CLIMATE EMERGENCY, the pandemic & the convergence of GLOBAL CRISES

by Dec 16, 2021All Articles

WHAT WE FACE TODAY IS NOT just a “crisis” in the normal sense of the word – “a time of intense difficulty or danger”. We also face a crisis in the sense of the word’s etymological roots in the Greek word krisis. This refers to a turning point in the course of an illness, pointing either to the start of recovery or the imminence of death. Such an understanding of “crisis” implies a relatively brief moment between two possible outcomes, a good one and a bad one. The deep social, economic and political problems of our times are not signs of a passing “moment” or a single issue; they rather signal a multi-faceted crisis, whose components all strengthen and reinforce each other.

History teaches us that, after global disasters such as pandemics or wars, there have always been radical transformations of social, economic, and political structures. The Black Death, in the fourteenth century, radically reshaped the world. 

The pandemic has contributed to changing the framework of the global conversation around the present and expected futures. Around March and April of last year, many opinion pieces were published by newspapers worldwide which referred to the pandemic as a turning point. George Monbiot, one of the most influential columnists of the British daily newspaper, The Guardian, stated that “this pandemic has to be a tipping point, where we move from one system, an exploitative political and economic system, to a completely different one: private sufficiency and public luxury.” Unfortunately, a year and a half later, we have not advanced much in that direction.

Pandemics bring transformation

History teaches us that, after global disasters such as pandemics or wars, there have always been radical transformations of social, economic, and political structures. The Black Death, in the fourteenth century, radically reshaped the world. Back then, just like today, the decomposition of the prevalent economic and political order, climate change and disease converged: the deaths of more than 50 million people between 1346 and 1352 were the result of the combined impacts of a number of factors: a previous wave of climate change, declining agricultural yields, recurring famines among the poor, a financial crisis and political instability. In the words of Dutch historian Jerome Roos, “a fulminating pandemic into this volatile mix created a perfect storm from which the feudal order would never fully recover”.

So, learning from history, we can certainly expect many changes in the way society and the economy will be organised after the pandemic and in the context of rapidly worsening climate change.

Again, precisely a century ago, immediately after the first world war, the so-called Spanish Flu was a pandemic that killed around 50 million people worldwide. It also catalysed profound social and political transformations. On the bright side, workers organised and mobilised towards socialism, inspired by the Russian revolution. But the world also witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism. In the context of climate change and rising fears of future even more lethal pandemics, some thinkers have been warning already for a while about the rise of eco-fascism and similar threats in our times. Most of such analyses are exaggerated, but they cannot be completely ignored.

On the other hand, we all remember another feeling that expanded across countries at the start of the pandemic. Around the world, almost everybody seemed to re-appreciate the values of solidarity, mutual-aid and cooperation. When Covid-19 laid bare the limitations and shortcomings of the institutions of power, local communities rose to the occasion. The media headlines focused on selfishness and individualism, with images of hoarding and empty supermarket shelves. Meanwhile, community-driven networks showcased the power of self-organisation to move beyond both the market and the capitalist state.

A more sober analysis of both the potentialities and the limits of this type of prefigurative experience is essential for us to move forward in present-day discussions around the just transition and the just recovery. But we also need to recognise that these are pretty harsh times for transformative or emancipatory action.

Between despair, fake optimism and denial

It’s likely that every Amandla! reader has a neighbour, a cousin or an uncle who denies the pandemic or is in denial of climate change. That type of denialism can be annoying, but the problem is the much bigger denialism among those in charge of taking decisions at the national and global levels.

In the weeks leading to the recent Climate Summit (COP26) in Glasgow, the international media widely disseminated a statement by Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in which he referred to the current situation as code red for humanity. He was accurate in his diagnosis. But he referred only to the climate emergency. He didn’t adequately acknowledge the several other crises that intersect and make it worse.

Flu victims in an emergency hospital in Kansas in 1918. The so-called Spanish Flu was a pandemic that killed around 50 million people worldwide. It also catalysed profound social and political transformations.

And then, despite the lip service references to “code red”, denialism and fake optimism were ubiquitous among the government officials and technocrats who gathered in Glasgow at the beginning of November. Fatih Beril, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), argued that the climate pledges announced at COP26, “if met in full and on time, would be enough to hold the rise in global temperatures to 1.8°C”. But any detailed analysis of the “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) submitted by governments shows that the world is on a 2.7°C route, a catastrophic pathway.

Like in all the previous 25 COPs, Glasgow ended with a new round of empty promises. Responding to the climate emergency is not an urgent matter for most governments. At the Transnational Institute (TNI), we have just published a report, Global Climate Walls: How the World’s Wealthiest Nations Prioritise Borders Over Climate Action. In it, we argue that the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are spending, on average, 2.3 times as much on arming their frontiers as they are on climate finance.

The convergence of crises

When thinking of the current crises, the first thing that comes to everybody’s mind is the economic and social devastation caused by the pandemic. At the end of October, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) updated their figures on global poverty. According to their calculations, by the end of 2020 the number of people surviving on less than $1.90 a day had increased from 685 million to almost 750 million.

One year earlier, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD, the most progressive UN agency) had published a thick report about the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. UNCTAD acknowledged that in the first year of the pandemic, millions of jobs had already been lost, millions of livelihoods were at risk, and an estimated additional 130 million people would be living in extreme poverty if the crisis persisted.

