The COP26 climate summit, scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November, was billed as a crucial platform in the international fight-back against global warming. Now postponed until next spring, COVID-19 has rearranged the world’s inter-governmental priorities for 2020, but Ashish Ghadiali and Nathan Thanki argue that, rather than seeing this global pandemic as in any way displacing the primacy of the climate agenda, COVID-19 and climate breakdown need to be grasped now as interconnected crises that call for a common set of solutions.
COVID-19 and climate breakdown are interconnected crises. They are the unintended consequences of a 500-year history of territorial expansion, conquest, resource extraction and industrial growth as a by-word for progress that has seen carbon pumped into the earth’s atmosphere at a rate that carbon sinks, compromised by industrial-scale deforestation, can’t contain.
Driven by mining interests and global consumer demand, deforestation has in turn put pressure on the world’s most fragile ecosystems, so that we find ourselves in the midst of an extreme biodiversity crisis where over a million species of plants, insects and other animals are on the brink of extinction, while other species, stressed by displacement, are increasingly brought into contact with expanding zones of human habitation and agriculture.
Since the 1960s, this encroachment on wild space has led to an increased movement of pathogens from animal hosts, previously contained within wild ecosystems, into the human population, and every pandemic-threatening new virus that we have seen emerge in recent decades — avian flu, SARS, MERS, Zika and Ebola — has developed in this way. Coronavirus, thought to have possibly transferred to humans through bats or civet cats, is simply the latest exponent of this rising global trend.
Accordingly, COVID-19 can in no way be read as a black swan event. We’d do better to understand it, instead, as a kind of initiation into a new era of crisis, intrinsically connected to the extractivist models of growth that dominate our global economy and the ecological imbalances that they bring.
In the face of this, only a transformative planetary vision, one that addresses the root causes of that imbalance, can serve to move us decisively through this moment of crisis and emergency, though what will become increasingly clear to us all as this particular crisis unfolds is that there is no path to ecological restoration that doesn’t start by putting the political and economic goals of social justice front and centre…
THE GREATER CRISIS AHEAD
COVID-19 looks set to push the world’s economy into its worst depression since the 1930s and this disruption to the economic system only serves to deepen economic inequalities, hitting hardest the people who are already the most vulnerable, the most marginalised and the least empowered — whether that’s within nation states or between them.
Inequality, in turn, factors into the question of who has the capacity and the resilience to withstand the pandemic’s worst impacts. Public health infrastructure, as well as basic economic indicators like access to housing, water and sanitation facilities become vital elements of a people’s capacity to withstand new infectious disease.
We haven’t yet fully seen what coronavirus will do as it moves through the Global South but early indicators are alarming.
India, busy exporting PPE and respiratory equipment to the Global North until as late as March 22nd, has witnessed the mass exodus of migrant workers, driven within days of the lockdown by hunger and homelessness from the megacities into the country’s rural pockets, more or less guaranteeing the ongoing transmission of the virus through this, the second most populous nation on the planet.
Gaza, the world’s most densely populated city and under blockade for 13 years as part of its 53-year occupation by Israel, recorded its first cases of COVID-19 on the 22nd March, to which Israel has responded by providing 200 testing kits and no additional ventilators.
As things stand, this city, with a population of 2 million inhabitants — subject to a lockdown within a lockdown — has 60 ventilators and 70 intensive care unit beds with which to manage a situation where there are currently 1200 people in quarantine and 12 confirmed cases.
The vulnerability of public health systems across the Global South presents a major point of concern.
Peru, for example, has just over 10 intensive care beds for every million of its residents, compared with nearly 350 beds for every million residents in the USA, while Uganda, for every million of its residents, has only a single intensive care unit bed to commit to a medical emergency, should one develop.
The political vulnerability of the global poor and dispossessed remains a significant concern as well, both in terms of human rights and public health. In South Africa, for example, shack-dwellers are being violently and illegally evicted from their homes at a time when lives depend on maintaining shelter, while in Brazil’s Amazonian states of Para and Amazonas, miners flout the lockdown with impunity, putting indigenous communities at risk of infection.
These are the same communities, in the same regions across the Global South, that already exist on the frontlines of climate breakdown, bearing the pressures and precarities of life that come with such ecological instability.
