“I have been arguing that in fact even just the notion of green is a bit limiting – that we really have to think of a multi-colored recovery.”
In Episode 1, we speak to Elliott Harris (Chief Economist of the United Nations), Jayati Ghosh (Executive Secretary of International Development Economics Associates) and Mercedes Pombo (Youth Leader of the Youth for Climate Movement) to answer these and other key questions as we look to unpack the green recovery debate.
Watch Episode 1 on YouTube (with Captions)!
Elliott Harris 2:05
Jayati Ghosh 15:45
Mercedes Pombo 30:10
Colm Hastings: 2020 has been a year like no other. By disrupting almost every aspect of our daily lives the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark reminder of our fragile place on this planet. It has also shown us that to return to our old ways of generating energy, of doing business, and of producing and consuming is simply not an option. But from each crisis there comes an opportunity. And now, at this make-or-break moment for humanity, we have the chance to rebuild our world – and our economies – in a way that benefits both people and planet.
Colm Hastings: But the question is – how? With governments investing trillions of dollars to address the fallout from COVID-19, how do we ensure that this time, we do not repeat the mistakes of the past? How do we build back better, as part of a green recovery?
Colm Hastings: My name is Colm Hastings from the Partnership for Action on Green Economy, and this is The Green Renaissance – a new monthly podcast series designed to answer these and other key questions at the heart of the green recovery debate. The stakes have never been higher, so join us once a month as we unpack the complex policy issues that will determine the fate of our economies, our societies, and our planet for decades to come. Mixing voices from government, business, civil society and youth groups, The Green Renaissance is the podcast on the green recovery. Subscribe on SoundCloud, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts, and please give us a rating if you enjoy the series.
Colm Hastings: But to begin with, we need to ask ourselves what a green recovery actually means. In this first episode we speak to Elliott Harris, Chief Economist of the United Nations, Jayati Ghosh, one of the world’s leading development and political economists, and Mercedes Pombo, a prominent youth climate activist in Argentina, to unpack the green recovery debate. We ask these what a green recovery looks like and means to them, why a green recovery from COVID-19 is important, and what challenges we will need to overcome to make this a reality.
Colm Hastings: First, Elliott Harris. Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist of the United Nations. With his work focusing on macroeconomic linkages with social and environmental policies, Elliott speaks here about some of the lessons that he has taken from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elliott Harris: I think the two key takeaways that I would refer to are first and foremost, how interlinked we all are. On the economic side of course, through global trade, we saw that the impact of this pandemic was transmitted around the globe almost instantaneously, through the interruption of global supply chains. And that just shows how tightly interwoven our economies have become.
Elliott Harris: But then when we think about it, and we see how rapidly the pandemic itself spread, in our individual societies and across countries, we realize that our lives as people are also much more intertwined than they were even 20 years ago. And it was impossible for us to prevent the spread, or even slow the spread, with the initial measures that we took. So I think that was an important recognition for all of us.
Elliott Harris: We also saw from that just how closely interlinked our economic activity is, with the degradation that’s going on in the environment around us. It was expectable, but I think it was a surprise nonetheless how rapidly the greenhouse gas emissions subsided in the first months of the crisis when we shut down the economy. I mean if anybody needed any proof of how closely interlinked our economic activities are, with sort of the greenhouse gas emissions and the global warming and climate change, this was it. And I’m glad in a sense that that has happened, because it sort of made it very clear that this is something we have to pay great attention to going forward, breaking that link.
Elliott Harris: But the other thing that I think was a major takeaway for me, is just how deeply inequitable our societies are. Yes, this was a global crisis. Yes it was universal. It affects us all but it does not affect us all in the same way. And we see it every day, I’m sitting here talking to you from my home, and I’m safe. But there are others who can’t earn a living without going out, and exposing them to the danger of infection. And that alone should give us pause and make us think a little bit more carefully about what we want our future to look like. And I think that more than anything else is the key thing that I’m taking away from, from this experience, for our work in the U.N. We know that some things will change.
Elliott Harris: So, part of the reaction to the impact on global trade has been, the reflection that perhaps supply chains have become too long they need to be shortened. We are thinking already about, well what does that mean for the role that global trade will play in development going forward? It’s been the engine of growth and development over the past 40 years, will it continue to play that role? We don’t know. We have to think as well about, how do we structure economic policies in a way that will encourage us to take advantage of what we’ve learned, from the crisis, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and the link of our economies to the use of fossil fuels. What can we do to accelerate the transition that we know must happen?
