It was a chilly Friday morning, the two of us were standing in the freezing cold under the clear blue sky, the sun in our faces. The streets of the Swiss village Davos were busy, where the World Economic Forum was being held. Right in front of us, dozens of cameras were clicking. We were waiting for the photo session to end, standing side by side. But not for long. As later on, Vanessa was cropped out of a photo of us by the Associated Press, with no mention in their article about her presence at our preceding press conference. Her story, her voice, her face, her suffering and fight weren’t welcome, not even accepted.
Looking at that moment, it is easy to understand the magnitude of structural racism and its connection to the climate crisis. Who is seen, and who isn’t, who is heard, who is affected, who is taken into account when it comes to solving the crisis. The picture cropping summed up our experience there all week. Vanessa went to the World Economic Forum to make her case to the world’s elite that people in Africa are suffering the worst consequences of climate chaos – that we need them to act urgently. Her message, being too uncomfortable, was ignored.
This year, we didn’t travel to the Davos Forum, due to the pandemic hitting. Yet one could almost assume governments had understood our message anyway: during the last year, as industries shut down and global emissions dropped, governments everywhere declared that this should be the turning point, that they were willing to create a “green” and “just” recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Latest numbers confirm what many have been fearing: today, global emission levels are already surpassing pre-Covid levels. To ease the economic impact of the Covid-19 restrictions, billions of US dollars have been invested into fossil fuel infrastructure, short-sightedly pushed over to dirty industries while logging and ecological destruction activities continue. The ecological breakdown is not stopping, the climate crisis keeps being fuelled, lives are being risked like there’s no tomorrow. In light of the unprecedented political action that has come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, we now understand better than ever: the climate crisis has never been treated like a crisis.
We have also learnt that the pandemic doesn’t affect us equally: a year of flooding and locust outbreaks has devastated communities also suffering from the impacts of Covid-19 in Uganda. In parts of the world, where activists face security threats, the pandemic was misused as an excuse to escalate oppression. Young people across the globe struggled with trying to organise their education during lockdowns – the crisis took from them what should be equipping them for future crises. Activists from the most affected areas may not be able to travel to the COP26 to put a spotlight on this devastation, because these countries will have to wait months or years to vaccinate their populations. The past year taught us again how all of these crises are connected, and the inequalities continue to be reinforced.
The pandemic itself is a symptom of our blind destruction of nature that is putting our survival at risk. The Congo rainforest, the Amazon, and countless other ecosystems are being torn down for profit. This destruction brings us in closer contact with zoonotic diseases, thus increasing the risk of pandemics, which the WHO has been warning about for decades. Meanwhile, all these actions are destroying precious carbon sinks, and often the land is cleared for high-emitting industries like animal agriculture.
The fight for climate justice and a conversation about the natural world is not just important for the environment. Stopping the ecological breakdown and ending the war on nature is what is needed for our human population’s very survival. Our war on nature makes people sick. And given the ongoing ecological destruction, it would be foolish to assume that this is the only pandemic humanity will experience this century.
In Germany – one of the top 10 emitters worldwide – the government often tells activists like Luisa to be patient. Change is slow, they say, and we shouldn’t ask for “too much” from the people. Admittedly they have a point: this framing makes perfect sense – as long as you ignore people like Vanessa. Patience doesn’t work when your house is on fire. For millions of people, the 1.2 degree increase of the earth’s temperature is already “too much”. Climate justice isn’t voluntary. Only when we listen to voices from the most affected areas will we truly understand what we are facing. Only if we stop the activities that exacerbate all of the crises today do we have a chance of a liveable future.
During this pandemic, the climate movement across the world is working together, more than ever, to give a platform to these voices, in order to make people pay attention. Despite the burden, despite the incredible struggles people face in the most affected areas, we keep up our fight. We don’t fight because the world is in a state of disaster. We fight because we know that it doesn’t have to be this way forever. We fight because change is coming. We fight because another world is possible. It is possible to bring the world back to a point where we can look ourselves in the eyes again – because we know we stood up for each other just in time, no matter where we lived. It is possible to turn fear into fury, and fury into the fight for a fair future for all. We fight because we know that real climate justice isn’t a myth. We fight because we are not accepting empty promises. We fight. And we won’t give in. And we need you to join.