Our history teaches us that humanity seizes on hope in moments of catastrophe. It’s at the core of so many of our narratives — think about the guy who got nailed to a cross two millennia ago and sowed the seeds for a religion.
Covid-19 is catastrophic. But, on Tuesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa framed it as a chance to “reimagine” South Africa. His R500-billion “extraordinary coronavirus budget” would be a chance to turn around the world’s most unequal country.
More social grants will mean people don’t starve to death. Loans for businesses and tax breaks will mean less of a jobs bloodbath. And R20-billion for healthcare will mean a long-neglected and largely crippled hospital system might survive the tsunami of Covid-19 cases that the government says are likely.
All of this represents a big step for the government. But Ramaphosa missed the chance to get even more out of this moment.
In 2008, when American financial corruption smashed the world economy, there was such hope that bailouts would come with conditions where corporations polluted less, emitted less carbon and did more for people.
That didn’t come to pass. Politicians were not brave enough to change the status quo. Their reluctance was reinforced by voters, who, globally, ranked climate as something not to be taken seriously at the ballot box.
This has changed, dramatically so.
Voters consistently rate climate as a serious concern that they want elected officials to tackle. Corporations and investors have, in the past two years, sprinted away from fossil fuel investments. At the start of this year, before Covid-19 took over all narratives, it was the uncontrollable wildfires in Australia that had our attention. In South Africa, it has been a succession of droughts, violent storms and floods.
Where for a while the world swung to the right, voters have started to once again vote based on social justice and environmental concerns. In the United States it has meant a slightly left of centre proposal for a “Green New Deal” gaining traction. In China it has meant, according to a poll out this week, that nearly 80% of corporations are focusing on developing along an environmentally-sound path. In Europe, it means that continent’s Covid-19 stimulus package will probably be rooted in getting to zero carbon emissions by 2050.
These are countries seizing their moment.
Climate change is the greatest long-term threat that any country faces this century (alongside nuclear annihilation). The countries that prepare now, by lowering carbon emissions and helping people adapt to extreme events such as wildfires, drought and flooding, will have a better future. And a big competitive advantage.