Climate Justice and Inequality in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the Director of the Centre for Climate Justice I recently hosted an online discussion on this critical topic between Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, and Kumi Naidoo, former Secretary General of Amnesty International. With 700 participants from across the world, and a flood of comments and questions, there was plenty to discuss from financing climate action, the racial and gender injustices of climate change, the direction of environmental activism, political pressure in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, and much more. Below, we present a summary of what ended up being a deeply insightful and challenging conversation between the two thought leaders.

The link between climate change and Covid-19 has yet to come to the fore of public debate. However, a link exists as extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, disproportionately affect the poor and the marginalised as they are coping with the pandemic. With 2020 predicted to be one of five hottest years on record, there is a concern this deadly interplay between climate change and the pandemic will lead to further social inequalities.

Mary began the conservation by setting the scene with her view on the five layers of climate injustice:

  1. Climate change disproportionately affects the poorest communities and countries, despite their limited contribution, especially Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, representing both a climate and racial injustice.
  2. There is a gender injustice as women have less rights to redress the impacts of climate change, particularly surrounding the right to own and use land, despite their role in putting food on the table.
  3. Intergenerational injustice is another dimension as many of the burdens of climate change will impact our children and future generations.
  4. There is the injustice of the pathways to development; industrialised nations built their economies off the back of fossil fuels, but there is a need to honour the work force through just transitions. In addition, we must recognise developing countries require investment and skill training to develop with clean energy.
  5. And there is the injustice to nature herself with the loss of biodiversity and the extinction of a million species.

Mary and Kumi both stressed the need for transformational change beyond statements and declarations, or in Kumi’s words, “positive noise”. Mary described how it is common for society to view the world in abstraction, as people do not recognise inequalities in society as having relevance to the world around them, but noted that Covid-19 has been a mirror reflecting the inequalities embedded in our society which, in Mary’s words, it has made “starkly more evident”. This is especially visible in how the crisis has impacted Black, Brown and Indigenous people more – and this also reflects the reality of the impacts of climate change. The unequal impact of Covid-19 has humanised how we view these two issues. Mary outlined four valuable lessons to learned from this crisis; i) human behaviour is a powerful force as it is the only thing that is protecting us from the virus and will be vital to drive climate action, ii) gender representation in government matters as women-led government have been shown to do very well in a crisis, iii) listening to scientists is important and, just like politicians have listened to health experts, we need the same approach to climate change, and iv)  our capacity for compassion has grown as we have all suffered because of Covid-19, and this shared experience allows us to better empathise with those who have been affected more. Both will be vital for building back better after Covid-19 and moving us towards a circular economy.

Kumi went on to describe society’s cognitive dissonance (i.e. finding ways to avoid thinking too much about a hard subject) with regard to climate change and the associated social inequalities. He argued that much of the urgency to address these critical issues is only coming from young people via civil society and civil disobedience movements and that a large majority of civil society, governments and businesses are still not expressing this urgency. Kumi observed that we are at a critical juncture for humanity, where we must decide whether we continue to delude ourselves with incremental tinkering or “wake up and smell the coffee, and strive to be better, more equal and more sustainable.” Paraphrasing a quote from Martin Luther King, he said: “There are certain things in the world that are so unjust and immoral that good people should refuse to be well-adjusted to… I do not intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

In terms of embedding justice in climate action, Mary said we must listen to marginalized communities much more. She recalled stories from her “Mothers of Invention” podcast of a Palestinian woman saving traditional seeds for future generations and of an Indonesian woman fighting to protect her land in court. We need to listen to these voices, she argued, and embrace nature-based solutions rather than looking to increasingly nefarious offset schemes. Mary also described the need to reflect on what it means to be human and ensure a “social floor” for everyone, guaranteeing access to food, water, health, education, among others, as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She said children have done an incredible job reminding us about the need to change. Even now, she has seen a shift with the Red Cross and Red Crescent wanting to come out of the pandemic with the climate in mind. The issues of human rights, the environment, and the Black Lives Matter movement, Mary argued, should all be combining now.

Building on these insights, Kumi added that there is no culture of acknowledgement of injustice; there were no reparations for the evils of slavery and colonialism, nor an apology from the Queen or UK Parliament for these atrocities, yet the climate is arguably more dangerous. He mentioned the Rewrite History movement, which seeks to rectify how we understand history not just with regard to slavery, but also climate change and fossil fuel development.  Kumi pointedly noted that while Africa is the richest continent under the ground, it is the poorest one above the ground – precisely because of historical injustices. These historical injustices cannot be ignored in climate action, he argued, because they have relevance today. As an example, he mentioned child labour and other human rights abuses that come with extraction of minerals in the DRC for the production of electric vehicles sold largely in the West. If we are to embed justice in climate action, Kumi concluded, we need to take human exploitation out of the production system.

With COP26 in sight, much of debate surrounded the priorities for governments and financing climate action. Mary summarised that many of the barriers to progress on climate action, particularly in the context of climate finance, stem from a lack of willingness to really be transformative in the “rich countries.” She said there is a powerful fossil fuel lobby and we should make no mistake that it is engaged in a political power game. We need to make it impossible to invest in new fossil fuels, she argued. Yet, there is awareness of the changes needed. Here, Mary recalled a conversation with Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, where he argued for clear legal measures to transform the energy sector, and her work with The Elders to transform the banking sector.

Kumi expanded on the conversation by saying the call for a new ‘financial architecture’ is not new, as the term first appeared during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It was a concept pushed by US President Clinton and the World Bank, but once things normalised, the old ways returned. We do not have time for traditional change anymore, he argued, but must exert pressure on banks, and come up with accelerated change strategies. Rather than campaigning against thousands and thousands of companies, Kumi advocated for following the source of money – pension funds, central funds, insurance companies – as the facilitators of polluting industries will be fewer in number and can be more effectively influenced. He said we have more capacity to exert influence over how our money is used than we think and that we all need to deploy that capacity to induce change in the financial sector.

This was just the start of what was an insightful and reflective conversation. Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University, Pamela Gillies, concluded the event by drawing on the rich debate to say we need to be disruptors, push for a worldwide climate movement, and the redistribution of wealth and investment resources to tackle inequalities. She said we need to use our votes and our money wisely to tackle global greed and make sure we do not return to business-as-usual after Covid-19.

If you wish to watch the full debate, and hear Mary and Kumi’s responses to the many comments and questions, you can watch the webinar by clicking this link https://youtu.be/CvfSS2CCWoQ

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