Colm Hastings: I was recently reading a United Nations policy brief that was released in 2009, calling for a global Green New Deal in response to the last financial crisis. Have things changed now, over the past 10 to 12 years? Are our chances better? Are they worse? Are we facing the same kind of obstacles or challenges, and how do we avoid repeating the same mistakes that have been made before?
Elliott Harris: Yes, things have changed fundamentally. I like to think of it as an idea whose time had not yet come, in the year 2008. In the year 2008, I think, we were still deeply trapped in our typical economic paradigm. It was all about growth, it was all about you know, producing value, and there was no thought really about how we needed to change the way we do that. Today we have the Sustainable Development Goals, we have the sustainable development agenda, as a framework for the way we want our economies and our societies to operate.
Elliott Harris: Most importantly of all, sustainability has entered into the upper echelons of business and finance. The Chief Executive Officers now are thinking about this seriously as a foundation of the way they operate. And that was fundamentally different 12 years ago, that just didn’t exist 12 years ago. There were very few governments who were thinking about that and it was perhaps just a little premature – the green economy, the global Green New Deal – sort of assumed that we would all see the value in taking advantage of this crisis to move ourselves in the direction of sustainability, but we didn’t yet have that consensus around what sustainability meant, or why it was good for us. Today we do.
Elliott Harris: The second thing that is fundamentally different I think, is that now we have on hand technological options that make it possible for us to change in fundamental ways. Twelve years ago, we knew about renewable technologies for, sorry technologies for renewable energy yes but, they were still a little bit too expensive, let’s put it that way. Now no one can deny that solar power for example, is entirely competitive. And so one can think of it, not as an additional cost but as an alternative that we can put in place.
Elliott Harris: Third I think, the evidence of the consequences of not moving towards sustainability are mounting. We look at what’s happening to weather patterns, it’s very clear. We look at also what has been happening in terms of inequalities and how that has manifested itself in social protest. And all of these are elements of what we see going wrong. Our ecosystems are not working as they used to work. We don’t know exactly the scope of the damage, but it’s there. And from that perspective I think, the pump is primed – people now are aware of what is not in sync. They’re aware of what is going wrong. So hopefully yes. I do think we have a greater chance of getting this kind of change underway. We are certainly better placed to do it now, than we were 12 years ago.
Colm Hastings: So as the leading international, well the only truly universal international organization in the world, what is the role of the United Nations in pushing this forward? How do we really make this happen in practice?
Elliott Harris: I think one of the most important roles that the U.N. can play is to just continue to recall, that the world came together five years ago to address the very problems that we’re suffering from today. And that is why we have this complex architecture of Sustainable Development Goals – there are 17 of them – because we understood that we had to operate on all these different fronts. And so, instead of trying to search around for new solutions when we have the solutions in place, I think the United Nations can and should just recall to people, that we’ve gone through all of the reasoning, and all of the soul searching, and all of the experimentation that we need. We know what to do – the time has come to do it.
Elliott Harris: I think the second thing that we have to point out is that the reason we have the sustainable development agenda is because we came together. Five years ago the entire world came together, to figure out what the entire world wanted. What we’ve seen since then, is we’ve stepped back a little bit from that spirit of global cooperation. That, what we’d like to call the multilateralism. And that is perhaps, one of the reasons why it has been so difficult for us to have a truly solidarity-based response to this global crisis. Because it does affect us all.
Elliott Harris: I think in many respects, the U.N.’s second most important responsibility is to continue to hammer home, the need for a cooperative and multilateral approach. That we will all only be safe, when all of us are safe. That a vaccination doesn’t help, if large parts of the world population are not vaccinated. And that recovery can only then be considered complete, when all are on the path to recovery. We don’t want to leave anyone behind. We agreed, five years ago, that we don’t want to leave anyone behind.
Elliott Harris: Now what we have with COVID, is a really large opportunity that we should not let escape. Because, in the response to COVID governments have shown themselves capable of absolutely massive action. They were able to intervene almost instantaneously. Of course, we learned our lessons from 2008, but they were able to do it right away. They didn’t hesitate, and I would go so far as to say although our economic crisis has been really, really damaging, it would have been way worse if we had had the same mindset or the same tools that we had available in 2008. Happily, we’re in 2020, we know how to do these things a little bit better.
