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Why the climate crisis is a care crisis – and how we can avert it

July 17, 2023

This article is part of openDemocracy’s new series on the care crisis that explores the roots of the problem and inspiring alternatives.

The UK’s care crisis is just one facet of a much bigger problem.

Our economic systems are designed very well to enable the accumulation of wealth for the already affluent. They are not adept at protecting and promoting the right to live a dignified life.

The global expression of this systemic failure is most evident in the climate crisis. Corporations have known, for decades, that fossil fuels are contributing to warming. They have consistently failed to act in accordance with warnings and continue to actively promote misinformation. States also continue to defer action, and instead subsidise fossil fuel companies.

While many families are, rightly, concerned about the rising cost of living and their access to health and social care, the consequences of climate change are also profound. Nearly half the world’s population is already vulnerable to climate change impacts. Damaging coastal erosion in Wales, droughts in the Horn of Africa, storms in the Pacific, wildfires in the US and Australia, floods from England to Pakistan, rising temperatures and seas, toxic air and the spread of disease threaten us all.

Climate change is taking away our capacity to breathe, eat, drink, and live safely. Homes, schools, healthcare facilities and businesses are being torn apart, crops are failing, hunger and displacement is spreading. Women travel further and further to access clean water. In parts of Bangladesh, where crops fail as salty water encroaches on land, men move to find work in the sweatshops that line the cities. Women are forced to try and maintain subsistence farming in harsh conditions, while continuing their unpaid care labour. When homes suddenly fall into riverbanks, children have been left orphaned or with permanent disabilities.

Care and climate are interlinked. Expanding reliance on fossil fuels contains the signature of a system that prioritises profits for the perpetrators of planetary distress, over ensuring our collective well-being. These multiple crises reveal the need to rethink how we got here and build new ways of working, caring and being, to ensure we can all thrive.

Our current global economic inequities are rooted in multiple injustices, not least the way that our care systems rely on unpaid labour, predominantly by women. If we (unfairly) valued unpaid care work at a minimum wage level, its contribution to the global economy would be at least $10.8tn a year, more than three times the size of the global tech industry.

At the same time, neocolonial trade and investment agreements continue to extract wealth and resources from the Global South. This extraction sits upon violent colonial plunder, slavery, and exploitation. Territories were taken, and forests and mangroves destroyed to make way for quarries, plantations, docks and railways, built to funnel wealth. While tens of millions of people died, and others were enslaved or forced into ruthless work, wealth accumulated among a small bubble of elites in Europe and funded industrialisation.

Early industrialisers are responsible for around 90% of excess emissions, while the rest of the world hosts approximately 85% of humanity. Wealth extraction and exploitation in the Global South has rendered many communities exposed to climate impacts made inevitable by the emissions they did little to cause.

Yet at the very time that infrastructures of care should be developed further, other pressures are mounting. Some countries allocate more to repaying loans than to healthcare, education and environmental or social protection measures. Trade and investment agreements prioritise the profits of mining companies and pharmaceuticals over the needs of people. British aid funds have privatised education abroad, rather than investing in accessible training that can train fossil fuel workers and others in the skills necessary for a just transition.

Mainstream climate solutions repeat the patterns of exploitation and extraction that got us into this mess. Biofuel and natural gas projects have been described as “worse than the disease”, with allegations of land-grabs and deforestation increasing food and water insecurity and emissions across Latin America, South East Asia and Africa. Geothermal initiatives have displaced Indigenous peoples such as the Maasai in Kenya from their sacred territories. Carbon markets and carbon capture and storage plans distract from the imperative to phase out fossil fuels.

The climate crisis provides an existential limit to centuries of failing to centre care. Every increment of warming brings more damage: two billion more people will be subjected to food, water and heat stress, severe drought, and displacement at 2°C compared to 1.5°C.

But it’s still not too late. Centring energy for the provision of the services and activities that would sustain us all well – rather than the profits of a minority – will keep us on track to limit warming to the safest levels still attainable. We could democratise renewable energy generation. We could have a food system that nourishes all. We could build homes and transport systems that need much less energy and which can withstand increasingly strong storms, floods and wildfires. Displaced communities could be ensured dignified lives in new places – and of course, we’ll need to improve health and social care protections for all.

What these measures have in common is that they’re all about strengthening our capacity to care for one another. We urgently need them, to ensure we can cope well with the accelerating shocks and changes to come.

Teaser photo credit: Flooded villages and fields around a river in Bangladesh the day after the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone had struck the country.. By Staff Sergeant Val Gempis (USAF) – Image from the Defense Visual Information Center, ID number DFST9206136. Original image description here., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1701157

Harpreet Kaur Paul

Harpreet Kaur Paul is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick's Law School, her research focuses on climate justice for loss and damage.

Tags: building resilient economies, climate crisis, critiques of capitalism, social care