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We need a New Deal for climate change before the next crisis hits

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Greg Nott is the head of the Africa Practice at Norton Rose Fulbright. He specialises in energy projects and deals.

Research is telling us we need to prepare for a climate change crisis while dealing with the current crisis. World Health Organisation researchers warned last week that climate change could make the spread of disease even worse in the coming decades.

So caught up are we in our current economic and health pandemic – and understandably so – that many of our climate change goals have been relegated to the “luxury, but not essential” drawer as we scramble to distribute food relief and equip our healthcare workers.

In South Africa, we are sometimes removed from the noise and realities surrounding global issues because of our distance from the First World. South African corporations don’t seem to see climate change as a priority issue but as a nice-to-have, and how much more now that many of them are fighting for survival.

Our Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy however, gets the urgency. She stated in her address at the Madrid Climate Change Conference in December 2019 that “we are experiencing unprecedented increases in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, bush fires and droughts, which are placing a tremendous burden on our already water-stressed country. There have also been particularly violent storms and floods. Science tells us that the worst is yet to come.” 

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the momentum on climate change has slowed both here and globally. Waste pickers are limited in collecting waste on our streets, recycling plants aren’t operating like they were last year, plastic is being produced in abundance to meet the demand for PPE, and our carbon tax goals have been delayed. 

Research is telling us we need to prepare for a climate change crisis whilst dealing with the current crisis. World Health Organisation researchers warned last week that climate change could make the spread of disease even worse in the coming decades, citing rising temperatures which could cause animals to spread diseases across geographies, making viruses more adaptable to hot climates and possibly weakening the human body’s resistance to these infectious plagues. 

When I recently opened my Rolling Stone magazine and saw that 17 pages were dedicated to Time magazine’s Person of the Year, Greta Thunberg, rather than to the coronavirus, I was reminded that this is our issue of the decade, perhaps the century.

“The coronavirus is a terrible event,” the teenager said during a Thomson Reuters Foundation interview. “But it also shows one thing: That once we are in a crisis, we can act to do something quickly, act fast. Though it must be in a different way to how we have acted in this case, we can act fast and change our habits and treat a crisis like a crisis.”

How does a country prepare for a future crisis whilst in the midst of a current one, especially one that is encompassing the entire globe and hammering the world economy? The truth is we can’t prepare for a climate crisis once it hits us. History shows we can navigate our way through a crisis with decisive leadership and bold actions or we can move more slowly – but only if we have the reserves and put preparations in place to mitigate the storm. 

The presidential tenure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd president of the United States, has some important lessons for us. FDR led his country during two of its biggest crises – the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War (1939-1945). During the height of the Great Depression in 1932, about a quarter of Americans were unemployed and many households languished in poverty – like our current situation, although our jobless number is already much worse.

Roosevelt articulated the hopelessness and despair that nations experience during times of crises. 

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

It’s the kind of paralysis that is becoming more familiar as Covid-19 rages on. The current recession calls for bold reforms and investment in a New Deal for a green economy that is built on green programmes that create work through public-private-civil-labour partnerships for a sustainable, inclusive and low carbon future. 

A New Deal for a green economy needs to open the way for other players into the economic space – to recognise that government can’t be the main player and the referee when it comes to climate change or the economy of the future. Ongoing paralysis that avoids action beyond relief measures will relegate more people to a shared future of poverty, inequality and unemployment and destroy our democratic legacy.

FDR’s New Deal was enacted in 1933 through a series of public works programmes and policy implementations that were characterised by the 3Rs – Relief, Reform and Recovery. His programmes invested in infrastructure that still exists today and raised taxes that paid to get Americans back to work. Who could know the result of the Second World War had America not been able to recover economically ahead of it entering the war in December 1941?

While South Africa is currently focused on the first “R” which is Relief, we need to start thinking about the other two – Reform and Recovery – if we are going to emerge from our current recession. 

Our constitutional heritage embraces legislative responses that were crafted in crises. A progressive document, it is our people’s anchor of safety and reassurance in all types of crises. We need to be working on the green policies and laws for the future that will add to the bedrock of our constitutional legacy for generations to come. 

We need to implement those policies for reform and recovery to carry us through our next crisis. We don’t want to learn the truth of climate change once it’s upon us. In fact, we’re already late. BM

Greg Nott is the head of the Africa Practice at Norton Rose Fulbright. He specialises in energy projects and deals.

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