Elliott Harris: But we need for governments to display that same entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit, on a global level in cooperation with each other. Because one of the big challenges that we’re going to face next year, is how to ensure that the vaccine is made available everywhere. And we can’t do that individual country by individual country, we need to do it in the spirit of global cooperation.
Elliott Harris: We need to talk about the kinds of innovations that we will have to have. We need to talk about, for example, how are we going to create the space for individual countries to do what they need to do, to help their economies to recover, given that they have this massive debt burden. What are going to be some of the options for dealing with that. We won’t be able to do that country by country, we need to come together. We need to think about what we do, as well, on financing you know, this whole movement towards the sustainable development agenda. And how we get the private sector to take the lead role that it’s ready to play. And for all of these I think, the U.N. can be the space where we bring people together, bring countries together, bring societies together, to talk about it.
Elliott Harris: And we’ve already done that this year, it’s been really interesting. The Secretary-General and the leaders of Jamaica and Canada, convened a high-level meeting back in May, to talk about financing for sustainable development in the context of COVID. And a series of working groups produced a whole range of different options of how the global community could deal with things like that. With dealing with illicit financing flows, with the digital economy and its taxation, and all the various aspects that come together. To mobilize finance for the types of investments we need, at the highest level.
Elliott Harris: These were Heads of State talking about it. Ministers of Finance talking about these issues, in the U.N. which has never happened before. And I think that that is the model that we can follow. People want to be able to work with each other, the U.N. is a natural space for that to happen, and happily now things have evolved a little bit in the last couple of months that, give us a prospect that more international collaboration is likely, or possible – much more likely than it was just a while ago.
Colm Hastings: You’ve already touched on some of the key elements that I guess you would consider as being part of a green recovery. So you spoke just there about the need to address inequalities, to have the private sector on board. So what would your green recovery vision be for the future?
Elliott Harris: Well I think I would start by saying – again I live in the world of public policy – I would say the first and most important thing for us to do, to achieve, is to as quickly as possible make sure that we don’t have any policies in place that support unsustainable activities. It is beyond acceptability that we should be subsidizing coal, or other forms of fossil fuel, with public money. I’m sorry that just goes in the wrong direction. It’s hard to get away from that of course, but there are other ways to provide the support that such measures are usually intended to provide, without perpetuating something that is actually killing us.
Elliott Harris: So, I pick on fossil fuels because, of course it’s a really critical part of the climate action agenda, and climate has to be the most critical crisis that we face after COVID. But there are lots of other areas where we can shift our policies, so that our outcomes are not so inequitable. So that, we have greater resilience. So that, people do have access to health care, when they need it. And that education is available to all, so that all can benefit from the progress we’re making.
Elliott Harris: I think we also have to be willing to prioritize. I mean, not everything can be done simultaneously, we don’t have the resources for that. But there is a lot that can be done that might generate benefits elsewhere. So for example, one thing I do like to look at is technology. You know we’ve seen that, because of the lockdowns we’ve been able to use online technologies to continue to work in – not every case but in many cases – we’ve been able to try to replace in-person schooling and so on and so forth. That’s accelerated the digitalization of our economies. That’s a thing that could be a very positive aspect of our future development.
Elliott Harris: But again, it has a massive downside because there exists a very deep technological divide between the haves and the have-nots. If we allow the technology just to proceed, without shaping it and guiding it, well we’re going to end up in a worse place than we are now. And so I think a green economy is not only possible, it’s necessary and I think it’s desirable on virtually all counts, but I think we all have to have a discussion around how we would get there. Realizing it’s not a flip of a switch, that we’re not going to kill off the fossil fuel industry overnight. And that might help to deal with some of the concerns that people have, when they realize they’re going to be part of the solution as well.
Elliott Harris: But we will have to all agree on what we can do and how quickly we can go. And I think just that process of coming together, and doing it in the spirit of cooperation, will help us to achieve that kind of just transition, make it possible for us to move ahead more rapidly. Not only because we’re dealing with recovering from this horrible crisis. But because we realize that when we put our minds to it, all things are possible.
Colm Hastings: Next, Jayati Ghosh. Leading development and political economist, and Executive Secretary of International Development Economics Associates. Here she explains that our vision for a global recovery must take in other colours beyond green.
