By: Jennifer Griggs

The last few months have seen devastation on an unprecedented scale due to the COVID-19 crisis: over 500,000 lives have been lost, and even more livelihoods crippled. But perversely, that which takes away also gives. On a practical level, the need for unprecedented economic stimulus gives us the chance to throw away the rulebook historically used by governments and corporates and start afresh; on a conceptual level, the disruption we’ve experienced has dismantled our preconceptions and given us the powerful opportunity to imagine a different global set-up.

For now, I will focus on the climate crisis and outline the UN’s pivotal role in ensuring that we make the most of the current opportunity to address this challenge. Of course, there are countless other global inequalities needing direct response, and the UN must also continue its work to dismantle all of these. The ability to access healthcare and ‘socially distance’ which many of us take for granted, for instance, has opened our eyes to the 12 million Yemeni children for whom this is not possible, and our now-heightened awareness of inequalities like these will be instrumental in driving the global response. However, climate change is inextricably linked to many humanitarian inequalities: it intersects strongly with social background and gender, for instance by posing chemical and social threats to normal female reproduction, and disproportionately affecting the global poor (of whom 70% are female). Once we address the climate crisis, we can begin to turn inequalities such as these on their heads.

The UN must first of all continue its work around setting coherent climate frameworks and coordinating their implementation – now more than ever, given the new opportunity for countries to rebuild, and given each country’s idiosyncratic post-COVID needs. However, the UN needs to maintain and increase engagement with not just countries, but individual sectors too. COVID-19 has given us a unique chance to do so, since the biggest ‘climate offenders’ have also been the worst hit. On paper it seems easy to capitalise on these industries’ weaknesses – airlines, shippers, and oil companies, brought to their knees by the combined impact of COVID-19 and the oil price war – and “Bail out people, not Big Oil”. However, these ideas create an ethical dilemma. How can we tell vast swathes of often underprivileged oil communities that their jobs will be cut? The UN must make sure that its policy frameworks for the post-COVID world push for a fast energy transition, while factoring in the social ramifications of industry shrinkage, and incorporating green job creation plans for the vulnerable.

While the oil industry may contribute disproportionately to climate change (and the global poor and women may suffer disproportionately from it), we ultimately all contribute to it and suffer from it to some extent, and this brings me onto my second point: that the UN must continue communicating its climate research to the whole of civil society. There is a lot at stake here, since the more widespread our climate knowledge, the more of us will act, and the more of our peers act, the easier it is to make personal sacrifices. As Naomi Klein writes, when we know that what we are doing is for a common greater good, we have historically been willing to make far greater sacrifices without thinking twice.

Finally, we especially need to engage the young. Again, COVID-19 has opened a window of opportunity here: the young have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 through disrupted education and foregone opportunities – even more so for the 90% of young people in developing countries. If before we had the greatest vested interest in a greener future, now our interest will be even stronger. If before we were keen to embark on green careers, now our resolve will be even stronger. If before we were the most ambitious, now we will have even greater ambition in turning the future we want into a reality.

As we begin to emerge from the ashes of the first wave of the COVID crisis, the human race confronts a crossroads between change and continuity. We’ve known since the IPCC’s First Assessment Report in 1990 that change is the only way to avoid disaster, but the deeper we find ourselves in the climate crisis, the more reluctant we are to imagine the transformational change we need, even if that change lies within the realms of possibility – an example of what Gunther Anders calls the ‘imagination gap’ (a common impediment to effective crisis response). Now that the opportunity to visualise and effect change is presenting itself to us on a plate, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to recognise the possibility of a more sustainable world. The UN is the institution best placed to push us all to think big, and to act fast to turn our aspirations into reality.