World Environment Day 2020: The phenomenon of ‘crisis’ and the nexus between Covid-19 and climate
Hippocrates (460 BC-370 BC) was a Greek physician and philosopher who much studied the phenomenon of the crisis, which in medical terms he described as ‘the battle between nature and the disease’. But how does the coronavirus crisis actually relate to the crisis of climate change? And how will we look back at the developments coming out of corona in 2050? While the latter question is of course a rhetorical one, I will briefly try and define the phenomenon of the climate crisis before alluding to the nexus between Covid-19 and climate change.
In terms of the climate crisis we are arguably facing a battle between nature and the human being. The ‘diagnosis’ of planet earth seems rather clear in that constantly growing human and industrial activities have caused dramatically increased emissions of greenhouse gases, which in turn cause the global climate to change rapidly and probably irreversibly. The ‘symptoms’ of climate change are likely to cause more and more natural disasters, extreme weather events and climate induced migration movements. with a potential to cause national and cross-boundary conflict and thus endanger global peace and security. The ‘therapy’ against these symptoms is, however, much less clear.
Talking about clarity: Most of us have followed the discussion around the level 3 and 4 regulations and are still in the process of digesting the recent judgment handed by the Gauteng High Court in the case of De Beer v Minister of COTGA. And while the government seems immediately prepared to appeal the High Court judgment, which declared lockdown regulations unconstitutional and unreasonable, the climate crisis silently continues to impact the system, its people, structures, norms and institutions.
One crisis is bad enough, yet Covid-19 and increasing climate change both slow economic growth, exacerbate social inequalities and harbour the risk of violent conflicts among others. Therefore, I advocate, solutions to Covid-19 need to be aligned to those of the climate crisis for a transformation towards more sustainability, resilience, equity, and justice. In the same light, ecology must be seen as a binding constraint for all forms of human activity and should never be managed in overshoot.
At the beginning of the year 2020 approximately 7.5 billion people live on Earth. That is around 83 million people more than one year earlier, which in terms of population size has the potential to increase existing challenges regarding all aspects of ‘human security’ (e.g. food, water, energy, job security etc.), foster infections, weaken resilience, increase vulnerabilities, complicate social distancing and – perhaps most importantly - contribute to dangerous climate change.
Corona showed us that government is able to take urgent, radical and costly measures at the expense of the economy in a short period of time to counter a threat. Then why are no similar measures taken to address dangerous climate change?
Climate change is not contagious, but it threatens the future of generations as a whole. Climate change impacts also have the potential to undermine the country’s development goals. However, when will we ensure that as we move towards a low carbon growth trajectory that we leave no one behind?
Even if it sounds like wishful thinking, will we be right in future when saying that Covid-19 was an opportunity that helped us to finally, reasonably, adequately and timely respond to the ongoing climate dilemma? To this question, Hippocrates would have most probably responded as follows: ‘Life is short, art is long, the opportunity fleeting, the experience deceiving and the judgment difficult.’
* Oliver C. Ruppel is Professor of Law and Director of the Development and Rule of Law Programme (DROP) at the Faculty of Law, Stellenbosch University. He specialises in Sustainable Development Law, Climate Law and International Trade Law.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.