Jayati Ghosh: The idea of a green recovery is essentially rooted in the acceptance that we are facing a major existential crisis for humanity in the form of climate change, and also that we have destroyed the environment and nature to such an extent that it will come back and boomerang on us – not just in the form of climate change, but in a whole range of other ecological disasters.
Jayati Ghosh: So the idea of a green recovery is that, when we try and bring economies back from the collapse that the pandemic has created, we try to build back better is the term – the other soundbite that is very common – by recognizing that we can’t go back to the earlier pattern of growth. That we have to recognize the impact on nature, on the environment, and on the climate. And we have to refigure our economies, and in fact also our societies, in ways that allow this.
Jayati Ghosh: But, if I can add to the sound bite. I have been arguing that in fact, even just the notion of green is a bit limiting. That we really have to think of a multi-coloured recovery, so if I could explain what that means. We definitely need it to be green – that is to say to cope with climate change in particular, and the attack on a whole range of natural resources. But one aspect of the resources that is often missed out is water, and so I think it has to also be a blue recovery.
Jayati Ghosh: In the developing world, water is such a critical issue. The destruction of water resources, is something that we don’t adequately pay attention to, and it’s a very very significant thing. So we really have to think of public investments, and of distribution of water, and of how we generate the clean water, and how we make potable water available to the entire population of the globe in sustainable ways. So it has to be blue as well.
Jayati Ghosh: But it also has to be purple. Now what is purple, it’s the colour of the care economy. And one thing the pandemic has revealed, is the significance of care. Now what’s alarming is that even though it’s revealed the significance of care, and of the importance of healthcare workers, they’re still not valued. You still have the fact that frontline healthcare workers, doctors, nurses, everyone – they are still not remunerated adequately. They’re still not protected, even when they’re dealing with the virus they’re not often given the means for adequate protection.
Jayati Ghosh: There’s huge amounts of unpaid and underpaid care work being performed. Again mostly in developing countries but pretty much across the world. There’s huge inequality in terms of the lower paid care workers, and how we treat them and the working conditions. So we really have to make care a central part of our recovery. And one of the good things about investing a lot in care is not just that it makes for a better quality of life for everybody, but it also is hugely employment generating. And it has therefore very strong multiplier effects.
Jayati Ghosh: So in a world where everyone is worried that technological change is going to take away all our jobs, and that you know, automation is going to destroy employment. Care work, along with creative industries, they provide very important avenues for future employment generation. So purple is a very important part of this.
Jayati Ghosh: And the other colour I want to mention that I think we have to focus on is red. Red for redistribution, if you like. Red for egalitarian recovery. Which means that all of this is going to cost money, that’s obvious. But you cannot do this on the backs of those who are already suffering, impoverished and materially insecure. You have to actually, get these resources from the rich. From those who are benefiting from all this technological change. From the elites who have grown richer, since the global financial crisis, and many of whom have got even richer during the pandemic.
Jayati Ghosh: So it has to be a recovery which is largely financed by taxing the wealthy. And I don’t mean just any old normal middle class wealthy, I mean the super super wealthy. There is a lot of scope for going after the 0.1 percent – not even the 1 percent, just the 0.1 percent. Just taxing them very very small amounts, will actually generate huge amounts of resources.
Jayati Ghosh: Taxing multinationals at the same rate the domestic companies are taxed. That means you don’t allow them to shift their profits around to low tax jurisdiction, because you have a unitary rate for their global profits. That would already reap huge amounts of revenue for all countries, developed and developing. So it’s important for spending for a recovery, and we know we have to have lots of spending. It’s important for that recovery to be redistributed and that’s why red is the other colour I would mention.
Colm Hastings: In the past you’ve referred to people that describe the Green New Deal – and by association I imagine these same people would also attach this to a green recovery – as being utopian, or a socialist pipe dream. One that is unaffordable, one that is completely unrealistic. So how do we convince those that may share this belief? What factors and forces are preventing a green recovery from becoming a reality, and how do we overcome these?
Jayati Ghosh: It’s extraordinary that, you know, when progressives demand let’s say a 10 percent increase in government spending we’re told – oh we are utopian, you’re crazy. You have no sense of the economy, et cetera. And yet, when finance wants it, it happens overnight. And you get a 10 increase in government spending because it happens to suit finance.
