What will the world’s response to the COVID-19 crisis mean for the two defining and interconnected challenges of our age: climate change and global inequality?
By Simon Bradshaw
If there’s one thing we can be certain of in these strange times, it’s that the world that emerges from this crisis will be different from the one we remember.
Pandemics have altered the course of human history – shaping politics, changing built environments, and bringing about new behaviours. They force us to reflect on our relationship to our environment and to each other. They may encourage us to reconnect with what truly matters. But above all, they hold up a mirror to human societies – exposing inequality and injustice, as well as strengths and human ingenuity.
So, will we emerge as a fairer, saner and more sustainable world? Or having set things up for an even bigger catastrophe on the near horizon? Beyond the urgent tasks of protecting health and life, this may be the single most important question of our time.
What will the world’s response to COVID-19 mean for the two defining and interconnected challenges of our age: climate change and global inequality?
To answer this, we’re going to break it down into three different areas: a look at how COVID-19 is unleashing public spending and the potential for a clean energy future; a look at how our incredible problem-solving abilities and quick action could be applied to the climate crisis; and how COVID-19 magnifies inequality.
Could we recover with a clean energy future?
After committing billions in economic stimulus, many governments now face a long period of debt. It’s reasonable to assume that, barring a collective leap into a whole new mode of economics and monetary theory (and hey – who knows what’s possible these days!), we are unlikely to see a program of public spending on this scale for many years or even decades. In other words, this is likely a once-in-a-generation intervention in our economy. One that could lay the foundations for a fair, prosperous and clean-energy powered future, or double-down on the ailing carbon-intensive industries of the past.
When it comes to links between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, much of the discussion so far has focussed on an initial drop in climate pollution resulting from curbs on industrial output and human mobility during ‘lockdown’.
Interestingly, even the largest estimates of this sudden fall are short of the pace of reductions needed for a shot at limiting warming to 1.5°C and avoiding a climate catastrophe. (And it’s important to add, it has happened not through careful planning but because of a truly tragic turn of events. No one is celebrating.) Far more important is the question of what comes next, and whether the recovery from COVID-19 sees climate pollution sharply rebound, as it did after the global financial crisis of 2008-09 or continue to bend downwards.
The good news is that Australia is faced with many investment opportunities (reported by The Guardian) that could form the backbone of an economic recovery while transforming our energy systems, building resilience, providing new jobs and radically reducing Australia’s climate pollution.
These include investing in a modern electricity grid, energy storage, energy efficiency, and building the foundations for a world-leading renewable energy export industry and low-carbon manufacturing sector. Clean energy is far cheaper, and the climate action agenda far more advanced, than during the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. A climate-friendly stimulus package could also employ people to help restore land ravaged by the summer’s extreme bushfires.
“This is a chance for nations to plan better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and to shape 21st century economies and societies in ways that are healthy, clean, safe and more resilient.”
– Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum
The bad news is that we know the coal, oil and gas industries are using this crisis to further their own interests. The fossil fuel industry is already working to position itself as an essential part of nations’ efforts to rebuild. And from the US to Australia, it is not short of political allies.
Oxfam is one of many organizations around the world to have signed on to an open letter with a set of five principles for a just recovery from COVID-19.
We already knew that the action we must take to respond to the climate crisis also offers the promise of a more just equal and resilient world (read more in our ‘More Coal equals more poverty’ report). Now, as the Guardian reports, it may also offer a promising pathway to recovery from the economic turmoil of COVID-19.
As the open letter states, “Choices being made right now will shape our society for years, if not decades to come. …This is a time to be decisive in saving lives, and bold in charting a path to a genuinely healthier and more equitable future through a Just Recovery.”
Could we deal with the climate crisis as swiftly as the health crisis?
Responding to today’s great global challenges requires not only the renewal and reshaping of our economies, but equally a shift in the things that we value, our understanding of our place in the world, and our ability to work together to solve big problems.
There is little doubt that an experience of the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis will have a lasting impact on our view of what is possible and what truly matters to us.
With notable exceptions, by and large governments have responded decisively to this crisis. They have listened to the scientists and taken swift and bold measures. In turn, the public has been willing to make significant personal sacrifices to slow the spread of the disease.
Will the experience give us new confidence in our ability to deal with even bigger challenges, like the climate crisis, and a determination to do so? That may of course depend on how the next few months play out and how ultimately effective our response to COVID-19 proves to be. Similarly, will it renew our respect for science, and our belief in global cooperation? And lead us to value those who keep us safe, healthy, nourished and educated? We can hope. And if such attitudes stick, we will be on a road to a kinder, fairer and more sustainable world.
Forced to slow down and contemplate the world around us, and confronted by our inherent vulnerability, how might the crisis affect our understanding of human’s interdependence with the natural world and with each other, or open our eyes to the beauty around us? Could it foster some of the same ecological awareness and retreat from consumerism that we so desperately need if we’re to fully confront the climate crisis? Again, we can hope.
What world do we want beyond COVID-19?
At this point we must recognize that many of these reflections so far are the privilege of a comfortable Australian with a full belly. And a world apart from the horrors facing so many millions in developed and developing countries.
Some, invariably people with money, have believed that COVID-19 is a great equalizer – that we are all just as vulnerable and facing the same restrictions on our lives, whether we’re a movie star or a cleaner. The reality of course is that COVID-19 is further compounding existing inequalities, vulnerabilities and injustices. While a minority can ride it out in relative comfort, many others face extraordinary suffering and uncertainty. For some Australians, the need to stay home may mean a reprieve from the bustle of normal life. By contrast, when people across India entered a three-week lockdown, many faced an immediate struggle to feed themselves.
“Inequality is perhaps the most obvious flaw of the current economic model. Both cyclones and pandemics exacerbate the persistent inequalities at different level of our societies.”
-Dr Jale Samuwai, Climate Finance Advisor, Oxfam in the Pacific
At time of writing, it is unclear what path COVID-19 may take through countries beyond Europe, North America, East Asia and Australasia. Though we know that many challenging and potentially devastating months lie ahead for people living in poverty around the world. And even within a wealthy country like Australia, there are vast differences in the risks faced by different communities – linked to race, wealth, profession, geography – and their ability to access help and support if needed. By one estimate in Oxfam’s inequality research, the fallout from COVID-19 could push half a billion more people worldwide into poverty.
Earlier this month, Vanuatu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Tonga were hit by an immensely destructive tropical cyclone. For Vanuatu, Cyclone Harold came only a few years after Cyclone Pam – another category five storm and the most devastating in Vanuatu’s history. The climate crisis is increasing the destructive power of tropical cyclones like Harold. Relief efforts are inevitably being hampered by the measures needed to protect Vanuatu from COVID-19, showing how one crisis can compound another. And in the longer term, the economic impact of COVID-19 may make it more difficult for Pacific Island countries to adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis.
“Both crises – the virus and the climate – present the world with two choices: either we return to business as usual or use these opportunities to bring transformational change to our societies.”
– Jessica Moah, Pinoi Patterson and Thompson Mera; Ni-Vanuatu Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change
Last month, our Chief Executive Lyn Morgain reflected on how at times like this, those of us in a position of relative security learn just how precious life is and how lucky we are. Never has the inequality in our world been so apparent. Nor the need to build communities that are resilient to new pressures and in which no-one is left behind.
The big choices we make now as a global community, as countries, in our neighbourhoods, and as individuals, are the choices about what sort of world we want to live in beyond COVID-19. The stakes are enormous, the opportunities to build back better and kinder are there before us, and we may never face another moment like this. Let’s take the opportunity to transform our world for the better.
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