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 Olivia Oldham
As the world grinds to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's easy to think that this has to be a good thing for the climate. And certainly, there are plenty of positive consequences of the virus for the environment.
There's the dramatic impact that this is having on the air-travel industry (a 4.3% decline in global air travel in February), and travel more generally as people around the world are encouraged (or required by law) to stay home. Plus, the strong coupling of economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions means that a global slow-down of the economy could lead to a fall in emissions. In China, the lockdown over recent weeks has led to a 25% reduction in energy use and emissions over two weeks compared to previous years.
But unfortunately the news isn't all positive. The disruptions caused by the virus aren't discriminating based on the climate. So while the tumbling price of oil (which has fallen by about 25% this month, the largest drop in nearly 30 years!) might mean the end for a number of smaller oil companies, even this might have negative environmental consequences, if the bankrupted companies walk away from their oil wells, leaving them unplugged and leaking methane, all while relying on the state to pay for clean-up.
And while short-term declines in emissions are positive, they won't mean much for the climate unless they lead to broader, long-term changes to the way society operates. Could remote working, teleconferences and avoiding air travel become the new normal?
A number of negative climate-related impacts are or may come about as a result of coronavirus and it’s widespread, long-lasting impacts on global society.
The market for renewables
The falling share-market and crashing global economy are not only affecting GHG-intensive industries, they are also impacting the market for renewables. Factories in China which produce critical components of wind turbines and solar panels have shut down production due to the virus. A new report issued Friday 13 March dialled back its prediction for the growth of global solar energy capacity this year from 121-152 gigawatts to only 108-143 gigawatts, which (if it plays out) will be the first dip in solar capacity additions globally since the 1980s.
Interfering with research
Coronavirus is interfering with critical climate research. To give just one example, three NASA science campaigns which were meant to take place in the United States this spring have had to reschedule their data collection flights until later in the year, or in one case possibly for several years. These missions were meant to have collected data related to climate, and the dynamics and impacts of climate change.
Delaying legislation and regulation
In the United States, a climate action framework, which a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives had been working on for a year, was due to be released at the end of March. Instead, the release will be pushed back due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the German government used a meeting which had been intended to deal with issues around renewable energy in the country to discuss the COVID-19 outbreak instead. There is also growing concern that COP26 in Glasgow will be derailed by the outbreak.
Before we start rejoicing at the fall in emissions due to the COVID-related economic slow-down, and the shut-down of high-emitting industries, we should remember that these processes have a huge impact on peoples' lives. As Gernot Wagner, a clinical associate professor at the Department of Environmental Studies at New York University points out, the drop in emissions in China are coming about because of a situation in which people are dying. And while the end of fossil fuel extraction is our goal, do we really want that to happen in a way that means hundreds of thousands of workers in the fossil fuel industry (and industries totally reliant upon fossil fuels, such as the airline industry) are left unemployed, with no social or economic support, and no alternative employment?
Should we be celebrating and encouraging an image of a net-zero carbon world that more or less requires the widespread disruption of society through lock-downs, death, loss of livelihoods, exacerbation of food insecurity and inequality, and protracted separations from loved ones? Should we promote a path to net-zero which comes at the expense of all those who are most vulnerable in our societies—the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, those in economically precarious situations, the homeless? It seems counterproductive to give those individuals and institutions who are already unwilling to make large-scale social and economic changes to address climate change yet another reason to drag their feet.
While there might be some lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic about how quickly governments really can respond to a crisis when they recognise it as one, what this situation really demonstrates is the importance of dealing with climate change in a way which fundamentally promotes social justice and the protection of vulnerable members of society.
Since Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement there have been tears, fears and protests. Whether a calculated decision carefully engineered to garner him further support or a badly understood statement made as a show to the rest of the world that his leadership could- and would- shake things up, it now remains as an action of the past, something that appears irreversible. So what really is the impact of his decision, and how committed is the rest of the US to upholding Trump’s anti-climate stance?
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