Jayati Ghosh: So a lot of the answer to this clearly is political. It is the ability of the elites – particularly the financial elites, large capital and I would increasingly add digital capital today – it’s the ability of these elites to influence the media. To influence public policy making. To influence broader public perception. So that there are some apparent truths that are hammered down on everyone, like you cannot run a fiscal deficit if it is something that is going to provide basic needs to people. And yet, when it suits them, the money is transferred to the rich and the powerful, very quietly, without any of the terrible results that are supposed to happen.
Jayati Ghosh: So a lot of it has to do with public perception, and the ability to get people to understand what’s at stake. Across the world we have, I think, the American expression is turkeys voting for Christmas – you know, people voting for or supporting politics and policy measures that are against their own interests. And that’s really because they have been persuaded, and they’ve been persuaded by this unholy nexus between large capital and media. Including social media, because we know now that a lot of the information doesn’t come through traditional media, it comes from social media which too, is very aggressively, advocating certain positions, and enabling certain positions.
Jayati Ghosh: I think we need to focus on that. We need to think of ways of regulating media. And, regulating the ways in which – in a democratically accountable way, regulating the ways in which – mistruths, fake news, et cetera, all of those things are spread.
Colm Hastings: I was recently reading a United Nations policy brief – I think it was written by the United Nations Environment Programme – that was kind of promoting the idea of a global Green New Deal in 2009, in response to the last economic crisis that happened a year earlier. And many of the arguments that were being made at that time are, in fact, exactly the same arguments that are being made now, in favour of a green recovery. So I wanted to ask – what would you say makes this moment different, to the one ten years ago? And how do we avoid repeating the same mistakes again? I mean in some ways, as you just mentioned social media – maybe the challenges are even more difficult now than they were ten years ago.
Jayati Ghosh: To be honest things are worse now than they were then. Right, we didn’t do the things that were advocated then and that means the problems have gotten more intense. Even though they’ve been pushed a little bit out of sight. They’re actually festering, and growing, and becoming even worse. We have greatly entrenched the power of those who are already in power. Finance did not get punished in any way, or even regulated sufficiently. We now have the emergence of new monsters, as I mentioned, in the large digital companies. And we have the emergence of authoritarian – I won’t call them leaders – authoritarian people in power. Who are able to use all of these things to their advantage, to suppress dissent and to suppress democracy. So yeah – things are much worse than they were a decade ago, or 12 years ago. Let’s not kid ourselves.
Jayati Ghosh: Nonetheless, I feel that – okay maybe I’m being over optimistic but I do believe humanity steps back from the brink. We have stepped back in the past, from global wars, from all kinds of terrible things. And this is one of those situations where we are at the brink, I think – not to put too fine a point upon it. There’s no doubt that we are facing major ecological disasters. That this particular pandemic is just a sign of things to come. The nature of our food systems, and the peculiar and rather stupid way in which we globalized food, generates a lot more possibilities of not just zoonotic diseases but a range of other health issues. And we need to do drastic change.
Jayati Ghosh: I believe that, when it comes to the crunch humanity is able to do these drastic changes. And often – and that’s the other thing I’ve said because I’ve been around for quite a long time – that, progressive change also comes from directions we don’t always anticipate. When we, you know, when we’re looking for our saviours if you like – even among the left and among progressive groups – we tend to look in particular directions. It doesn’t always work that way.
Jayati Ghosh: In history, all kinds of people have emerged unexpectedly as championing progressive causes, even when the traditional or existing progressive movement didn’t think that they were the ones who would do that. I have a feeling this is going to be the same. Change will come not necessarily from the direction we’re looking at. But there are too many forces that make the need for change irresistible, and therefore I think societies and people will respond.
Colm Hastings: What have you made of the global response to the pandemic up to now? Has this made you more or less hopeful, I guess, that the world is capable of making these necessary steps towards a green or indeed multi-coloured recovery?
Jayati Ghosh: To be honest so far the global response has been very very disappointing. I would have even said pathetic – yes, maybe I will say it’s pathetic. It has not provided any sign of real international solidarity, or coordination. Even something like the vaccine. The COVAX Alliance was a very good idea, was well-developed. But because it didn’t ensure that the countries who had signed into it, didn’t do side-deals. The minute we have vaccines emerging we’re seeing an unseemly rush to corner the market. From the U.S., from the European Union, from Japan – all the developed countries are rushing to buy their doses, leaving developing countries and the COVAX members out in the cold. So that’s a really extreme example of the continued misplaced nationalism, that is evident during this pandemic.
