/ 16 April 2020

Pandemic gives us a last chance to avert climate – and social – catastrophe

Drought damage: Droughts in the past two years have made the poor even more vulnerable because food prices rise and they cannot depend on their own crops for sustenance.
AI can improve weather predictions, improve carbon capture solutions, make transportation more efficient and less detrimental to the environment. (Paul Botes/M&G)


Just a few months ago headlines began to emerge of a novel coronavirus rapidly infecting people in the city of Wuhan, China. Soon afterwards, the global focus shifted to the fate of a single cruiseliner.  By the end of January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated the virus did not yet constitute a public emergency, despite several cases popping up outside of China. Only a week later the WHO changed its mind. Fast forward to early April and around the world, life as we know it has been completely upended. Although few countries have reached peak infection rates, many others, including those without the healthcare systems of Europe, are beginning to experience exponential infection rates. This coupled with an imminent global recession is only going to upend things even further. Whereas this upending will almost certainly be dramatically uneven, it will affect everyone.

Unless you were paying close attention, you could be forgiven for being shocked by the scale of the pandemic. But if you were one of the few paying close attention (I certainly wasn’t), you would have read about the pathogen factory that is modern industrial agriculture and how it rampantly wages war against nature, shaking things loose that should remain locked into the complex ecosystems that freely deal with them on our behalf. 

None of us, however, can claim surprise at the other current crisis, whose deepening will disrupt things on different scales entirely. We’ve known about this one for decades, it no less threatens society as we know it, but our planet’s entire ability to sustain life. So why are we not stopping it?

We have effectively 10 more years to avert climate breakdown, where currently infrequent — but relatively regular — climate shocks such as droughts, heatwaves, colossal wildfires and devastating storms and floods will become the norm. Coupled with the ongoing mass extinction of biodiversity, these effects will result, to put it bluntly, in mega-death and forced migrations from the Global South to increasingly xenophobic societies.

Indeed 2019 revealed increased frequency and intensity of all these shocks, so despite these dire warnings for urgent action one might be puzzled to read that again, annual emissions increased. A colleague of mine likes to frame this situation as the “Greta Puzzle”: there’s this remarkable girl, who gets warmly applauded at Davos for stating that “our house is on fire”, but her plan of action is completely ignored by those same people. Why? Well, the answer to the puzzle can be found in the fact that you can almost be sure that industrial agriculture, also one of the largest contributors to emissions, will — if allowed —  continue as usual after Covid-19. 

Both crises, and our complete unpreparedness for them, are rooted in a system of capitalist production. It might seem simplistic to some, but profit maximisation and endless accumulation have no place on a planet with finite limits. Whether that be the endless polluting of the atmosphere or the rampant devouring of natural systems containing virulent diseases. It is this logic, and the powerful whose interests it serves, that prevents transforming industrial agriculture and radically curtailing the fossil fuel industry. Naomi Klein’s mantra of “This Changes Everything” is increasingly, and rightfully being invoked by the left. Because everything has to change, there is no alternative — thank you Maggie Thatcher — path for things to remain as is.

But in our quest to change everything, in building a zero-carbon economy underpinned by deeper democracy and equality, Covid-19 has given us a big head-start. This goes beyond the momentary dramatic fall in carbon emissions and silver linings of the demise of fracking and oil-sands production. Covid-19 has, in a matter of weeks, done what the modern left has struggled over for decades. There is, in fact, a magic-money tree, the state can be, and, now has to be, a central player in the economy. The neoliberal dogma that mass borrowing and spending are impossible and that austerity is simply mandatory, is now done. The editorials of publications such as the Financial Times and The Economist lead the charge, where “governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy … must see public services as investments rather than liabilities” and where “[b]ragging about having slightly healthier finances … would be like boasting about having the cleanest face at a mud-wrestling contest”.

