Event summary by Emily Passmore
Although Covid-19 has affected everyone, it has not affected everyone equally. Those living in crowded, precarious housing don’t have the capacity to social distance, and many are struggling more than ever to make a living. Those who are struggling are often people of colour, especially in the Global South, and people on very low incomes. In short, they are the same people most affected by the climate crisis. Both Covid-19 and the climate crisis stand to further inflame these existing inequalities.
Sunita Narain has been working on these issues of development and the environment since the 1980s, and OCS was delighted to host a talk with her on race and class in a time of crisis. Ms Narain is an Indian environmentalist and activist, currently serving as Director General of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, using science to campaign for legislative change. She has spent her career advocating for equitable climate agreements, allowing for development without compromising the future. She has also been heavily involved in campaigning for air pollution controls and better water management in India.
Global inequality and the Covid-19 crisis
Ms Narain began by reflecting on the unprecedented nature of the current crisis, causing a scale of disruption not seen since the Second World War. We should expect to be changed by this. And although it’s easy to view planning for the future as an academic issue, we need to learn from the present and plan accordingly to prevent a repeat of this crisis.
One important feature of the crisis is how much worse it is for the poor. Migrant labourers in the global South live in overcrowded housing with little sanitation or water. The WHO has issued advice to wash your hands for twenty seconds in running water, but for millions of people, this is impossible. Furthermore, these labourers will be most affected by an economic collapse; they are often daily wage labourers, without savings to fall back on.
The cost to the poorest in society is too devastating for the environmental benefits of the Covid shut-down to be celebrated by environmentalists. The crisis has revealed the scale of intervention needed to protect the climate, but we need to pursue an inclusive route towards this goal.
What can we learn from the pandemic?
1. We live in an interconnected world.
Globalisation has deeply linked our economies, whilst air travel has made us more mobile than ever. There are no longer distinct boundaries between countries that can be completely locked down. This is reflected in the issue of air pollution – we share one atmospheric air space that can’t be partitioned.
2. We live in an interdependent world
We are only as strong as our weakest link, so to get rid of the virus, we need to eliminate it everywhere. If the virus survives in the poorest households, it will continue to spread within and between countries due to migration. Thus, while the poor are the worst affected, the virus is an equaliser in the sense that nobody can independently make themselves safe. Thus, only inclusive solutions can end the crisis, just as is the case with climate change. If a solution only helps the rich, the issue, be it Covid-19 or carbon emissions, will just continue to grow among the poor, and thus become ever more severe.
3. We have a dystopian relationship with nature
The virus was able to mutate between species and get stronger in part due to our industrial agriculture systems. If this isn’t changed in the future, our food and our societies will remain susceptible to disease.
How can we take these lessons and build a better future?
The future of work
Millions of labourers have returned home, having initially moved away to find work. These workers will be the most affected by climate change as our agriculture systems begin to collapse. Thus, immigration will remain a pressing issue. The virus gives us a chance to think differently about globalisation. By investing in self-reliant local economies, people could get work without being forced to leave their homes.
The future of production
We live in a consumption driven economy. Increasing consumption means breaching planetary boundaries. We now have the chance to shift to a system where the value of labour and the environment are not discounted, particularly as the pandemic drives the cost of labour higher.
The future of democracy
Democracy underpins every solution. One of the best ways to change behaviour is for the poor to be able to say, ‘Not in my back yard’. For example, waste disposal sites are usually located near the homes of the poor. Democracy allows the poor to push back, and force more sustainable solutions to be developed. Giving the poor their right to decide will also reinvent global cooperation, allowing us to work towards more just climate solutions for all.
Tipping points and change over time
What concrete steps can be taken towards a just and sustainable future? The UK government has announced huge investment in cycling and walking – could the crisis prove to be a tipping point, leading us to a new reality?
In Ms Narain’s 1991 report, Global Warming in an Unequal World (co-authored with Anil Agarwal), she explored the issue of environmental colonialism. The report responded to a World Resources Institute (WRI) report attributing half of all emissions to developing countries. Narain and Agarwal found that the WRI report often ignored the science to play a political blame game. By recognising historical emissions and adjusting the assumptions made, only one fifth of emissions could be attributed to developing countries. Has this dynamic changed since then?
How does the environmentalism of the poor differ from the environmentalism of the rich?
Democracy needs to be strengthened – how do we show people tackling climate change is within their own interests despite all the other issues at play?
How can we ensure a just transition to decarbonisation in developing countries, and what role can technology play in this process?
Can we get Western powers to see climate change as an issue of equity, or are corporate agendas simply too strong for them to admit this?
How important is climate justice within climate education?
How can we further connect with other movements for racial and class-based equity?
How can we balance scientific reality and political feasibility?
By Bridget Stuart
On April Fool’s Day 2020 it was announced that COP26 was being postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This vital climate conference, which was to bring 30,000 delegates from across the world to Glasgow on 9th – 19th November, has now been moved to an unspecified date in 2021. COP26 promised to be the most important climate conference since Paris 2015, so there has been much debate over what this means for climate action worldwide.
Obviously, the postponement of COP26 poses some major issues. It narrows the window in which nations can review and update their post-2020 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), delaying vital progress on emissions. This brings us ever-closer to the point of no return, beyond which there is no hope of limiting the global average temperature rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Also, the global economy is in ruins, and there is the very real threat that nations will use the pandemic to cut back on their environmental commitments. Donald Trump’s government has already begun to do this, revoking a number of environmental standards implemented by the Obama administration.