Jayati Ghosh: It’s evident in so many other ways. The U.S. blocking an issue of new Special Drawing Rights – SDRs, international liquidity – which is a costless way of providing some relief, especially to the developing world. The inability to deal with all the sovereign debt issues. I mean frankly a lot of this debt is unpayable, and the sooner you resolve it the less pain for everyone, including creditors. But there seems to be no urgency in addressing that. Many developing countries are deregulating on carbon emissions, on other environment, in a desperate push to somehow get GDP growth back on track, post-pandemic. So many of the things that are happening are going in exactly the wrong way.
Jayati Ghosh: That does not mean that it stays that way. I think there are signs of positive change. I would argue that the electoral defeat of President Trump – even though he doesn’t recognize it – is one that presages, a different direction. And in many other countries too I think there are, demands for more of the dealing with both bread and butter issues, and medium-term issues of sustainability, that are going to become more and more significant. In different parts of the world we have experienced sudden eruptions of popular protest.
Jayati Ghosh: Now it’s true that these have not immediately translated, into progressive change, or even immediate policy changes. But that’s not how history works. History, if you look back in time, all of the major forces have always been preceded by periods of this kind of continuous change. Continuous public eruptions, that have actually led to – over time – greater public awareness, mobilization, and finally demands that States simply have to accede to. So I think that’s what gives me hope. The fact that there is a lot of this spontaneous protest. I just hope I live long enough to see that protest come to fruition, but I’m fairly certain that it’s going to happen.
Colm Hastings: And finally Mercedes Pombo. Youth Leader for the Youth for Climate Movement, and philosophy student at the University of Buenos Aires. Here Mercedes explains how the pandemic has shifted the discussions on social inequalities, and the climate crisis.
Mercedes Pombo: I think the pandemic was mostly a catalyst for a lot of social discussions, and that these discussions have now changed. Discussions on the climate crisis always existed around the idea that it is an abstract issue for the future, and not something that we have to worry about in the present. And I think the pandemic broke with that a little bit, understanding that there is a very close link between what we are going through and the pressures on biodiversity and nature. And in that sense I believe that the discussion on normality, and if we want to return to the way we were before – I mean, it is precisely that past that brought us here. We really have to change course as humanity if we want to ensure a decent quality of life.
Mercedes Pombo: I think another lesson that the pandemic has taught us, or at least for me, is the different impact it has on different sectors of society. Quarantine is not the same for those sectors of society that can stay in their homes, that can work from their homes, that have a fixed salary. And then there are others that don’t have an income if the economy shuts down, who can’t work from their homes, who can’t quarantine because they do not have a habitat that allows it. And in this sense, it is also a lesson of how the various consequences of the climate crisis will increasingly impact these social injustices.
Colm Hastings: So has this, kind of, impacted your thinking on how the world can respond to and eventually recover from the pandemic? I mean at the United Nations here we are also talking about the need to build back better as art of a green recovery. I know that’s the kind of line that many countries around the world are also now using. If I understand correctly, in Argentina President Fernandez – and who I understand you also met recently – has talked of a “green reconstruction.” But what does this actually mean in practice? And what would you say are the key and most important steps that the world needs to take, if we are now to look forwards, and not backwards anymore?
Mercedes Pombo: I believe that to think of the recovery in environmental terms, we have to take into account the environmental issue as a central factor. On the other hand, we must also take into account the concept of transition and understand that one of the problems of this crisis is social injustice, and that even as a means of adaptation it is essential to reduce these inequalities.
Mercedes Pombo: But also, I believe it is important to understand that we cannot have a sustainable recovery if we do not structurally modify the way we produce and consume. Understanding that the problem is clearly structural, it is important that countries are now taking action, or at least announcing plans that promise those measures. And the fact that countries with international leadership and geopolitical impact are taking the initiative in this regard is important, and I think one of the fundamental steps.
Colm Hastings: So you’ve spoken in the past about the need for grassroots and social movements to shape public policy, and that deep social transformation can only be achieved when there is a demand for it by a large majority. I think it’s fair to say that implementing a transition – or some of the changes that we’ve spoken about – will not be possible without huge public support. So what lessons can we learn from the youth climate movements around the world, in terms of mobilizing and building this public support?
