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Excerpted From: Cinnamon P. Carlarne, From Covid-19 to Climate Change: Disaster & Inequality at the Crossroads, 12 San Diego Journal of Climate & Energy Law 19 (2020-2021) (91 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Disasters expose and exacerbate inequality. Overlapping and intersecting disasters exacerbate inequality exponentially. Each disaster teaches us about ourselves--our local and global preparedness, our ability to process and respond to information and uncertainty, our ability to act collectively to minimize risks, and our ability to see and respond to existing structures of inequality.
More often than not, natural disasters we conceive of them in popular media and in academic scholarship--are singular events contained in space and time. They are hurricanes, wildfires, floods, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. They are at times devastating, but--unless they affect us directly--our memories of them tend to be short.
Pandemics are a different beast. They are, by their nature, diffuse, fast moving targets that spread across time and space. COVID-19 is no different. It is at once a global and a local crisis. It has spread at shocking speed across the world prompting near unprecedented levels of global and local social disruption. It has taught us all how precariously we are perched at the intersection of globalization, environmental degradation, and disaster. It has taught us, if we can listen, the depth of crisis that can descend upon us unwittingly and how violently abrupt change can rip at the seams of social stability and structural inequality. It has taught us what we should have already known and what is and will be the story of climate change. Our interconnectedness--to one another and to the ecosystems upon which we depend-- is both one of our greatest strengths and one of our greatest weaknesses.
Climate change brings the promise and perils of our interconnectedness to the fore. Even as we struggle to contain the pandemic, the wildfires, and the floods, our collective human behavior hurtles us towards an even more massive disaster, or rather, series of disasters. Our common--but unevenly experienced--drive for economic development powered by fossil fuels and the resulting intermixing of greenhouse gases in our shared atmosphere binds us all together. The vast majority of the gases came (and come) from a small handful of powerful states. Limiting dangerous anthropogenic climate change requires everyone, but particularly these states, to contain their emissions for the good of all, but especially for the good of those states that have contributed minimally to global emissions but now stand to suffer the greatest harms. The collective action nature of climate change is widely understood. The extent and unevenness of the distributions of harm--across and within states--is similarly well known. Yet relatively little has been done to respond to this existential challenge. Little has been done to constrain the emissions that bring about the harm and little has been done to facilitate the efforts that are necessary to limit the injuries, the loss, and the damage that climate change entails.
In contrast to the acute harms of natural disasters and pandemics, the violence and disruption of climate change threatens to engulf us storm by storm, fire by fire, inch by inch of sea level rise before we can even agree that it is a disaster worth trying to avoid, minimize, or prepare for.
By now, the impacts of a warming world are evident and inevitable. There is no longer a serious debate as to whether climate change multiplies and compounds stresses on human and natural systems and amplifies the risk and implications of slow--and sudden--onset disasters. It does. Some of these risks can be avoided. Some can be alleviated. Some, however, may now--or soon--be inescapable. The nature of the pending risk is shaped by the degree to which the international community mobilizes to mitigate emissions, facilitate adaptation, and prepare for climate-related impacts that cannot be eased or eliminated.
The less we do to mitigate, adapt, and prepare, the more acute the risks of climate change become, especially in the global south and especially for already-vulnerable communities. We know this. With average global temperatures on track to exceed the 2°C global target, climate change is multiplying the number of people susceptible to poverty, undermining food security, intensifying heat and water stress, and increasing the risks of fires, storms, flooding, landslides, and infectious and parasitic diseases. In this world of amplified risk, the lines between natural disasters, pandemics, and climate-related disasters blur and the interactions between these events intensify.
This essay explores how the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic exposes and exacerbates structural inequalities in ways that are both obvious and alarming. It suggests that, even as the pandemic worsens inequality it forces us to confront it, and to see how the impacts of climate change will ripple unevenly across existing pathways of disparity.
The essay begins by examining how the COVID-19 pandemic is spotlighting and intensifying inequality and suggests that the vivid harms of the pandemic compel us to do more and do better to address structural inequality. The essay then provides an account of how climate change interacts with and amplifies the inequality that natural disasters and the pandemic uncover then briefly weaves the role of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM) into the discussion. Here the essay suggests that the WIM creates an avenue through which to advance climate and equity-oriented recovery responses in the immediate wake of the pandemic. The essay concludes with an invocation to heed the lessons the pandemic is offering in order to avoid catastrophic climate disaster.
[. . .]
At the time of writing, it is early 2021. COVID-19 cases worldwide exceed a hundred million. Deaths worldwide have surpassed two million. These figures only reflect the cases that we know about and the deaths that we have counted. Cases continue to climb globally. All the while, the streets of the United States are afire in protests over systemic racial injustice and police brutality. All of this is the context within which efforts to contain and respond to the harms of climate change exist.
It has been twenty-nine years since Vanuatu flagged the urgent need for an equity-based system for responding to unavoidable and irreversible climate harms, and twenty-eight years since the parties to the UNFCCC came together and committed to “prevent[ing] dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Yet all these years later, climate responses remain deficient across the board. Climate change mitigation, adaptation, finance, and loss and damage strategies all remain inadequate to address the growing crises. The risks of these combined failures were evident before 2020. COVID-19 has simply taught us more about how precarious we all are and how disaster streams along existing pathways of inequality, deepening those inequalities as it flows.
The bully pulpit of the COVID-19 pandemic is as powerful as the disease is destructive. Even as COVID-19 has wreaked devastation, it has exposed the dangers at the disaster-inequality intersection and mobilized efforts to examine how inequality is inflamed in moments of crisis or, as the case will be, in the decades of climate crisis to come. When the pandemic wanes and we regain our ability to focus, we must turn our attention back to climate change. Anthropogenic climate change is the most profound threat facing humanity, but it is not one discrete threat, or one impending disaster. Climate change will lead to a series of changes, challenges, and crises the nature, scale, and distribution of which will be determined by human decisions--decisions as to how to address climate change directly and decisions about how to address the structural inequalities that create the context within which anthropogenic climate change manifests. If we hope to avert a spiraling climate crisis and advance efforts to transition justly to a low carbon economy, we must heed the lessons that the pandemic is teaching us.
Cinnamon P. Carlarne. Associate Dean for Faculty & Intellectual Life & Alumni Society Designated Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University.
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