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Poverty, Covid-19 and the climate crisis – weathering the perfect storm


Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University.

Global crises like the floods in South-East Asia, locust plagues in East Africa, the devastating explosion in Beirut, the wildfires in Brazil and California and the hurricanes in the Caribbean Gulf do not stop because of Covid-19. In fact, they are often the consequences of a dysfunctional system that deems corporate profit more important than the rights and wellbeing of humans and the environment.

Every year on 17 October, people around the world observe the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The theme for 2020 is “acting together to achieve social and environmental justice for all”.

Given the growing awareness of the multi-dimensionality of poverty, these two issues cannot be separated, because we can only realise and promote social justice if we address certain urgent environmental challenges.

To deal with these two extremely important issues, governments will not only have to make certain policy adjustments and decisions, but also act decisively in partnership and solidarity with the people living in daily poverty, often experiencing the harsh impact of environmental injustices.

Although progress has been made in terms of income poverty during the past decades, the success made in addressing the growing impact of the environment and climate change on poor people has been less successful.

In its document Implementation of the Third United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (2018-2027), the United Nations (UN) says that “frequent and severe climate-change-induced threats and disasters, such as droughts, floods, rising sea levels and other extreme weather events, are increasingly undermining the attainment of the 2030 Agenda”.

This document states that in 2017, economic damage caused by weather-related disasters amounted to some $320-billion, making it up till then the costliest year for such losses. It further refers to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season which had a devastating social and economic impact, severely setting back decades of development. In the same year, 41 million people in South Asia were affected by monsoon floods, while in Africa almost 900,000 people were affected by severe droughts.

These kinds of disasters have a devastating effect on poor people, especially those who rely on climate-sensitive activities, affecting women differently and disproportionately compared to men.

Consequently, climate change mitigation and adaptation as critical elements for eradicating poverty have been prioritised by the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

For the UN it is of utmost importance to push the implementation of the Paris Agreement as an integral part of its support to the Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs). In this regard, the organisation is helping to make developing countries more resilient against the devastating and sometimes lasting impacts of climate change.

According to the Global Civil Society Report on the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, the current global economic recession, caused by Covid-19, affects all countries. We have noticed how unemployment, poverty and hunger have risen dramatically. However, actions to fight global warming threaten to move even further down on the list of political priorities. It is as if, for the most part, “economic relief packages have been ecologically blind”.

This was also echoed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres when he delivered the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture recently. In his speech, Guterres strikingly stated that “the pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our world. It has laid bare risks we have ignored for decades: inadequate health systems; gaps in social protection; structural inequalities; environmental degradation; the climate crisis”.

He added that “entire regions that were making progress on eradicating poverty and narrowing inequality have been set back years, in a matter of months. The virus poses the greatest risk to the most vulnerable: those living in poverty, older people, and people with disabilities and pre-existing conditions”. 

Governments and international organisations have responded on a massive scale to the economic and health crises resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown, as indicated by the abovementioned Global Civil Society Report on the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. 

Globally, $11-trillion was spent on liquidity measures, rescue packages, and recovery programmes, with 196 countries and territories taking political measures. Because of considerable restriction of fiscal capacity and policy space (particularly in the global South) due to Covid-19, one could argue that the realisation of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs have become unfeasible.

The same report then makes the valid point: “Without effective multilateral counter-measures, economic disparities and inequality between rich and poor countries will increase considerably. Covid-19 is thus a global wake-up call for international cooperation and solidarity.”

If the world can succeed with this, during the so-called second phase of Covid-19 policy responses, the chance of policies becoming engines of the urgently needed socio-ecological transformation, proclaimed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, could be offered.

Crises globally, such as the floods in South-East Asia, the locust plague in East Africa, the devastating explosion in the port of Beirut, the destruction caused by wildfires in Brazil and California, and the hurricanes in the Caribbean Gulf, do not stop because of Covid-19. In fact, they are often the consequences of a dysfunctional system that deems corporate profit more important than the rights and wellbeing of humans and the environment.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has put together the “Great Reset” initiative to improve the state of the world. It is referred to as the “8R” agenda for systemic change. In this article I unfortunately only focus very briefly on one of the eight sections included in this agenda, namely, to reinforce the shift towards climate justice, although not one of these sections in the aforementioned agenda intend to provide a comprehensive reform programme.

Against the backdrop of increasing environmental change that negatively affects the poor, particularly in developing countries, a more just and equitable way to deal with climate and environmental change must be embraced and implemented, according to the WEF.

Countries of the global North, in particular, should begin to eliminate and shift subsidies and investments from fossil fuel exploration, extraction and production as instantly as possible, and commit to a 100% use of clean and renewable energy by 2030. They should further scale up the provision of climate financing to at least $100-billion by the end of 2020 and increase that rapidly between 2020 and 2030.

With all the challenges that we face at the moment, achieving social and environmental justice to help eradicate poverty might seem a bridge too far. It is, however, doable. 

We shouldn’t despair because together we can make a difference! DM

Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.


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