Postponing COP26 was necessary, and the right thing to do in the interests of public health and safety. But the situation highlights the strong and somewhat ironic parallels between COVID-19 and climate change. These are both global crises, putting every human life in danger. In both cases, global governments knew full-well what the potential impacts were, and yet failed, for the most part, to act with sufficient speed or intensity. Both crises also put the inequality inherent in our society into harsh perspective. In fact, COVID-19 has given us a glimpse into our future, one in which we face economic, societal and environmental collapse. But this could be the wake-up call we need and act as a catalyst for great change.
So, it is imperative that this extra time in the run-up to COP26 is put to use. The UK government, who many feared was not ready to lead the talks in November, now has the time to fully prepare. Globally, nations can increase their climate ambitions, ramp up their commitments and solidify their road-maps for the future. There is also time now for the world to recover slightly in the wake of COVID-19 and for all parties to fully refocus on climate breakdown.
A crucial benefit of the postponement is that COP26 will no longer be overshadowed by the US Presidential election or the USA’s recent departure from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is currently due to take legal effect on November 4th. In fact, there is now the opportunity for a new US President to re-establish climate leadership and re-enter the Paris agreement. This would be a major boost for the talks next year.
So, perhaps delaying COP26 is a blessing in disguise. The economic and societal collapse resulting from this global pandemic presents a unique opportunity. What is clear is that we can never go back to ‘business as usual’. We should regrow our economy and restructure our society in a way that is sustainable and resilient, and, crucially, that extends strong support to the developing world.
By Olivia Oldham
Climate change and environmental degradation are not just environmental issues. Yes, we are pumping ever-more poisonous gasses into our atmosphere, fouling our rivers with deluges of chemicals, and dumping so much plastic into our oceans that soon, there will be more plastic than fish. And yes, the future of our climate at more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures looks more than a little dicey, but the fact is that we are not all equally at risk. Climate change is a social justice issue, and it requires climate justice.
Spatial distribution of impacts
The spatial distribution of the negative effects of climate change--such as droughts, floods and extreme temperatures--will be uneven. In general, parts of the world which are already more vulnerable to shocks, due to factors such as poverty and relative disadvantage, are likely to be most severely affected. According to the IPCC, it is highly likely that the Arctic, global drylands, small island developing states and ‘Least Developed Countries’ in general will be at highest risk as the planet continues to heat.
Impacts in place
Beyond the regional variations and associated injustices related to the spatial distribution of the impacts of climate change, there is also variation and injustice in the way these changes and resulting weather events impact different people living in the same place. For example, Hurricane Katrina--the type of event which will become more frequent and more extreme as our planet heats up (regardless of whether the 2005 disaster itself was made more likely by climate change)--resulted in dramatically uneven and unjust outcomes for residents of New Orleans and the surrounding area.
The hurricane affected everyone--of course; storms ‘don’t discriminate’. But people do. Centuries of racially-motivated discriminatory land policies across the affected region have resulted in severely geographically segregated communities. In New Orleans itself, at the time of the disaster, African American communities disproportionately occupied low-lying land in areas prone to swamp-related flooding. This meant that communities of colour were more heavily impacted by the direct effects of the levee breaches.
After the storm, African American communities were left stranded in the ruined city for longer than other communities; majority-black neighbourhoods had poor access to transportation, due to decades of discriminatory city planning. Four days after the storm, 200 mainly African-American residents tried to walk out of the city along the highway, they were met by police and were driven back with guns and a police helicopter. Regardless of the immediate motivation for this act, it is clear that the natural disaster that was Katrina affected certain people far more severely than others. Not only that, but this disproportionate and unfair distribution of effects was systematic and calculable, based on intertwined questions of race and class. In many ways, then, it can be argued that the disastrous element of the hurricane was not at all natural, but rather socially constructed in that the negative impacts were largely the result of social policies and discrimination.
The litany of discriminatory impacts of Hurricane Katrina are too lengthy to be fully listed here, and the list of environmental disasters which have disproportionately affected people of colour and the socioeconomically vulnerable could fill an entire library. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this free online course on environmental justice.
It’s not just climate change itself
Beyond the uneven impacts of climate-related disasters, the industries and activities which are causing climate change are also causing significant racial and class-based injustice. For example, you might have heard about the ‘No DAPL’ movement that took place in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017, protesting a section of an oil pipeline leading from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The point where the pipeline was to cross the river was moved from its original location, after it was decided by planners and engineers that a spill could have negative impacts on drinking water in the Missouri capital, Jefferson City. So, the crossing was moved to land stolen from the Standing Rock Sioux in 1958, within a kilometre from the present-day boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation. In this new location, the impacts of a spill would be the same as in the previous one--only here, they would only affect Indigenous people, rather than the majority white Jefferson City.
The peaceful protests of the water protectors--both local Standing Rock inhabitants and supporters from across the country and indeed around the world--were met with violent repression using counter-terrorism tactics. The pipeline eventually went ahead, leaking oil even before it became fully operational.
Again, this is not the only example of injustice perpetuated by those seeking to profit from the degradation of the environment and the continued emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. For example, back in April, Celine Barclay wrote a piece for the OCS blog on environmental ‘martyrs’--environmental activists, usually from and in the global South, frequently Indigenous, who have been murdered for resisting activities such as illegal logging, or the violation of land rights.
The fact is, climate change and other environmental damage do not affect us all equally: some people are disproportionately affected, usually based on their race and their class. We can trace these inequalities back to the era of colonisation and slavery, and the continuing practices of discrimination which exist to this day across the globe, as well as the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. Together, these legacies continue to enable the erasure of the suffering of the many so that a few might profit as the world crumbles.
We need to recognise that the climate crisis is also a crisis of justice, so that when we fight to change the world, the world we end up with is better for everyone, not just those of us privileged enough to sit at home writing about it on our laptops.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.