I imagine future historians telling the story of the pandemic you and I are living through right now. On one side is the suffering, the fear and anger and grief. On the other side, there’s the rediscovery of human solidarity, and the care we show for the most vulnerable amongst us.
We’re writing that story right now: how it ends is up to us.
A tale of two crises
Before the pandemic, our house – the blue planet we live on, and how our societies function – was already on fire. Unchecked burning of coal, oil and gas, in order to fuel an economy so unequal that the 22 richest men in the world hold more wealth than all the women in Africa, led us to the brink of a climate collapse.
When the Covid-19 crisis hit, Europe came to a standstill. In that stillness there’s clarity: in times of emergency, it is workers and communities, not corporate executives and stock markets, who bring the real value to our societies. Even as the virus is costing the economy sums of money so vast that they’re difficult to comprehend, it makes its injustices even more stark.
Different versions of this story play out across Europe. Rich CEOs keep their bonuses as working families can’t make rent. Doctors and nurses go without facemasks in underfunded hospitals, while megacorporations reach for public emergency funds, not to cover workers’ salaries but to pay shareholder dividends. Predatory industries risk peoples’ lives to ship in migrant workers while refusing to offer a living wage and safe working conditions.
Our house was already burning, and the pandemic shook its foundations. The failures built into its desifire gn are exposed. The roof is coming down.
One way out
Our world has changed and we have choices to make. Those who call for a return to normal are nostalgic at best. At worst, they’re actively preventing us from realising that this period of recovery and rebuilding can be a doorway for change. As Naomi Klein said, “normal was already a crisis”. “Normal” was extreme inequality, oppression, poverty, and a failing climate.
The good news is that there’s a way out; one which doesn’t fuel one crisis by trying to solve another. A way that provides the short-term lifeline to people and economies, without dooming our chances for a liveable planet in the long run.
To change the system you have to go to its heart. This is where central banks come in.
Central banks are the shepherds of money in our economies. They keep commercial banks in line, and prices stable. They set interest rates and influence how much it costs to borrow from your neighbourhood bank. In crisis, they create money and pump it into the market by buying assets – bonds issued by governments, banks, or companies, to give them the cash they need to operate.
Since the pandemic hit, central banks stepped out of the shadow of anonymity and into the full light of public attention, because it’s up to them to keep our struggling economy afloat – and, just maybe, help reimagine and rebuild it.
Build back a better Europe
The European Central Bank (ECB for short) is not used to that spotlight – in fact, it usually escapes public attention. It sits at the very center of Europe’s economy, pulling the strings of monetary policy for the euro countries. Where the European Central Bank goes, national and commercial banks follow.
Right now, ECB’s leadership are making choices that will shape our future. They’re frantically putting in place emergency measures to keep the economy going through a crisis, and preparing recovery plans to reboot the market when lockdown ends.
ECB is run by people. People under this amount of pressure will make mistakes – especially if they’re lobbied hard by others with vested interests. The risk is clear: in their urgency to salvage jobs and companies in the short-term, the ECB might jeopardise our chances for a sustainable and resilient future on a living planet.
How? By pumping money into the market, without stopping to see where it goes, and what it buys. In March, the ECB jumped into emergency crisis response mode: they’re spending €750 billion on government and corporate assets, buying bonds left and right. Without clear criteria to exclude fossil fuel corporations and the banks that support them from grabbing it, this money might do more harm than good in the long-term. Rather than propping up polluters and making the climate crisis worse, the ECB needs to invest in public services, workers and sustainable energy.
Here’s the catch: before the pandemic hit, the European Central Bank was about to shapeshift into Europe’s Climate Bank. Well, maybe. Under the leadership of its new President, Christine Lagarde, the ECB opened a long overdue review of their strategy. It was an opportunity for the Bank to stop standing in the way and instead use its monetary policy magic to help deliver a real green transition – one that works for people and the planet.
Like so many other things, the strategic review was delayed by Covid-19. But historic decisions on how to save and heal the European economy are still being made – right now, without anyone to speak for workers, families, or climate justice. The voices of those of us whose lives will be most impacted are not being heard.
Which brings us to today: we need to ensure that the ECB does not fail us at this crucial moment. At their next meeting at the end of April, the ECB’s leadership – the Governing Council – can decide not to bail out polluters as they rescue the economy, and to build back a more just, resilient, healthier Europe. They must not attempt to solve one crisis while fuelling another. Climate breakdown and raging inequality will not be on pause until the recession is over.
Look back, look forward
A few months ago, we put together a new campaign plan at 350.org. The key to the climate crisis is money – money that props up the fossil fuel industry and lines the pockets of CEOs and politicians. We knew that we needed to go after that money.
But the urgency of the climate crisis means that we don’t have the time to fight fossil finance project by project, bank by bank. So we imagined an economy in which coal, oil and gas corporations go out of business because they can’t afford bank loans, and no bank will back them up. And we decided to go after those who could make that happen: central banks, and especially the European Central Bank.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic locked down our cities, markets and meeting places. It changed everything, and it opened up choices. It also made central banks even more critical to ensuring a just recovery from both the pandemic, and the climate crisis. So we rewrote our plans and set out to fight for the new, better, more just future we want.
As the world recovers from this crisis, we’re going to have to rebuild our economies, and that means we will have choices to make. If your house had fallen down, would you build it back with the same leaky pipes and draughty windows that it had before, or would you build it back better?
Christine Lagarde and the European Central Bank have the responsibility to lead the EU’s economy as it transitions in the wake of the crisis. Right now, Lagarde must urgently commit that no money will be spent to fuel the fire of the climate crisis, and the fossil industry responsible. Instead, the Bank needs to support a just, green recovery, and a real green new deal.