What Would A Global Climate Lockdown Look Like?

A figure protesting for a climate lockdown alongside their peers.

Humanity is rapidly approaching a few concerning tipping points.

As billions struggle to survive, it’s becoming clear we may need some drastic changes, fast.

Could a worldwide climate lockdown offer us a way forward?

In many ways a global, environmentally-focused lockdown is similar to a climate strike – a growing form of ecoactivism.

Let’s take a look at some past examples of climate lockdowns, and the key factors required to actually accomplish something similar in the future.

We’ve seen climate lockdowns before

In 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center in the US forced an unlikely climate experiment: air traffic over the entire North American continent was halted, leading to unprecedented clear skies.

This sudden removal of contrails from airspace was followed by warnings from NASA, who found a connection between the constant barrage of aviation exhaust in our skies and current levels of global warming.

Following a handful of studies into the concept, NASA has been continuously working on more sustainable aviation fuels to reduce contrails and their effects.

plane exhaust contrails

In 2020, the COVID-19 caused similar shutdowns across the transportation sector, pushing companies to try something that had been on the table for decades: remote work.

And the world saw immediate positive impacts from our reduced activity on the environment as a whole – nature leapt at the chance to reclaim some of its space.

Wild boars invaded Israel, and vast herds of dugongs returned to shallow waters in Thailand.

Stories of nature bouncing back within weeks of lockdowns all over the planet provided us with evidence of the immense pressure our species has on its surroundings.

All over the world, climate scientists were gathering incredible proof of a concept that cannot be argued against: lockdowns are good for the environment.

And who doesn’t want clear, traffic-free highways?

empty highway

But even if this all sounds great, there’s also an understandable bit of negativity surrounding these lockdowns; something which may make a climate lockdown impossible to implement.

In both of the above examples, lockdowns were a last resort, as those with the power to implement them had their hands forced by a sudden and unexpected disaster.

So, despite decades of persistent warnings by climate scientists, and clear evidence of approaching climate tipping points – it was ultimately an urgent threat to the economy or national security that inspired them.

A climate lockdown would be a totally different animal.

What would a climate lockdown look like?

The term climate lockdown conjures up images of empty streets and abandoned parks, and this is exactly how the opponents to one want it to be depicted.

The idea that we may have to change our behavior to address climate change in general is associated with a reduction in “freedoms”, and organized science-denial networks are already spreading misinformation and fake climate news.

denial is not a policy
Image by Nathan via Flickr

Part of the problem is that a climate lockdown means different things to different people. In reality, it probably wouldn’t resemble the pandemic lockdown much at all and would simply involve a gradual increase of restrictions upon local communities.

Some of these might include:

  • Carbon tax: this would add a price to high-carbon purchases, giving a financial incentive to purchase more sustainable alternatives
  • Travel restrictions: these could be as mild as low traffic neighborhoods or as strict as entirely car-free cities
  • Online school: children and students can study at home part-time to save on transport
  • Banning the sale of gasoline cars: these schemes are already underway in many EU countries, and even some US states home to green cities
  • Limit private vehicle use: improved public transportation and increased private car tax may help reduce our traffic pollution further

And there are many other elements that could combine into this new definition of a climate lockdown.

Of course, many valid concerns around this exist:

Who gets to decide how much and where these restrictions are applied? How will it be kept equitable?

Covid restrictions were easily avoidable by the wealthy, who are responsible for more than their fair share of pollution. Ultimately, a climate lockdown (even a gradual one) is going to face a lot of hurdles.

But let’s say there was a drive to get everyone to stay at home for a while to fight climate change: what could that look like for you?

Are climate lockdowns unrealistic?

The successes and failures of the covid lockdown provide us with excellent insight into the chances of a climate lockdown succeeding in any meaningful way.

It seems as though three major areas of resistance would affect the success of a climate lockdown:

Some people don’t want them

The media played an undeniable role in heightening anxiety around pandemic lockdowns. It was clear from the start that a powerful narrative existed, one in which lockdowns are a bad thing – something we should be fighting against.

Media outlets focused on inconsistencies in government advice and a significant number of people seemed to be unable to behave in a civil manner, regardless of official recommendations.

But as much as these quirks of irrationality were publicized, they represented a small portion of people; and the fear-mongering over lockdown related mental health seems to have been overblown.

However, even if you do live in a relatively sustainable city full of beautiful parks built using biophilic design elements – there are plenty of other, powerful financial forces who want your attention.

There’s plenty of corporate resistance

Any threat to corporate profits will be met with resistance by those companies and the media conglomerates and fringe outlets on their payroll.

If a climate lockdown were to happen, it’s a safe assumption that a noisy minority of powerful organizations could easily amplify their greenwashing efforts through media partners.

burger king ad
Image by Mike Mozart via Flickr

Distractions are easy to come by nowadays, and even though anyone who’s paying attention is probably almost always feeling a bit of climate grief, we still face a neverending bombardment of advertisements and corporate propaganda.

With this much financial conflict possible, a strict climate lockdown could be a potentially dangerous endeavor.

A general lack of unity

Even amongst those on board, a lack of environmental organizations with shared values means a lot of different opinions on how a climate lockdown could be implemented.

Getting people on board for a lockdown is no easy task, even when they believe in a cause.

