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.
Event summary by Emily Passmore
Tackling the climate emergency will require large-scale change, on an institutional and individual level. Changing individual mindsets and social norms is therefore a huge part of the path towards a greener future – but how can this be achieved? Both Elke Weber and Kevin Green have done extensive work on this issue, and OCS was delighted to host a discussion bringing them together to discuss their insights.
Professor Elke Weber is a Professor of Psychology and Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor of Energy and the Environment at Princeton University. Her work focuses on climate behavioural psychology, studying our responses to uncertainty and motivation to act when the consequences of those actions are far in the future.
Kevin Green is Vice-President of the Centre for Behaviour and the Environment at Rare, an organisation applying behavioural psychology to real world issues. Their projects have ranged from working with farming communities on sustainable agricultural practices, to helping communities restore coastal fisheries.
Social norms and individual behaviour
Professor Weber began by introducing the homo sapien decision-making process: while rational decisions are possible, experience is the main factor. Therefore, social norms, habits, and the actions of others have a huge impact on climate behaviour.
This manifests through a status quo bias. Usually, preserving business as usual protects us from risk; however, for the climate crisis and Covid-19, business as usual is the riskiest response. This risk can be used to scare people into action; the combination of the dreaded and the unknown determines how scared we are of a risky issue.
However, there is a finite pool of worry – scaring people about one thing diminishes their worries about something else. Worries about Covid-19 have crowded out worries about climate change, whilst crowding in worries about the economy, given the potential economic impact of the pandemic.
Changing social norms can also get people to act. We can either strengthen desirable norms or weaken undesirable norms to change public support for a given policy. Covid-19 shows that dread can quickly get people to change their behaviour in drastic ways. The consequences of not acting make the costs of action, for example the economic impacts, a secondary concern. It also illustrates the importance of early action when the consequences of action are delayed – therefore, expert intervention is needed to make sure the current crisis does not completely overshadow climate change. However, on the bright side, the pandemic could engender greater trust in science-driven policy and government intervention.
Translating into action
Mr Green began by refuting the argument that climate change cannot be solved through small actions; a small change in behaviour taken up by many people can have a large cumulative impact. However, this change must be well-designed to capitalise on people’s limited attention and prevent spill-overs where other bad actions can be justified.
One way to do this is by making fighting climate change feel like a problem we can solve – always focusing on the big picture makes it feel distant and untouchable. We should also account for confirmation bias by meeting people where they are, rather than trying to actively change their minds; adopting greener behaviour is not a politically polarised issue, unlike climate change itself.
Empirical research can also allow us to design effective behavioural changes. Firstly, we should encourage people to anticipate their future pride in their actions, not their shame about inaction. We should also point out the future trajectory of green action where possible. Furthermore, people will be more likely to follow the herd than act alone.
Will the Covid-19 response make it easier to change the status quo in the future?
What is the role of political leadership in encouraging behavioural change?
What is the role of economic incentives to change behaviour?
How can we make people care about those most affected by climate change when they are the furthest away, in both time and space?
What are the best metrics to communicate the effects of climate changes?
What is the link between health and green behaviour?
What are the key tipping points for behavioural change?
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.