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Climate change
Opinion

A post-COVID-19 world must address systemic inequalities and injustices

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Mary Robinson calls for climate action, justice and a sustainable recovery from COVID-19. To tackle the climate crisis as well as the pandemic, every country, town, business and community must play its part. Published in The Young Geographer: The Climate Justice Edition.

At the end of 2019, I did not have much hope. While 2020 was set to be a significant year for global climate action, I was dejected; we lacked any sign of the kind of leadership needed to meet climate commitments. Young people were out in the streets marching and demanding change, asking us to secure them a safe future, but governments were failing to heed their call for urgent action on the climate emergency.

2020 was an incredibly difficult year for our world, our lives were turned upside down, yet it has been amid the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic that I have found some hope for meaningful climate action. COVID-19 has meant the postponement of key events, not least the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, but the pandemic has also reminded us of our interdependence, and the importance of international cooperation. We have seen this spirit of solidarity at a local and national level in many countries around the world. We have seen it in some cases between countries as they share resources and expertise. It is this spirit of togetherness that has given me optimism – for many there has been a renewal of the recognition that we must work together to tackle the biggest crises in the world today.

The COVID-19 crisis has also brought into sharp focus the delicate relationship between people and nature. More often now, when we discuss the climate crisis we are talking about the human impacts and recognising the connections between people and the natural world. In the past, environmental action used to be associated with saving polar bears, and of course protecting species is important, but our concerns must be far greater than this! In 2019, climate marches, grassroots groups and the voices of young people helped to bring home the need to address the climate crisis as a human problem. In 2020 we were all reminded of our shared global humanity.

‘Climate justice’ used to be a very niche term. Now you will hear the term used much more widely, perhaps because climate change is already a human tragedy unfolding for those who are least responsible for the problem. To me, climate justice speaks of the human cost of the climate crisis and of the need to hold polluters accountable for the sake of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

When you hear young people speak who are from small island communities in the Pacific, or from the rural highlands of Ethiopia, or who live in lowland Bangladesh, you quickly learn about the injustice of the climate crisis.

The cruel truth about climate change is that it disproportionately impacts those who have contributed least to the problems we now face: the world’s poorest and most marginalised groups. It affects women, indigenous groups, people of colour, people living in the Global South, and others who are also more vulnerable to other forms of injustice. While we are all impacted by climate change, we are not all affected equally. People living at the front lines of the crisis have really brought a sense of this injustice to the world’s attention.

There is also an intergenerational injustice to the climate crisis. Young people aged 15 to 24 years represent 16% of the world population, and this number will reach 1.3 billion people by 2030. If you are under the age of 30 and reading this magazine, more than 50% of the total global fossil fuel emissions since 1751 will have occurred in your lifetime. The decisions we make on climate change and other environmental threats today will affect generations to come. This is the first generation to fully understand how serious the problem is, and the last generation that can do something about it. We are not doing anywhere near enough at the moment.

So how do we achieve climate justice? We already have the science that tells us this is an urgent situation; we must listen to the science. We also have a framework for action – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, sometimes known as the Sustainable Development Goals – and we have the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Governments and businesses must start addressing climate change with the same resolve and urgency that they are showing in fighting the pandemic.

One of the questions people understandably keep asking is, ‘When will things return to normal?’ I do not think we can or should return to normal. The truth is ‘business as usual’ will lead us to a climate catastrophe in a very short time. Rather than returning to what we were doing, I think seeking climate justice now means building back a better world, a world with cleaner air, more liveable cities, and powered by the wind and sun. This means building a kinder, more sustainable economy, one which puts us on track to zero emissions by 2050. Every country needs to fully commit to that. Every city, every town, every business, every community – we all have a part to play.

There are many, many inequities in our world. But when you are suffering, you are more open to understanding the suffering of others and taking action to create change.

For me, justice and hope are inextricably tied together. We have a collective power when we work together to create change and when we act with compassion for the most vulnerable in our world. We are not currently doing what needs to be done to tackle the climate crisis – in order to do so we must find the courage to believe that we can have a much safer, healthier, fairer world. That is the essence of the fight for climate justice for me – with hope, working collectively to create a better future for us all.

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