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Climate justice and the pandemic


Tōdai-ji temple in Nara on April 16, 2020
A photo shows quiet Tōdai-ji temple in Nara on April 16, 2020, amid an outbreak of the new coronavirus COVID-19. Japan's government declared a state of emergency to Tokyo and six prefectures of Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka for about one month on April 7th. Furthermore, the Japanese government decided to add 40 prefectures to the area of the emergency declaration and expand the target area to all over the country on April 16th. The period will be until May 6th. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked for refraining from going out to the extent possible. Yomiuri Shimbun / AP Images / picture alliance

The COVID-19 pandemic is the world’s top agenda item today, taking precedence over all other issues. UN Chief Antonio Guterres’s called on warring parties across the world to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus on the “true fight of our lives”. The fight against climate change, meanwhile, has also been put on the back burner, with the postponement of this year’s climate talks in the interest of public health.

Tetet Lauron is based in the Philippines, where she works as an advisor for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s International Politics Unit.

Nadja Charaby is Head of the RLS International Politics and North America Unit and a senior advisor for Climate Policy at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin.

The 2020 UN climate summit would have been important momentum insofar as agreements outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Deal were concerned. 2020 was supposed to be the year for review and enhancement of countries’ pledges and progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making sure resources were there to assist countries worst hit by climate impacts, following the very lacklustre results of the 25th Conference of Parties (COP 25) in Madrid where governments failed to take meaningful actions to avert the worst impacts of the “climate emergency”. It is bad enough that a quarter-century of high-level meetings still saw governments forever locked in endless negotiations that almost always ended with “solutions” resulting in the further breakdown of the earth’s natural systems—more markets, more extraction of the world’s resources, more production, more economic growth.

This could get worse, for while the public’s attention is on the pandemic, corporate interests are moving in quickly with their planned expansion and extraction projects such as in the case of the Keystone XL pipelines that traverse indigenous territories and mining giant Oceana Gold operations; or a possible government bail-out from the effects of the pandemic for coal-fired power plants and the global airline industry, as well as successfully lobbying for weakened public health and environmental enforcement. This is true not only for poorer countries or the perennial “climate party pooper”, the US, but also for the attempts of German car industry lobbyists to play off job security concerns against climate legislation for the sake of their companies’ revenues.

It is during these times of crisis and uncertainty that people, in search of silver linings, tend to bring out many thoughts ranging from what lessons may be observed (because we never really do learn lessons, do we?) from the coronavirus pandemic, to what a post-COVID-19 future will be like for people and planet. 

The Good: Scaled-Up International Political Mobilization Is Possible!

Perhaps one of the more lasting lessons that the coronavirus imparts concerns the importance of taking rapid action. COVID-19 has shown that if action is delayed until the impacts are seen, it may be too big and too late to stop. While made public in January, it was not until March that the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic. Some government leaders, either in a brazen display of arrogance or a reflection of modern society’s dislike for preparedness, downplayed the significant threats the virus brings.

Global response measures saw a belated adherence to the precautionary principle, which states that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, and that it is better to err on the side of caution. This principle gives a premium to taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty and has been an underlying rationale for an increasing number of international treaties, including the UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Maastricht Treaty (which led to the establishment of the European Union).  

International responses to the virus show that swift and massive political action in the face of an emergency is possible. Within a span of 30 days, what seemed unthinkable—closing borders, airports, and workplaces, and how millions are now being forced to “shelter in place” to limit the spread of the virus—was realized. There are, however, numerous debates on whether a global lockdown enforced by the police and military without adequate emergency health and relief measures for the most vulnerable segments of population is the most effective and humane approach to addressing the contagion.

In contrast, the world was witness to how, just last year, millions of young people from the Global South and North took to the streets to call out governments’ inaction on the climate emergency. There were big speeches that had government leaders congratulating the youth for speaking out, and bold pronouncements of ensuring the health of the planet for generations to come. But it was essentially a “business-as-usual” situation, with unabated rises in global temperatures, the continued burning of fossil fuels, and the destruction of forests. Worse yet, there was continued peddling of false solutions to climate change like bioengineering, nuclear power, the roll-out of natural gas as a “transition” fuel to replace coal, carbon capture and storage, or failed carbon markets and offsets, and thinking that promoting 100-percent renewable energy systems (without democratizing ownership and access to these) could save the climate from the “point of no return” .

The Bad: It’s Not Science Fiction Anymore

It is important to debunk the view of the coronavirus as a “natural disaster”. Scientists have long warned about how the destruction of biodiversity creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases. The pandemic reminds us that our current food system is unsafe, unjust, and unsustainable because it involves massive ecosystem disruption that causes pandemics and new pathogens. The environmental damages—that is, depletion of soil nutrients, excessive chemicals and pesticide use, and many other unsustainable practices—due to massive clearing of forest lands for monocrop plantations far outweigh the “benefits” it brings to corporate agriculture, and even less so for (small-scale) farmers and farm workers.

Scientists have also long warned that climate change will impact not just our environment but also our health by increasing rates of infectious diseases. Twenty-eight previously undiscovered virus groups have been recently identified in a melting glacier. In recent years, researchers have pulled samples of smallpox, Spanish flu, bubonic plague, and even anthrax from thawing permafrost. These harmful pathogens could make their way into streams, rivers, and waterways as the ice caps melt, wreaking havoc on our immune systems that have no natural resistance to these ancient diseases.