Already, we are a world that has exceeded 1 degree of global warming where killer floods, hurricanes and melting glaciers, severe droughts that in 2019 have seen Chennai run out of water and the Victoria Falls run dry, are all signs of our ecological dysfunction. These are also the same conditions that drive food scarcity, regional conflict, forced migration, overcrowding, gender-based violence and a crisis of access to sanitation.
These are the conditions in which new diseases like COVID-19 simply thrive.
At the present rate of carbon emissions, the IPCC [intergovernmental panel on climate change] has forecast that we’re likely to breach 1.5 degrees of global warming well before 2030. The implications for human society, if that happens, are dire.
At 1.5c warming, coral reefs will decline by 70–90%, depriving half a billion people of their livelihoods and many more of a vital source of food. At this level of warming, 1 person in 7 around the world will experience a debilitating heatwave every 1 year out of 5. By the end of the century, much of South Asia could be no longer fit for human habitation.
We’re looking now at the prospect, unless things change rapidly, of a decade ahead of crop failures across West Africa, South-East Asia, Central America and northern South America, of water shortfalls of up to 10% across the Mediterranean region, heavy rainfall threatening major cities including Mumbai, Shanghai and Bangkok with extreme floods, disruption to the global food supply chain and mass displacement on an unprecedented scale, creating an ongoing context of scarcity and instability.
A breach of 1.5c warming also threatens increased biodiversity loss among plants, insects and vertebrates, exacerbating the same ecological pressures that puts human society in contact with new diseases like COVID-19 in the first place.
Should we hit 2c of global warming, as we remain on track to do, every one of these indicators will grow more severe. It’s the prospect of a world where the coral reefs are all gone, where that 1 in 5-year heatwave affects 1 in 3 of the world’s population, where water shortfalls in the Mediterranean begin to approach 20% and species loss potentially doubles.
There’s a kind of perfect storm brewing in this combined threat of escalating climate breakdown, rising inequality and emergent infectious disease that has the potential to make this unprecedented global lockdown of 2020 less a moment of exception than a rehearsal for an era of multiple shocks to the system that are coming down the line.
THE DELUSION OF BUSINESS-AS-USUAL
In response to the climate crisis, it has long been the culture of both governments and civil society organisations in the well-resourced countries of the Global North to underplay the severity of the situation we face and play for time.
This is conceivable only because the impacts and disruptions of a world at 1c are felt first and foremost in the Global South — partly a consequence of higher temperatures themselves that drive processes like desertification and forest fires in tropical regions, but more significantly in reflection of the lack of infrastructure and the imbalance of resources — an outcome of our shared colonial history — that developing economies in the Global South face when attempting to manage the repercussions of successive systemic shocks.
When, for example, a hurricane hits Dominica, a country whose economy is built on the precarious monoculture of banana exports — a legacy of a history of slavery and empire — it has the potential to wipe out more than 200% of the nation’s GDP. This was the impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017.
When a similar weather event hits New York City, by contrast, as Hurricane Sandy did 5 years earlier, as costly as it is in the short term, the infrastructure and the resources are there to get things running back to normal within a matter of only weeks.
Powerful economies in the Global North have until now been largely able to shield themselves and their supply chains from the most destabilising impacts of climate change, prioritising strategies of business-as-usual and projecting the dystopian conditions of systemic failure, first onto people in faraway countries and, in as far as it concerns life within their own national borders, both into the margins of society and far into the future.
In November last year, for example, the most extreme case in point, US President Donald Trump formally moved to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, citing an “unfair economic burden on American workers, businesses and taxpayers”, despite the agreements having been tailored to US interests in the first place and despite the overwhelming fact of the US being the world’s largest historic emitter of carbon dioxide into our planet’s atmosphere.
In January of this year, fresh from a resounding electoral triumph, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, opened the UK-Africa trade summit by invoking the urgency of climate action before presiding over a deal that saw massive UK investment pledged to African oil and gas exploration, aviation expansion and gold mining — all major contributors to ongoing global warming and ecological degradation.
The UK government’s key strategy, announced in February of this year for its presidency of COP26, is to organise global action around the goal of achieving “Net Zero” carbon emissions by 2050.