Climate activists, in addition to this new political space, already know what to do. The data is available; 50% reduction by 2030, net-zero emissions by 2050. The plans for this are all there, from the revolutionary Green New Deal and to our own One Million Climate Jobs programmes here in South Africa, to the technocratic but remarkable solutions of carbon sequestration in Project Drawdown. Many of these include protection and restoration of crucial ecosystems such as wetlands, coastal and tropical forests, and our own vast grasslands and savannahs. The conservation and restoration of these carbon sinks are how we get to net-zero emissions while still being able to emit somewhat for crucial industries such as aviation and shipping. Many of these ecosystems also have the added benefit of mitigating the effects of climate shocks. 

And there are incredible opportunities under the proposed just transitions of these political programmes for us in South Africa. They are both paths toward pulling millions out of abject misery, while also confronting the climate crisis head on. The necessary measures towards a zero-carbon economy, or alleviating poverty and inequality, regularly overlap. Replacing the increasingly deadly coal-fired energy nexus with renewable energy — the resources for which, we are abundantly endowed with  — happens to have the added bonus of creating more jobs than coal. 

Dismantling spatial apartheid requires a climate housing plan based on energy- and water-sustainable social housing that is well-located, coupled with safe, affordable and reliable public transport powered by clean energy. We’re in the fortuitous position of already having social movements that have been campaigning on this for years and have the plans to do it. Land reform, perhaps the most painful issue that remains in gridlock, can no longer wait, but a new mode of sustainable, smaller scale agro-ecological-based production is ready for implantation

Realising all of the above programmes might seem utopian in the South African context, but their overlap continues to present a real opportunity for the meaningful coalition-building that is currently so lacking. Now this prospect comes alongside a historic political opening.

Although the City of Cape Town can suddenly (albeit inadequately and brutally) shelter the homeless it recently criminalised, it seems our national government has not learned any lessons from Covid-19. Perhaps that’s not entirely fair, as all of sudden water has suddenly found its way to many of those who didn’t have it. But while even the global cheerleaders of capitalism call for a radical change in tack, our finance minister intends to opportunistically change into fifth gear on his drive into permanent social and economic crisis, cheered on by our myopic business press. 

This comes at a time when other developing countries socialise their healthcare systems — the myriad trade agreement stipulations and multiple ratings agencies be damned. Breaking with such trade stipulations is also required to nurture and develop the renewable energy manufacturing capacity so urgently required. 

The need for local production is yet another lesson the virus offers us through the crisis of mask and ventilator shortages. But Tito Mboweni seems intent on even going beyond the complete squandering of the historical moment that requires and allows for greater policy autonomy, by possibly heading to the IMF and World Bank. The track records of loan programmes from these institutions are disastrous and are not necessary for South Africa, given the availability of other options such as more of the recent support from the Reserve Bank and utilising the Public Investment Corporation. And again, an opportunity is ripe for finally implementing capital controls — which are all the more critical to combat outflows and speculation on the rand in light of the recent downgrade — as well as looking at measures to tax the hoarding of private capital of at least R1.4-trillion sitting in the banks. As it stands, there is no government plan of economic transformation after this period of the pandemic, which currently sees such pitiful social relief for most South Africans. There’s certainly no government plan to tackle the climate crisis, which is to be left to a market that cannot meet even modest climate targets.

So, whatever momentous opportunities and lessons Covid-19 has provided, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that a return to the status quo ante is unlikely, let alone unthinkable. An immense political battle awaits us. An updated right wing, powered by ethno-nationalism, has taken power in almost all of the most powerful countries in the world from the United States to India and Brazil. Progressive social forces to build the power for what’s required are simply not where we need them to be, as the resurgent left in the UK and US take consecutive beatings at the ballot box. But these defeats came alongside overwhelming policy victories and the movements that powered the resurgence are wounded, but not beaten. 

The ground is fertile to build a different world, of universal well-being that is powered by our core natures of co-operation and solidarity, which are more and more on display during this crisis. It can be a world where we truly end our war on nature and overcome our alienation from it. The task now of building our movements and our parties remains the same, but our politics and ideas have never been more prevalent. And, of course, now we know that nothing is impossible.