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COVID-19, climate justice, “Black Lives Matter”—what are the links and complexities?

Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC

When our WCC Working Group on Climate Change met online a few days ago, we decided we needed to give this question more focus. This note tries to gather a few reflections.

We know that there have been some unexpected benefits of the shutdown period. There have been lower levels of economic activity and so, less emissions and less pollution. Social distancing has helped us appropriate more of the benefits of the digital age and change old work habits: we do more online meetings; less plane travel. Home and family times have been re-appreciated by those blessed with loving relationships.

We who meditate and pray; who reflect and create, have had more space to go deeper and to live at a better pace. Also, there are examples of quite encouraging new levels of local, national and international cooperation. New partnerships are evolving for the common good.

People have tried to look after each other. Folk once overlooked have been better valued by a community grateful for their courage and dedication. Transitions to renewables continue. More people want to cut emissions.

“We are all in this together” now includes care about the unreconciled sufferings, both historic and contemporary, that are encompassed in the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The linkages between the pandemic, climate justice and an end to racism are more vivid. Public discussion has more gravitas. People are looking for wise, capable leadership because survival is at stake!

But most of these benefits of the “shutdown” have been for those who are well and are in safer places; those who are not driven further into poverty by the shutdown. That includes my family, on an island and in an area with few cases of COVID-19. However, poignantly, we know the vulnerable are even more vulnerable.

For example, many migrant workers stranded in-country and overseas have no work, and therefore no income. With crowded accommodations and poor diets, they have little protection against this lethal and infectious virus. Again, those who are in areas of overwhelmed or limited health services are excruciatingly vulnerable.

I remember a conversation last year in Suva with someone from another Pacific Island. A friend had just died because the plane to the nearest dialysis unit in Fiji had been delayed by savage storms. What happens now to folk from that island when the pandemic has closed the airports?

Meanwhile, in the “opening up” that is going on after shutdown, we see desperation as leaders seem to  gamble economic and social cohesion against public health.

In short, our work to prevent climate change is now in a very crowded public agenda! At an anxious time, fears are open to manipulation by both familiar vested interests and more hidden, divisive influences. Electoral cycles skew decisions, as ever, but now the stakes are higher. Time is short to prevent catastrophic climate change, but our scope is further diminished when national leaders are intentionally divisive in order to acquire and hold power. At a time like this, we need compassionate, unifying leadership.

Because people are anxious. When no one can really see where we are heading and when one crisis seems to follow another, people need compassionate leaders with a non-anxious presence—like Jesus amidst anxious folk in the many Gospel stories. Christlike leaders!

How do we keep our primary focus? We need to keep advocating for substantial Nationally Determined Contributions which will fulfill the Paris Agreement at UNCOP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021. But how do we keep this as a focus, respectfully and compassionately aware now of the suffering caused by the pandemic and also the cry “Black Lives Matter!”

Some who had been focusing on UNCOP 26 are being redeployed into national and regional pandemic responses. With meetings delayed, will the necessary work be done to ensure a successful UNCOP 26?

Also, as governments try to prevent a deep recession through debt-funded employment programs, the risk is that developed countries, now carrying unprecedented debt, will again seek to defer or minimise the climate justice funding that developing countries need for a transition to a sustainable economy based on renewables.

We know we need a transparent, inclusive discussion on what is now possible. Otherwise, what will prevent emissions from continuing to rise—with catastrophic consequences?

People like ourselves in this WCC Working Group meet when we can, as best we can. It is a blessing that this is possible across different time zones. Our Zoom meetings are friendly and very democratic. But Zoom meetings have their limits.

Notwithstanding all this complexity, somehow we still have to clarify together a coherent plan that helps ensure UNCOP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021, is a profound success!

At the moment there are more questions than answers. But, as Thomas Merton once reflected: “If you get the question right, you are on the way to finding an answer.”

So, can we contain the pandemic until (and if) a vaccine is found? Can we do this while facilitating economic recovery and social cohesion with climate justice and a fulfilled Paris Agreement at UN’s COP26? Can we also do this while attending to the unreconciled historic and contemporary wounds revealed through the “Black Lives Matter “movement?

It is all quite a challenge and needs very capable and very compassionate leadership. That much is clear! As people of faith, following the Risen Jesus, we can but say our prayers and do what we can.

About the author :

Bishop Philip Huggins is president of the National Council of Churches in Australia and director of the Centre for Ecumenical Studies at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture. He went to COP25 as part of the World Council of Churches delegation. Though many years in ordained ministry and the last 25 years as an Anglican bishop, in times past he taught and worked as an economist.