This is a vision that has been supported by major industrial players including BP and Sustainable Aviation, but the reality of the 2050 target is that globally, we would be more or less certain to breach 1.5c warming by 2030 and find ourselves on course for warming of 2 degrees by 2050 if not before and 3 degrees by the end of the century.
Indeed, the whole schema of “Net Zero” serves largely as a vehicle for exacerbating existing inequalities and ongoing ecological destruction. Major polluters are delivered a carte blanche to go on polluting in the name of economic productivity while off-setting mechanisms are directed towards poorer countries in the Global South where productive development is put on hold, reinforcing an ongoing dependency on the industrial power of the Global North.
Every way you look at it, this is a strategic pathway to catastrophe: one by which our politicians pitch us a reassuring vision of business-as-usual whilst sending us unrestrained towards a perilous reality of rising temperatures, ongoing environmental destruction and greater inequality, all of which combined point us towards a future (of which the current crisis is a taster) of complete systemic failure.
We’ve seen precisely the same patterns of crisis mismanagement and failed governance, now in a microcosm, in the responses of industrial powers in the Global North to the present coronavirus pandemic.
Clear case-studies indicating the totalising impacts of the virus, first in China then in Italy, were largely ignored in countries including Britain and America where preparations of the appropriate equipment — PPE for medical practitioners, stockpiling of ventilators — were not made.
Early containment strategies such as testing, contact-tracing and quarantine that were pursued with proven success in countries on the front-line of the pandemic including China, South Korea and Singapore were strangely “othered” and rejected by British and American politicians and media commentators as reflecting the authoritarian tendencies of East Asian governments.
Meanwhile, leaders like Trump and Johnson continued to downplay the virus. Trump famously “othered”, not just the Chinese response to the virus, but the virus itself, dubbing it “the Chinese virus” whilst pursuing, like Johnson, a national policy of “mitigation” — effectively, business-as-usual again while the virus was allowed to keep moving through and beyond these national populations.
By the time both British and American governments had woken up to the real-world implications of their laissez-faire approach — a projected quarter of a million deaths in the UK, and more than two million deaths in the USA — the virus was already on the move, leaving no option but to pursue the economically devastating policies of suppression while infection rates and daily death tolls grew exponentially.
Very quickly, the USA has surpassed the total number of COVID-19 related deaths experienced in China. The state of New York alone has recorded more cases of coronavirus than the whole of Italy put together. The knock-on economic impacts of aggressive but ultimately necessary suppression strategies in the power centres of global capitalism are ongoing.
The governments of these two countries, ideologically opposed to excessive state spending in principle, have been compelled to commit to unprecedented bailout packages of $2.2 trillion in the USA and £350 billion in the UK simply to plug the economic hole that the forced strategy of suppression has created.
This, the fate of powerful nations in the Global North with the resources, for the time being, to plug the hole.
Elsewhere, the impacts of this disruption to the global economic system, even before the arrival of the virus itself, have been even harder.
Oil exporters in Africa and Latin America have seen the price of Brent Crude drop by more than half, plunging national budgets into deficit for which there are no obvious bailout options to be found.
Emerging market assets have been dumped on a scale never seen before. Tourism has collapsed and cancelled flights mean that many farmers in the Global South are unable to shift their produce into European markets at all.
That short-term commitment to the vision of business-as-usual, in the face of impending ecological disaster, has in fact resulted in the total disruption of the world’s economy.
There’s a lot to be said for the line that any governmental approach would have been challenged by a crisis of this nature and scale, but we also have clear indicators already of what resilience looks like in the face of a global crisis such as the one we currently face.
Cuba’s public health infrastructure, for example, supported community workers to identify vulnerable citizens and support their isolation early on, averting the overwhelming pressure on hospitals, staff and equipment that has characterised situations in either northern Italy or New York.
Iceland’s prolific approach to testing has enabled its government to keep the economy moving and keep the rate of infection down at the same time. The successful implementation of lockdown by interventionist states like China and South Korea we’ve already alluded to. .
In these cases, the ability to respond has been supported by a long-standing commitment to investment in reliable public infrastructure — healthcare and the universal provision for basic human needs like housing, energy, sanitation, water and food.
