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?
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