Our Burning Planet

Daily Maverick Webinar Week

The Covid-19 response is an opportunity to tackle excess and address the climate crisis – Mary Robinson and Kumi Naidoo

Governments around the world have shifted their priorities in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It shows action can and must be taken to address the climate crisis, former Irish president Mary Robinson said in a Daily Maverick webinar on Tuesday.


Activists hoped 2020 would be the year global leaders finally took urgent, co-ordinated action on the climate crisis. Young people across the world had been leading protests in demand of a secure future.

The deadline set by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to limit global warming to 1.5ºC or face devastating consequences was just a decade away. Unprecedented bushfires in Australia raged like a warning against inaction.

“I remember in January this year, because it was 2020, being so focused on ‘Will government step up with better ambition, will the international community understand the need for a real change?’ ” said Mary Robinson, former Irish president and chair of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders.

“2020 was to be the year, ending in COP26 in Glasgow,” she added, referring to the UN Climate Change Conference scheduled for November, now postponed.

World leaders have acted this year to curb a life-threatening global emergency, but it’s Covid-19 rather than the climate crisis.

In response to the pandemic, international leaders have uprooted economic policies to provide safety nets for the poor and working-class, co-ordinated to reduce the spread of the virus, placed greater emphasis on the need for universal healthcare systems, and, after decades of politicising the field, listened to scientists.

The responses are far from sufficient to address the needs of those most vulnerable, but the pandemic could provide an opportunity to create a new normal, to re-evaluate societal values and prioritise equality and sustainability.

“In many ways, I think we can learn from Covid-19, a devastating crisis that’s turned the world upside down and yet and also increased inequality, but I think we can learn from that,” said Robinson, participating in a Daily Maverick webinar on Tuesday.

“With Covid-19, I think there’s more openness to our shared vulnerable humanity. As human beings, we should care for each other. We should care that nobody falls into destitution, nobody suffers in an inhumane way. We have to be together in this.”

Crises create opportunities, but the 2008 global financial crisis did not lead to meaningful reform to address inequality. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has already led to some governments taking more interventionist approaches to bolster public services and provide basic social and labour protection.

“Covid-19 has shown us the things that we thought countries would not be prepared to do are perfectly doable,” said Robinson.

Even the Financial Times has said governments must take radical steps to reverse the economic trajectory that has existed for decades.

“They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix,” said the publication in an editorial.

Former Amnesty International secretary-general Kumi Naidoo said the pandemic has challenged existing definitions of wealth and highlighted the world’s defining problem, “affluenza”.

“Affluenza is a pathological illness that the people at the top of society primarily suffer from where they believe that a good, meaningful, decent life comes from more and more and more material acquisitions,” Naidoo said in the Daily Maverick webinar.

“We need to be looking at coming out of this asking the fundamental question: what constitutes a meaningful, decent, prosperous life? Is it more and more material possessions? Or is it about the basics, water, food, family and love?” he asked.

Robinson said global leaders will play a key role in determining the ongoing response to Covid-19 as well as challenges such as the climate crisis and inequality.

“We cannot solve this problem without global leadership and the G20 now is the real focus of that leadership,” she said.

Some of the most influential countries exhibited the weakest leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, said Robinson, but leaders in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand provided examples to follow.

She said former UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s efforts to mobilise world leaders behind a global response to the pandemic’s health and economic consequences, particularly in developing countries, was impressive.

Brown called for the international community to waive this year’s developing-country debt repayments. The International Monetary Fund on Monday said it would cancel debt repayments for six months for 25 of the world’s poorest countries.

Naidoo said he was relatively proud of South Africa’s response, but said global leaders had not provided the necessary inspiration and, as the climate crisis has shown, we should rather be looking to young people to drive creative solutions.

“We have to see this also as a moment of innovation. We have to turn this moment of tragedy, with so many lives being lost, into a moment of innovation and a moment of how can we dream of doing different things,” he said.

“None of us are sitting with solutions but what we know is it cannot be business as usual.”

Drawing the links between the current pandemic and the climate crisis, Naidoo said:

“Nature does not negotiate. We cannot change the science. All we can do right now is change political will.”

Robinson said the response to Covid-19 is proof that human behaviour matters. By heeding the call to adhere to self-isolation and lockdown regulations, individuals have helped reduce the spread of the virus.

People also need to take the climate crisis personally and reduce consumption, have faith in expertise, unite behind a common goal, and pressure the international community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while supporting developing countries.

While the fight against Covid-19 and its devastating consequences has eclipsed all other global concerns, Robinson said 2020 could still be a game-changer for the climate crisis.

She said as governments implement more sustainable policies and try to mitigate the economic and social fallout of the pandemic, they should prioritise clean energy sources and ensure that 2019 was the global peak for greenhouse gas emissions. DM

Absa OBP