On the heels of a pandemic that is hitting communities of color the hardest, and while protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd rock the nation and world, it is vital for meaningful climate dialogues to continue.
Yet Britain last week proposed postponing international climate talks until November 2021. The potential costs of doing so are stark. Most strikingly, it will likely result in economic recovery plans by nations that seek to revitalize a fundamentally unsustainable and unjust status quo, one which harms under-resourced communities the most and which puts the futures of my peers and myself second to the profits of big corporations.
If we recognize the urgency around climate change—if we want a livable planet for today’s young people and, more pressingly, if we are really committed to combating the racial violence that pervades our political, social, and economic systems—then these costs are far too high for our leaders to risk with delay.
Lawmakers need to wake up: Climate change and the injustices it generates won’t break for Covid-19. So the United Nations Climate Change Conference can’t, either.
It is certainly within our nations’ technological capacities to ensure that they aren’t pushed into the future. But more than that, it is within their basic political and ethical responsibilities to make the 26th annual Conference of the Party (COP) an imminent reality by whatever means possible.
Already, fossil fuel companies are preparing to line their coffers with federal bailouts. They are demanding regulatory relief as the price of oil hits record lows. They’ve spent this pandemic continuing to push through pipelines, frequently at the expense of indigenous communities like the Wet’suwet’en, all under the cover of a mainstream media dominated by Covid-19 coverage. The potential for a postponed COP gives these bad actors even more wiggle room to exploit the current crisis, securing a model of business that will wreck the environment and jeopardize our futures. And it’s happening right under our noses.
At the same time, the effects of climate change are already becoming more palpable. We’re approaching a potentially record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, which will put coastal and low-lying communities now struggling to shelter in place from Covid-19 in a uniquely precarious position— fierce storms may necessitate evacuation. And with climate change increasing the likelihood for the spread of infectious disease, we’re only sampling the harsh intersection of our environmental and public health emergencies.
If our government officials really want an economy and a planet that does not discriminate along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines and that can support all of their children and grandchildren, then they need to radically rethink business as usual. Preserving the status quo puts us on the trajectory toward climate apartheid, with those who can afford to escape the worst effects of climate change doing so while leaving our most vulnerable and historically marginalized community members behind, as we have already seen during this pandemic. Investing in an economy that works for young people means investing in a more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible system, not just for the coming, post-pandemic years but also for the coming decades. That starts with the policies we put in place to recover from Covid-19.
Like the coronavirus crisis, tackling the climate crisis and the injustices it generates necessitates innovation. We have to think creatively and strategically if we’re going to achieve the rapid and equitable transition to a clean energy economy within the next decade that is necessary, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to avert potentially catastrophic and irreversible impacts of climate change. And with surging demand for jobs, now is the opportune moment for such thinking.
But if world leaders fail to forge a way forward for a safe and effective COP conference in the time of Covid-19, then we’re in a worse position on climate change than many of us could have ever imagined. The kind of thinking we need on the scale that we need it seems unlikely, in this case, to come to fruition.
Already, scores of universities have made the transition to online learning. Companies have learned to organize business meetings over video conferencing platforms to continue conducting daily business as much as possible. With access to the world’s top health experts, perhaps our government leaders can make possible a socially distanced COP. But if not, why can’t our world leaders at least convene a remote one? University students have managed to Zoom into higher education from around the world; I’d hope that our top-ranking officials could display the same resolve to stave off an existential global threat.
A remote COP may not hold quite the same appeal as the traditional in-person conference and, certainly, any dependence on online and remote technologies will produce new challenges in logistics and accessibility. But as universities and institutions are learning to overcome such hurdles, so could our leaders. Convening COP could quite literally make a world of difference, because it could radically alter the world we end up with decades from now. At the very least, it will provide an opportunity to halt the development and proliferation of economic recovery plans that do further damage to our planet and burden our most vulnerable communities. More than that, it could provide a unique chance to harness international cooperation to advance the bold agenda needed to tackle both climate and Covid-19.
Otherwise, our leaders risk sacrificing even more lives and livelihoods to the climate crisis on top of those lost to the current pandemic. Many of us have become all too familiar with the sounds of sirens over the last few months and with worries that our neighbors, family, and friends will next enter the ambulance. Delaying COP and risking the adoption of policies that fail to mitigate or that even exacerbate climate change may only increase the buildup of bodies that this pandemic and the state-sanctioned violence rising in its midst ultimately produce.
For many of us, the reality of tomorrow alone—not to mention the future beyond that next day—feels highly uncertain right now. The financial, mental, physical, and emotional stresses of this moment weigh differently on people in different circumstances, but no one is immune. In a few decades or so, without dramatic action, we’ll face the same reality with climate change—as low-lying and developing nations have already. If we want our future to look different, we have to seize this political moment. A 26th annual COP, a uniting of leaders around our shared world, is a critical step in making that possible.