The COVID-19 crisis is a warning to us all: we must heal nature in order to heal ourselves. As governments around the world prepare massive stimulus packages to repair the damage of COVID-19 shutdowns, they should be harnessing this opportunity to build stronger, more resilient societies. To carry on as before would be a colossal and costly mistake. We are at a critical juncture. We can continue operating within a fundamental untenable and unequal system or we can seize this moment to transform it.
We can no longer ignore the fact that when disasters strike, it’s the most vulnerable who are worst affected, time after time. Just as the world disregarded COVID-19 when it seemed a distant problem, so our climate apartheid, in which the wealthy pay to escape from the worst impacts of climate change, while the poor are left to suffer, will only become bleaker if we continue to turn a blind eye to the effects of climate change on our vulnerable communities.
It is important to understand the links between climate change, health, and inequality. Climate change is intensifying and increasing the number of extreme weather events. Heatwaves can and those most at risk are low income families who cannot afford air conditioning. These are the same groups of people who endure disproportionate levels of pollution from power plants and industrial facilities, and are least likely to get adequate medical care when they fall ill with respiratory diseases.
As the world deals with multiple waves of the pandemic, Latin America has shown that inequality is its achilles heel in mounting an effective response. While the region has made significant progress in overcoming poverty and reducing inequality over the last few decades, it remains one of the most unequal regions in the world. This means not only are the poorest and most vulnerable in society are the most exposed to crises such as climate change, they’re also the least able to escape them. Climate related events, just as COVID-19, are expanding the inequality gap, and they continue to grow in frequency and intensity. Latin America will likely come out of this crisis poorer and with higher income inequality, and thus more vulnerable to ensuing climatic events.
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed 9000 people in Central America. In Honduras the poorest quintile lost 18% of their belongings, while the richest quintile only lost 3%. In 2020 two hurricanes hit, causing an estimated 20% loss of GDP. The UN concluded in a recent report that our climate emergency is likely to undermine not only basic rights to life, water, food and housing for hundreds of millions of people, but also democracy and the rule of law.
Returning to “business as usual” is not an option. Latin America must focus its efforts on a people-centred recovery that focuses on well-being, improves inclusiveness and reduces inequality. Infrastructure investment is likely to be a key component of recovery measures in the region – not only because of its job creation potential – but because increasing climate resilience reduces direct economic damages from climate related disasters and minimises the indirect costs created by the cascading impacts caused by the disruption of both critical services and economic activities. Building on its existing natural capital, the region should also integrate more ambitious policies to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and restore ecosystems through the increased adoption of nature-based solutions. Such programs, if designed well, can be financed through private capital resulting from increased climate related disclosures in the financial sector.
Such transformative changes do not mean starting from a blank slate. The UN Sustainable Development Goals provide an overarching guide for ensuring that social development and well-being is fully integrated with environmental objectives. Five years on from the Paris Agreement, we must acknowledge that increasing adaptation is not a sign of defeat, it is a defense against what is already happening. The right investments can deliver a “triple dividend” by averting future losses, spurring economic gains through innovation, and delivering social and environmental benefits to everyone, but particularly to those affected and most at risk. Focusing on climate adaptation is not giving up on the fight against climate change. It is a renewed commitment in the fight against inequality. And in Latin America, that means adaptation is a renewed commitment to overcome poverty. COVID-19 has pushed 4.8 million people into extreme poverty in the region. Climate change will bring five million more by the end of the decade. A resilient recovery will help tackle both the social, health, economic and climate crisis, making the region more prosperous, more inclusive and more equitable.
8th Secretary-General of the United Nations
Chair of the Board
Global Center on Adaptation
Prof. Dr. Patrick V. Verkooijen
Chief Executive Officer
Global Center on Adaptation