These are the structures that make a lockdown even viable in the first place. Where such structures have either been compromised by underinvestment or don’t exist at all, a collective vulnerability has been glaringly exposed.
For London’s 170,000 homeless people, for example, a solution of only 300 temporary accommodation apartments could be found in this, the 5th wealthiest city in the world, creating an ongoing obstacle to containment of the virus.
More than 25 million people, globally, currently live in refugee camps where conditions — population density, sanitation and access to healthcare — are such that it’s been predicted, where contact with the virus is established, infection rates could go as high as 90%.
A window on human history is opening up right now that puts into question the wisdom of an approach to the international order that, over the past 40 years, under the influence predominantly of Britain and America, has seen global institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank impose neoliberal, market-based reforms on countries around the world, in pursuit of economic growth but at the expense of stable public infrastructure and basic social provision.
How much more resilient to this global pandemic would we be now if during this span of a generation, the same level of finance, investment and political energy that, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, has gone into structural adjustment programmes, the stripping back of welfare states and the expansion of extractive industries, had gone instead into the global provision of universal health-care, safe homes, fresh-water supply, clean energy and food security for all?
We can’t change the past, but we can wake up now to self-evident truths and work to ensure that our children inherit a world more safe and more sane than the one we must reckon with now.
This is the same paradigm shift in thinking, and ultimately the same set of solutions — commitment to the universal provision of energy, housing, healthcare, sanitation, clean water and food — that could change our fate in the 21st century.
These basic solutions are the fundamentals of a framework for climate justice that, prioritising the essential needs of people in the Global South above the ongoing enrichment of exploitative institutions in the Global North, will also strengthen our collective resilience in the face of climate breakdown’s anticipated shocks.
In opposition to this vision, the path to recovery from this immediate crisis will present a great temptation to return to business-as-usual, as quickly as possible and by any means necessary, to protect jobs and create new ones, and already, major polluters are lobbying governments around the world to roll back environmental protections as a way of supporting the economy now, and once lockdown has been lifted.
In the US, for example, the Environment Protection Agency has already announced a sweeping relaxation of the requirement for power plants and factories to report air and water pollution, while in the EU, car industries are calling for a delay to climate targets and, worldwide, the aviation industry is lobbying governments for a generous package of tax breaks and subsidies that would support international airlines to get back on their feet once freedom of movement is restored.
As recovery takes shape, we’ll do well to keep in focus the bigger picture: that economic productivity, if it increases global warming, will simply drive us faster towards the repeated breakdown of our economic system.
Those jobs might offer a short-term fix, but no pathway to long-term security if they continue to pump carbon dioxide into the planet’s atmosphere at present, or even increased rates of emission.
The real opportunity we have now, by contrast, as we emerge from this initiatory experience of systems failure, is to foster a new international consensus around the rapid reduction of carbon emissions, not in the future, by 2050, but now, so that we do not breach 1.5c global warming and incur the debilitating impacts — economic as much as environmental — that will ensue from that breach.
This is a pathway that will call for leadership from the Global North but that the industrial powers of the Global North cannot walk alone without widespread international participation.
The instant drop in air pollution levels that has come with this unprecedented pausing of the global economy has given us a bizarre insight into how quickly ecological restoration could begin to unfold through a concerted and unified global effort, but also how devastating the economic impacts of disruption are for the world’s most vulnerable, most marginalised and least empowered, above all those living on the frontlines of climate breakdown in the Global South.
A collective commitment to the universal provision of energy, housing, healthcare, sanitation, water and food is also a vision that can support the broadest participation in our global transition to a state of ecological stability.
To foster consensus around such a transformative, planetary vision is the challenge of leadership that we have in front of us now. It’s the great Bretton Woods opportunity for a new generation.
The call for collective financing and development of a global public infrastructure can now replace that exhausted vehicle of “Net Zero” targets whereby nation-states trade one iteration of impending doom for another in the name of “business as usual” — an impossible dream.
COP26, when it happens, will now bring world leaders and civil society organisations together to address the climate crisis for the first time in the wake of this great, unprecedented shock to the global economic system. It will provide an extraordinary opportunity from which to galvanise this shift towards a new paradigm — the great, century-defining task of collectively reimagining our future and our world.
Teaser photo credit: Silvision (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode)