was passed in July of 2020 defining activism as terrorism.

“The climate crisis is already here, and it scares me, but I won't let that stop me,” she says. “We’re not just fighting for our future, we’re fighting for our present. International leaders, why do you keep ignoring us or reducing us to some statistic or sad story? Listen to us. We are unheard, but we are not voiceless. We refuse to be prisoners of injustice. We are warriors and we will keep fighting for climate justice.”

Next year is key for further action, as at the UN COP26 Climate Conference in November (postponed from 2020 due to COVID-19) governments have to renew their Paris Agreement pledges. It is crucial that these are more ambitious – if the response to the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that if there’s a will, there’s a way. We need politicians to treat the climate crisis like a crisis, the same way they have treated COVID-19.

For comparison, over the course of nine months just under a million people have died from coronavirus. In that same time, according to World Health Organisation figures, around 5,400,000 people will have died due to climate change and pollution. 

Our movement is based on science. Facts that have been brushed under the carpet for decades. As more and more people realise the severity of the climate crisis, our movement will continue to grow until we cannot be ignored. We’re not going anywhere until world leaders take action.

I said this at the first UK climate strike in February of 2019, and I’ll say it again: 200 species become extinct every day – that’s 100 times the natural evolutionary rate. How can people ignore this? At the current rate of overfishing and pollution, by 2048 there will be no fish left in our oceans. How can people ignore this? The UN IPCC Report 2018 gives us ten years to reduce emissions by 50 percent to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees to avoid irreversible catastrophe. Currently, we are on track to hit a 3 to 4 degree increase. How can people ignore this?

For too long the climate crisis has been ignored, the future of the planet shunted to the side in favour of short-term profits. Big business and the political class cannot be allowed to get away with this any longer. We are the youth, we are the future, and we must be heard.

Here are a few ways you can help:

  • Support the campaign to get Polluters Out of COP26 so that real solutions can be found.
  • Educate yourself on the science. I highly recommend watching the new Attenborough documentary Extinction: The Facts.
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