Building A Just And Green World Now: Addressing Inequality And The Climate Crisis

As we move toward winning the battle against Covid-19, we must confront two persistent existential threats that shape our world — global inequality and the climate crisis. These twinned challenges cannot be cured by any vaccine. In fact, existing global disparities will be exacerbated by the inability of billions to access vaccinations. It is imperative that we make sweeping changes now to build anew for a just and green world.

Covid-19 continues to reveal deep global inequities and is likely to push between 88 and 115 million people into extreme poverty. Lower income nations also have poorer health conditions and systems that are less prepared to deal with the pandemic. Wealthy nations in Europe and North America have secured most of the limited stocks of vaccines and positioned themselves for speedier economic recoveries. Developing countries — home to most of humanity — are at the back of the vaccine queue. Many low-income nations may need to wait until 2024 to fully vaccinate their people.

The current pandemic has also shone a light on healthcare disparities and institutional racism. In the US, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, Blacks, and Latino Americans have a much higher Covid-19 death rate than that of White Americans. Similar racial patterns of disproportionate infections and deaths have emerged in various parts of the globe, including Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In the UK, Blacks and Asians have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Somalians in Norway have recorded infection rates more than 10 times the national average. In many Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore and Malaysia, millions of stranded foreign migrant workers from the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos are at greater risk of Covid-19. In Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, migrant Asian workers face disproportionately high exposure to Covid-19.

The economic deprivation caused by this pandemic has hit women and people of color hardest. Covid-19 has resulted in a so-called global “shecession” because of its disparate impact on women’s livelihoods and jobs. The lack of childcare has forced millions of women to drop out of the workforce or work part-time. It has also resulted in a rise in domestic violence. Lockdowns and financial insecurity have forced women to remain with their abusers.

Our climate emergency has continued unabated during this pandemic. The drop in global greenhouse gas emissions related to the reductions in travel associated with lockdowns in 2020 is miniscule. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long warned of dire consequences — coastal flooding, droughts, and fires — if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2020 and 100% by 2050.

Marginalized communities continue to be hit hardest by climate change. The IPCC has stated that the climate crisis will have a disproportionately large effect on disadvantaged populations through food insecurity, lost livelihoods and health concerns. This scientific panel has predicted that the worst impacts of climate are expected to be felt amongst specific groups, such as indigenous people, and agricultural and low-income urban communities. Examples abound. The American Lung Association notes that the burden of air pollution in the U.S. is unequal — low-income communities of color, particularly Black communities, face some of the highest exposures to pollutants. Similarly, there is anecdotal evidence of the disparate burden of air pollution in India. In New Delhi, the toxic impact of air pollutants is felt far more by a child from a low-income family compared to a child from a higher income family.

One of the most significant vulnerable groups that is being most disproportionately impacted by our climate emergency is low-income women. Women are responsible for most of the agricultural work and food production in many nations but have limited access to land rights and credit. This increases women’s personal and economic vulnerability to lost harvests, which result from changes in temperature, floods and droughts. In many countries, women also bear primary care responsibilities for families and communities, and when resources become scarce, the burden of this care work increases. In addition, as land, forest and water resources are increasingly compromised, local communities and indigenous peoples, particularly women, whose livelihoods depend on them, are marginalized and displaced. Because women often have lesser access to resources, they are also likely to be the last to leave when a natural disaster occurs. Furthermore, women are more likely than men to be killed by a natural disaster because of socially constructed gender-specific vulnerabilities.

Not surprisingly, our climate emergency also has the compounding effect of exacerbating economic inequality. The gap between the economic output of the world’s richest and poorest countries is 25% higher today than it would have been without global warming. Temperature changes caused by increasing greenhouse gas emissions have enriched cool countries like Norway and Sweden, while dragging down growth in warm countries such as India and Nigeria. For a few nations — such as Russia, Canada and Iceland — climate change will present enormous economic opportunities as the planet’s coldest parts become more temperate.

The complexity of our climate crisis is underscored by the reality that all countries in the world are not equally responsible for this planetary emergency. A citizen of the U.S. or Australia, for example, puts, on average, as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 33 Bangladeshis. A recent report showed that the richest 10% of the world’s population (approximately 630 million people) was responsible for 52% of cumulative carbon emissions. The poorest 50% (approximately 3.1 billion people) was responsible for just 7% of cumulative emissions. The biggest polluters in the world tend to be the richest nations, but countries that are the most affected are usually developing countries. For example, with a 2oC change in global temperatures, Bangladesh faces extreme sea level rises, and large areas of the African continent will experience extreme drought.

We can tackle the twinned epochal challenges of climate emergency and hyper-inequality by building a just and green future based on three related foundational pillars.

First, we must accelerate a global green transition, particularly in high polluting nations, that is centered on clean and renewal energy, a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and greater reliance on nature-based solutions. Signatories to the 2015 Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, are expected to meet in 2021 with a mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions further. Recently, Denmark, the European Union’s largest producer of gas and oil, announced a ban on the further exploration of fossil fuels.

Second, we must create an inclusive and just global economic transition that centers on job creation, equitable health care, and universal basic education. No nation has provided such a holistic vision. However, it is exciting to see Greta Thunberg and global youth activists lead the charge for bold and comprehensive action.

Third, we must commit to dismantling systemic racism and sexism. It is inspiring to witness Black Lives Matter and other racial justice activists lead this valiant struggle. The difficult and profound work of transforming cultural and individual attitudes must be undertaken and accompanied by the reform of laws, policies and practices within a human rights framework.

It is time for learn from Covid-19 about the inter-connectedness of our planet and its people. It is time to pay tribute to visionary activists. It is time to place people at the center of our concern. And it is time to shape a brighter future, one where injustice and inequity become history, along with Covid-19.

Leader for People and the Planet. Champion for human rights, gender justice, social justice and climate. Ardent DEIB practitioner. www.anikarahman.org