Mercedes Pombo: I think that climate movements, and a series of other emerging activist movements, have demonstrated that there is a chance to think of a movement that arises from the bases of society to the leaders. And which bring answers that may not be necessarily visible at first sight, understanding that while the consequences we are facing are in the present, it is a moment that requires a long-term vision. It is necessary to have a movement that understands what rights are being affected, how they will affect them in the future, and what are the needs of our time.
Mercedes Pombo: And in that sense I believe that there is a whole generation that has understood the needs of their era, and what steps are needed to protect those basic rights – like the right to the future, and as we were just saying the rights of the great majorities. I think that all social and cultural movements, including trade unions, have to take into account this need to look after their interests, for the interests of the majority.
Mercedes Pombo: Understanding that there is a very small section of society that are the only ones benefiting, or that because this issue is cross-cutting to all they are also going to be affected, but that they are the most powerful tools they will have in dealing with the consequences. It’s therefore essential that climate change movements and social movements take up this fight.
Colm Hastings: To what extent would you say this process of cultural transformation is part of a broader battle against the same forces that also includes issues relating to justice, to human rights, and to gender inequalities – just to name three examples. At the moment, it seems that we still have a tendency to consider these issues in isolation, and to try and tackle them separately as individual battles. So how do we ensure that when we are addressing these issues, that we are doing so collectively?
Mercedes Pombo: I think they are often taken as isolated issues when they are in fact part of the same logic of oppression and injustice, and which potentiate one another. One of the things the pandemic has shown is that there are differentiated impacts for men and women. Not only because of the feminization of poverty, but also because care tasks continue to fall on women, and that they are the ones in favelas growing food to feed the population.
Mercedes Pombo: And in that sense I think it’s essential to bear in mind that it is an intersectional struggle, and that we cannot fight exclusively against gender inequality, the climate crisis or inequality in general without taking into account they are part of the same battle. And that all structural issues are enhanced by the climate crisis, and that the consequences of the climate crisis are not only environmental problems, but fundamentally socio-ecological problems, and that the disasters announced in the projections of the various international organizations are really social disasters.
Mercedes Pombo: All of these movements have enormous transformative potential, and this has been seen in different processes around the world, like in the United States, where the impact that they had in the election, in anti-racism protests, and climate change protests was huge. These new activist movements are urgent, and different approaches to the problem increase the flow of power needed to fight these sectors.
Colm Hastings: What have you personally made of the, kind of, global response, up to now? Has this made you more or less hopeful, that the world is currently on track to make the necessary steps towards a greener, fairer and more inclusive future?
Mercedes Pombo: I think on the one hand there were a lot of discussions around the question of whether to protect health or the economy, which I think is a discussion that often also happens with regard to the environment. And I think that the pandemic showed that there is no desire for that division, because if health falls – if the health system collapses – this directly impacts the economy, and that’s very similar to what happens with the environment.
Mercedes Pombo: In that sense, I think the discussions that also took place around the need to respond to what the scientific community demands, and it being one of the voices or the authoritative voice to base our cases on, was positive. Many governments also correctly pointed out that the division that is established to differentiate between economic interests and environmental interests responds to the interests of a few, often with a direct relationship between those who finance political campaigns and those who decide not to protect the population in extreme situations like this one.
Mercedes Pombo: On the other hand, something less positive that the pandemic showed us that countries often waited to see what was happening in other countries before taking action. No strong measures were taken against the spread of the pandemic, or quarantines established, until in other countries the situation had become very critical and this is something that cannot happen with climate change, because at that point no action is possible. Once the consequences or worse consequences of the crisis materialize, it is very difficult to take action.
Mercedes Pombo: In that sense, it gave us an indication of the need to take action before these extreme situations are reached. And if it has demonstrated the ability of governments or some governments to take quick and efficient measures to contain a critical situation, then the same criteria has to be used for the climate crisis – which is more comprehensive, and going to trigger more problems like the ones we’re seeing.
Colm Hastings: That was The Green Renaissance. Please subscribe on SoundCloud, Spotify and wherever you get your podcasts to receive new episodes each month. Also don’t forget to give us a rating if you enjoy the series, and if you’d like to learn more about the green recovery, The Partnership for Action on Green Economy has developed a series of e-learning courses on key green recovery topics. Just visit www.uncclearn.org and enrol for free today. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you soon.