The COVID-19 outbreak is an indication that this future may now be our reality—perhaps the most compelling reason why the world has to get its act together and take action against human-induced climate change with even more sense of resolve. Already, losses and damage from extreme weather conditions are causing untold misery especially for the poor in terms of lives, livelihoods, and cultural practices affected.  According to a Germanwatch report, between 1998 and 2017 more than 500,000 people died as a direct result of more than 11,500 extreme weather events, and losses amounted to around 3.47 trillion US dollars. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre report registers 17.2 million new displacements for 2018 alone due to weather-related disasters.Given the pandemic, this is a potentially explosive public health situation for climate migrants who usually flee to evacuation centres or other places of safety.

The Ugly: Collateral Benefits for the Environment?

While it is true that the response to the virus has led to considerable reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution worldwide, perceived “collateral benefits” to the environment or for addressing climate change are warped.

More than one million are infected and more than 100,000 have already died from. The inevitability of a deep global recession looms, with economic activities in a highly globalized world abruptly paused and financial markets collapsing. Peoples’ livelihoods are on the line and civic and political rights severely threatened, with police and military-enforced lockdowns everywhere.

Gloom-and-doom scenarios are fertile ground to propagate misinformation, some well-intentioned, some less so. These include reports and reposts that dolphins and swans have returned to Venice’s canals, or that of an orangutan learning to wash its hands due to the virus (both eventually turned out to be fake). Some have gone as far to opine that COVID-19 is Mother Nature’s vengeance, viewed as a “detox” that has altered human behaviour in a remarkably short time.

Beneath these seemingly “harmless” attempts at looking for silver linings is the danger of an upsurge of “eco-fascism”, which believes that the only way to preserve life on Earth is to dramatically—forcefully, if necessary—reduce the human population. It is disturbing at many levels, to say the least, to come to a conclusion that the pandemic is the Earth’s vaccine against the destruction that humans have brought about on the planet.

COVID-19 magnifies inequalities that the history of colonialisms and continuing legacy of neo-liberal exploitation so deeply entrenched in societies. This is why, for the poor and marginalized who are already on the frontlines of the climate crisis, the pandemic is the “perfect storm“. They are the people vulnerable to flooding, drought, typhoons, and who do not have much to live on in these times of “social distancing” and community lockdowns, because they have mouths to feed and bills to pay—or as in the situation of climate migrants and refugees, practically have no rights and nowhere else to go . The multiple vulnerabilities of poverty, homelessness, lack of social protection, exclusion and other manifestations of inequality plus exposure to the virus are a fatal combination.

Climate Justice Is Key to “Recovering Better”

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the climate crisis into sharp focus. In many ways, this public health crisis is a preview of what the future holds if the world continues to ignore the urgency of addressing the breakdown in the earth’s natural systems. “Flattening the curve” or  slowing the spread of the disease can be likened to current climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, which are temporary stop-gap measures inadequate to effectively address the root causes of vulnerability and unpreparedness.

There is cautious optimism that the pandemic will bring out the best in everyone, world leaders in particular, and that government action and revitalized international cooperation will offer a way forward to arrest climate change. But there are also well-founded fears that desperate attempts to breathe new life into a badly beaten global economy will further shove the climate agenda under the rug.

According to renowned author and environmentalist Naomi Klein, history is a chronicle of  “shocks”—the shocks of wars, natural disasters, and economic crises—and their aftermath characterized by “disaster capitalism”, namely calculated, free-market “solutions” to crises that exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities. With the world’s attention focused on surviving the pandemic, this could be a moment where the most regressive policies, programmes, and conditionalities could be adopted and implemented under the guise of economic stimulus packages. Emergency declarations that heighten suppression of human rights but actually target critical voices may also continue under the pretext of protecting public health.

For the world to “recover better”, the twin catastrophes of COVID-19 and runaway climate change must be decisively addressed with profound transformations. A “we’re back in business” approach under the same system will not work. It never has, and it never will.

Capitalism’s twisted logic brings about multiple contradictions that have been exposed by both the pandemic and the climate crisis: socialized production but privatized gains; the primacy of growth-fixated systems of extraction, production, distribution and consumption that sacrifice the needs of the many and the well-being of the planet to the interests of a few; not to mention the unequal and exploitative economic and social structures that commodify nature and deeply embed inequalities between and among countries, class, race, caste, and between different genders. The test is how to turn the shock of the pandemic into the watershed moment that will put capitalism in the dustbin of history.

The civil society-initiated Principles for a #JustRecovery provide a useful framework that governments and other development actors may take guidance from: (a) put people’s health first, no exceptions; (b) provide economic relief directly to the people; (c) help our workers and communities, not corporate executives; (d) create resilience for future crises; and (e) build solidarity and community across borders—do not empower authoritarians.

Social movements and civil society have long rallied for systemic changes to solve the climate crisis, and the need for modes of production and consumption practices to be compatible with the limits of the planet and aimed at meeting people’s needs rather than the relentless pursuit of profit. This would entail progressive shifts in the world’s economic, social, and political architecture away from fossil fuels and other harmful and extractive industries, and reorienting these towards systems that embody solidarity, regeneration, and equity. A number of initiatives and proposals articulate how such transitions to achieve climate justice may happen. They go by labels like Just Transitions, Feminist Green New Deal, Buen Vivir (Living Well), and many others that offer more than just a holistic critique of why the current dominant economic system does not work for people and planet. They also offer the rationale and process for the comprehensive overhaul of an unjust and broken system and the establishment of a new order.

The pandemic is said to have ushered in the end of the “normal”, but what is normal in a world saddled by crisis upon crisis? The end of “normal” is an opportunity and an invitation to make another world possible.