AN INDIAN environmentalist says she fears the Covid pandemic will "break the backs of governments" at a time when they should be working together to fight climate change.

Sunita Narain, who will today be awarded the prestigious Edinburgh Medal, said hostility to lockdowns echoed the reluctance to deal with the climate crisis because it "tells you people do not want any curbs on their lives".

Ms Narain said: "Climate change is a catastrophe. It's an existential threat. But Covid is in our face - we have death numbers in our face - and yet you have lockdowns that are not working because people are out in the bars.

"It should worry us that if we cannot come together as nations and communities to deal with Covid, then what does it tell us about climate change?"

The Edinburgh Medal, which recognises significant contributions to the understanding and wellbeing of humanity, has previously been awarded to primatologist Professor Jane Goodall and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

Ms Narain, director of the Delhi-based think tank the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people for her work on climate justice and appeared in Leonardo DiCaprio's documentary on climate change, 'Before the Flood'.

She praised the Hollywood star.

"Most people who have interviewed me do not like the inconvenient message that I have to give," said Ms Narain.

"Leonardo Dicaprio was the only one who put out that very inconvenient message about the United States consumption and the need to look at equity in climate justice, and I give him huge credit for that.

"It's very convenient to talk about climate change and say 'we're in this together', but it's very inconvenient to talk about there being a disproportionate responsibility and impact."

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She welcomed the election of Joe Biden as the next US president, adding: "The US has always balanced its economic interests against the environmental interests of the planet, but Donald Trump was another level.

"He actually denied the problem of climate change. He went out of his way to create conditions where you actually have more emissions.

"The US has switched from coal to shale and cut renewables because shale is so cheap. Despite this massive transition out of coal, US emissions have actually gone up.

"There is a very tough road ahead, and there are huge interests connected to this. As long as the cost of energy remains cheap, as long as the cost of production remains cheap, and as long as consumption continues to happen at the scale that it does, dealing with climate change is just another buzzword."

Ms Narain added that the the Covid crisis, which has seen cheap migrant labour abandoning cities, should be an opportunity to "reinvent the future of production". But she worries economic stagnation caused by Covid will deter change.

"If you look at the whole world's production system today, you see there are countries where the cost of production is cheaper because you don't pay for the cost of the environment or the cost of labour. By changing that, you change consumption.

"These are the elements of the green recovery we should be building. But the prolonged Covid crisis, I can see it breaking the back of governments, making them less and less able to think outside of the box and be bold. The longer the pandemic, the more fatigued they are.

"In India we have seen absolutely tragic, heartbreaking scenes of the poor leaving our cities. There was a mass exodus of the poor from our cities because they had lost work and went back to their villages because they had no ability to survive in the city.

"You had reverse migration. This is a time to invest in the rural economy, because that's where the opportunities for both climate change as well as economic wellbeing for the future lies.

"If we can build the coping ability of people where they live - investing in the land, investing in water, investing in the wellbeing of people - we will stop also the enormous migration that happens from these areas to our cities, and to different countries."

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Ms Narain, who will be awarded the Edinburgh Medal during a live-streamed event as a result of the pandemic, said both the virus and climate change were similar in that they hit the poorest hardest - but ultimately affect everyone.

"The poor are hit hardest today, but as we pump more and more emissions into the atmosphere and the temperatures rise the rich will also be hit," she said.

"I see this in Delhi: you can buy all the air purifiers you want, but you will not be able to save yourself from air pollution unless we do something to deal with it.

"This catastrophe of the pandemic is teaching us that we are interdependent and interconnected. They are both levellers."

One environmental benefit of Covid has been reduced air travel and commuting as more people work from home - with office-based employment unlikely to ever return to its previous levels.

"In the new normal as we go forward there are opportunities of doing things differently," said Ms Narain.

"There is no doubt that we have learned to work remotely and reduce our consumption. It's all connected: if you work from home you don't need so many clothes, you don't need to travel by bus, it changes the way you consume, but then it also means we have to rethink the future of our cities.

"In an intensely inequitable world we have to think that you and I might be very comfortable at home, working remotely, but a lot of people do not have adequate housing to be able to do so.

"It risks deepening the division in workplaces and societies unless we can fix it."

Edinburgh’s Lord Provost Frank Ross, who will present the Edinburgh Medal, said: “The Edinburgh Medal is awarded to men and women of science and technology who have made significant contributions to humanity.

"Thus it is entirely appropriate that this year’s Medal is awarded to Sunita Narain who not only organises against environmental degradation and global warming but does so on behalf of those whose voice is rarely heard in the Boardrooms and Cabinet rooms of the world but which is vital if we are to succeed.”