But the crisis had begun already many years ago, and the global outbreak of Covid-19 just aggravated it. As most countries went into lockdown, jobs in the formal and informal economies disappeared. Low-income families, confined to overcrowded homes and unsanitary living conditions, struggled.

Mainstream business analysts forecast that as vaccination rates improve, lockdowns are lifted, and productive and commercial activities resume, macroeconomic indicators will improve. However, recovery will be visibly faster in the rich countries of the North than in poor ones of the South. Moreover, much of the economic and social damage will be impossible to undo, with prolonged hunger causing developmental delays in children and missed health checks leading to long-term illness in adults.

North-South polarisation

Many progressive organisations and individuals in other regions take part in heated debates about the meaning of “just recovery”. But such a term might be hard to grasp for vast segments of the global population, who cannot foresee any real change in the short- or medium-term future. In the coming years, poverty will remain clearly concentrated in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. According to World Bank and IMF projections, by 2030, over 60% of those living on less than $1.90 per day will be in the so-called “fragile states”.

Nowadays, we see an even more polarised contrast between the North and the South. On the one hand, there is cautious optimism, as vaccination is very advanced in most countries of the North and a handful of countries of the South. On the other, the economic crisis in many countries of the South will get much worse before it gets better.

And the pandemic is the second global hit in less than 15 years. The previous crisis erupted between 2007 and 2008, and for many countries of the South – and several of the North – it never really ended. When the pandemic struck, many countries had not recovered from the previous decade’s global financial, economic, and social crises.

In this context, the convergence of the climate emergency and the pandemic has resulted in a sharp increase in prices of staple foods on which the majority of the poor in the South depend. In October, the World Bank published a report that showed how, in the years before the pandemic disrupted international and national supply chains, chronic and acute hunger was already worsening due to wars and climate change, among other factors. The Agricultural Commodity Price Index stabilised in the third quarter of 2021, but it remains 25% higher than a year ago. An increasing number of countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America face growing levels of food insecurity.

Like in all the previous 25 COPs, Glasgow ended with a new round of empty promises

But not everybody suffered during the pandemic. Global inequality significantly increased in the past two years. Even the business-friendly Financial Times published a special report titled The billionaire boom: how the super-rich soaked up Covid cash”. The pandemic reinforced a trend that had begun in previous decades. Central banks injected $9 trillion into national economies worldwide in response to the health emergency, but a considerable portion of that stimulus went into financial markets. As a result, the total wealth of billionaires worldwide rose by $5 trillion to $13 trillion between April 2020 and April 2021 – the most dramatic surge ever recorded on the annual billionaire list compiled by Forbes magazine.

Not surprisingly, in this context, the world is also suffering an acute political crisis, visible in the erosion of the basic institutions of liberal democracy and the rise of the far-right. In too many countries around the world, extreme right, neofascist and authoritarian ideas have taken hold. Racism, xenophobia and misogyny have been embraced by political organisations that occupy the vacuum formerly held by traditional and long-established parties. These include many socialist, communist or social democratic parties and progressive movements for national liberation.

The search for alternatives

It would be naïve to assume that the suffering caused by the pandemic, or the floods and heatwaves triggered by climate change, will automatically incite political rebellion. More than ever before, emancipatory strategies firmly rooted in the working class, which can motivate and win over broader segments of the population, are needed. The political geographer Matt Huber reasons that “while more and more are experiencing climate disasters, for most working people the primary obstacle to survival is the daily struggle to afford the basics of life like food, electricity, rent, and health care.”

This is not the first time that we are talking and writing about “alternatives”, “recovery”, and “transition” in response to global crises. Immediately after the financial crisis of 2007-08, there was a global wave of discontent and uprisings that spread around the world. It was the time of Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados, the massive youth riots in Brazil and Turkey amongst many others. We need to have a serious discussion on how and why those popular struggles did not achieve their objectives.

Nowadays, we hear a lot of calls for a “Green New Deal” in North America or a “European Green Deal” on the other (northern) side of the Atlantic. These proposals imply the need for a radical restructuring of power at the national and regional levels. Unfortunately, the prospects for the Left to occupy and reclaim state power are currently rather weak in the Americas, in Europe and around the world.

Any discussion about the prospects of “green” transitions, recoveries or new deals must recapture the significance of class as a crucial dimension. As the late Leo Panitch reminded us, we need to distinguish between “class-focused” and “class-rooted” politics. The proposals around the Green New Deal and several other initiatives currently evolving in other parts of the world are clearly for and not of the working class – class-focused rather than class-rooted.

But the current turn of this multi-faceted crisis is somewhat different from the previous financial meltdown, as it appears that some proposals and demands of the Left have gone mainstream. For instance, around the world, we see a lot of new deliberations on the nature of the state and the role of the public sector. Even some mainstream media seem to have changed their perspectives. In March of last year, The Guardian in the UK published a special report in which it argued that Covid-19 had “brought back the state” and that the economic devastation caused by the pandemic had turned decades worth of economic orthodoxies on their head.

This kind of statement is consistent with comparative empirical data compiled by progressive researchers in different regions of the world – the ideas of renationalisation and remunicipalisation are back on the global agenda. From India to Spain and from Argentina to Germany, public officials, trade unions and social movements are reclaiming public services to address people’s basic needs and respond to environmental challenges. The prevailing mood may still be confusion and despair, but there is plenty of room for hope.

Daniel Chavez is an Uruguayan anthropologist and researcher at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI).

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