COP27 – Systems Change for Climate Action

On day 2 of the COP27, session 3: High-level Session on Systems Change and Climate and Sustainability Innovations examined the deep paradigm shift needed for effective climate action. There was one key overarching message that I took from this session that also resonated with my own work: we need a radical rethink of our economic systems, social justice, and the way we approach natural resources.

There were two issues that panelists argued need addressing in terms of innovation if we are to address climate change effectively and timely: 1) decoupling human wellbeing from the use of natural resources; 2) power, or rather the decentralization of power. Both issues are addressed in a Buen Vivir framework, which is one reason why I focus on the concept, not only for social wellbeing but ecological wellbeing too. It ties into yesterday’s discussion on empowering local communities for climate action.

Janez Potocnik, Co-Chair of UN International Resource Panel hit the nail on the head when he argued that we need to move from an economy that sees humans as external to nature, to one which understands humans are a part of nature. He also stated that we need to remove the causes which lead to negative impacts, of which extractivism is a core function because it is a driver of human needs, but it is also the cause of great inequalities.

Janez argued that to live sustainably, we must move to provisioning for human needs, rather than servicing existing paradigms. I argue further that in that, we must also provision for environmental needs. Without taking into consideration the needs natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity have to continue to function and thrive, we risk destroying them to the detriment of society.

Dr Andres Steer, President of Bezos Earth Fund brought up the critical issue of power and control – that in the absence of empowering local communities to take action on the ground, any advances in innovation (whether that be technological, knowledge, economic, or otherwise) are void. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to effective climate action, the ability for decision and policy-makers, and others who hold the balance of power to cede some of that power to local communities to identify and implement solutions.

We see this with the concept of neoliberal development, under which the idea of sustainable development – and multilateral policymaking forums – sit. The overarching paradigm sees one set of values as dominant and therefore urges everyone to take the same approach, without having any idea about local challenges and the context on the ground. Dr Steer urged the UN to consider this transformative climate action, pleading, “as we think about changing the system, let’s not forget that on Monday morning we need to address real problems on the ground.” In other words, high-level aspirational commitments are nice, “and make for good dinner party conversation”, but are not always conducive to feeding effective solutions in real-time.

In closing this session, the facilitator summarised that “we have called for radical rethink. We have called for accepting that we will have to act in crisis. We are not going to be dealing with a world that is not in crisis.”

On that note, it is reassuring to hear the acknowledgment that frameworks and concepts like Buen Vivir, Donut Economics, Degrowth, Circular Society, and others that were once considered too ‘radical’ and pie-in-the-sky, could bring the kinds of holistic empowerment solutions the world needs in times of urgent climate crisis. Now it is about taking these from idea to action.

Why Elon Musk Can’t End our Crises

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, has made headlines again this week for hos $61.6 billion takeover bid for social media platform Twitter.

Political activists and media outlets have taken to declaring that his wealth would be better spent on solving world hunger and climate change. While it may be true that that money could be better spent for good, solving our global crises is not as simple as money.

WFP estimates that up to 811 million people around the world do not have enough food, and 44 million are on the brink of famine. Last year, David Beasley, the Director of the World Food Programme challenged Musk to use his wealth to fight world hunger. A plan for $6.6b, he said, could address the food crisis for 42 million people in 43 countries by providing one meal a day. That would be a great start, but it’s more complex than that.

What institutions fail to recognize publicly when they speak of the current situation of global poverty are the historical drivers behind it. Global poverty and inequality are the result of grave historic political, economic, social and environmental failures. No amount of money will “fix” it. In fact, it is paradoxical to depend on the system that created the wealth gap and climate emergency to solve it.

Unfortunately social, economic and environmental crises are intertwined. Climate change is only making poverty worse and vice-versa. Capitalism is killing the planet and its people.

Environmental writer George Monbiot says, “you might expect an intelligent species to respond to these signals swiftly and conclusively, by radically altering its relationship with the living world. But this is not how we function. Our great intelligence, our highly evolved consciousness that once took us so far, now works against us.”

The world, our planet and its people depend on a complex web of systems- a delicate equilibrium which has been severely destabilized by global capitalism. Economic growth requires us to consume more and more, which exploits our natural resources, destroys habitats and biodiversity beyond repair. Economic crises are environmental crises.

Take the African continent alone. Extreme povery has ravaged the continent for decades. Structural poverty. Climate change has worsened the already dire situation of extreme and relative poverty because resulting devastating floods and extraordinary drought periods in recent years have led to crop failures and severe food insecurity. This will only worsen. It has been said time and time again that those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are those who have not caused it in the first place.

Regardless of the political showdown between Musk and those who believe he should spend his fortunes on world hunger. The same economic system that leads to the creation of millionaires, billionaires and trillionaires is the same system that is at the very root of our global economic and social crises.

There is no doubt that $6b could address problems of world hunger in the here and now by providing immediate assistance to those who need it. Yet, solving world hunger, poverty and the climate crisis are going to take more than just economic investments. The root structural and systemic causes first need to be acknowledged, regretted, and changed.

I’ll leave you with the words of Monbiot, “more important than the direct impacts of the ultra-wealthy is the political and cultural power with which they block effective change. Their cultural power relies on a hypnotising fairytale. Capitalism persuades us that we are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This is why we tolerate it. In reality, some people are extremely rich because others are extremely poor: massive wealth depends on exploitation.”