In general, it seems like there’s a need for more common ground and agreement in place before a lockdown could be at all feasible – especially when it comes to incredibly divisive topics like climate change.

Climate lockdowns are possible

For a true climate lockdown to ever get off the ground, there are multiple fronts to tackle regarding climate change and improving the quality of the discourse.

UN News shows us that global media reporting on climate change is growing and becoming more accurate, and suggests the following to maintain this trajectory:

  • Stop being overly dramatic: fear tactics are ineffective and can reduce the strength of a message
  • Make climate change relatable: we need to focus on real-life stories, not just abstract concepts such as a 1.5°C rise in global temperatures
  • Highlight local impacts: hurricanes, mudslides, and other natural disasters need to be framed as a consequence of climate change with a real cost to lives and economies
  • Build trust and engagement: consistent, honest messaging and outreach needs to be a focus of reporting, and people need to be brought up to speed through education
  • Starting is the hardest part: the message of “stop” can be shifted to “start”, moving away from restrictive language to more proactive messaging

By implementing some of these strategies, there may eventually become a time when there’s enough backing for a climate lockdown to go down well – either as a government initiative or as a voluntary strike.

In the meantime, it’s important to not to miss out on the current growing momentum to get involved and reap the rewards of fighting against climate change, and those most responsible for it.

Fixing our climate requires unity

Most of us are aware of the climate changing around us, even if climate change denial exists. As great as it would be if misinformation didn’t exist, it does.

And we simply aren’t all on the same page about climate change.

The struggles faced during a lockdown for a global pandemic – a matter of extreme urgency – will certainly be amplified if climate lockdowns ever happen.

But the climate isn’t something we experience from 9-5, five days a week. It’s a complicated and abstract natural system, much of which we still don’t fully understand.

The difference between the poor and middle classes is shrinking in much of the developed world, as the elite classes pull ahead.

population by income levels

While prices are rising rapidly, wages are not keeping up, and the climate will always come as an afterthought to putting food on the table.

The longer this process continues, the more people are starting to realize that they are no longer working for themselves; that all this productivity and polluting output of our day-to-day grind is not being fed back into the system but stagnating in the pockets of the richest people on Earth.

So, the vast majority of us do share the same struggles, and addressing these can serve the same purpose as a climate lockdown would.

What about a climate strike?

General strikes are a hotly debated topic, but the core idea behind them is quite similar to a climate lockdown, in theory.

If the majority of us struggling to survive were to cease economic activity in general – meaning our jobs and nonessential spending – could it accomplish the same thing as a climate lockdown?

Corporations will fight tooth and nail to keep us working and spending, as we are the driving force behind the increases to their bank accounts and the record profits that they continue to experience while we struggle.

A sign being held up at a youth climate strike in Minnesota, USA.

In 2021, wages for the top 1% rose nearly 10% while those in the bottom 90% saw their earnings fall. And in places like the US and the UK, descending into a recession seems almost inevitable; as the vast majority of companies still don’t pay most of their workers a living wage,

The pandemic lockdowns provided us with results from another forced experiment: the experience of working from home showed a lot of people just how bad conditions in the office can be, and suddenly, a generation of workers began to realize their worth and demand better.

The Great Resignation, and to a lesser extent, The Great Renegotiation has corporations scrambling to provide better for their invaluable talent, but they’re not doing well enough.

And it’s not just those working less desirable, but essential jobs – nurses, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and many more people are striking for a higher standard amid a cost-of-living crisis.

global climate strike

This is one path to a successful climate lockdown. Wealth redistribution is one of the least talked-about solutions to climate change, and for good reason: those with the wealth own all of the discussions.

Time and time again, research has shown us that the elites are willing to hand over a bit of money and social credit when the negative effects of inequality, such as crime and conflict, threaten their own interests.

Further, when people can afford to care, they care, and climate disruption is linked to wealth inequality.

A carbon tax would be a simpler task to implement if people could afford to pay for it, and would accelerate the effects of a pay rise to the bottom 90% by further redistributing the hoarded wealth of the super-polluting elite.

Increasing the wealth of the majority has been shown to help.

A group of students holding a climate strike in Katowice, Poland.

Norway, a country with some of the lowest income inequality in the world, has one of the highest carbon taxes to match. As a result, they’ve been able to dramatically reduce traffic in urban centers, and by 2025 will make it illegal to sell diesel or petrol cars in the country.

A general strike would be a climate lockdown that we could all get behind and one that the wealthy can hardly turn us against. In many circles, a climate lockdown is a general strike, the only difference is the level of support behind it.

Some consider a climate lockdown a protest-in-place, a voluntary lockdown, something which is going to be very hard to market.

But this doesn’t mean we should give up. A general strike ticks a lot of boxes for a climate lockdown, but not all of them.

Its strengths lie in highlighting our common ground and the shared benefits which come from improving our standard of living and freeing up the mental and financial resources to address the climate issue.

Final thoughts

Climate lockdowns work, and we’ve seen evidence of this in the past – even if they were in response to tragedies and pandemics.

Moving forward, society as a whole will have to make tough choices if we want to curb climate change; and these choices could very well involve both lockdowns and climate strikes around the globe.

How would you feel about being a part of a climate lockdown?

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