As the year 2021 begins, the crisis carries on. We continue to analyze the multiple consequences of a pandemic that has put our societies in check and exposed systemic vulnerabilities.
Everyone was of course conscious of the many short-term challenges faced by countries throughout the world, especially developing countries. In the wake of the greatest recession in centuries, we have experienced profound setbacks resulting in poverty, inequality, and increasing school dropout rates, to name a few; the list is long, and it has created discomfort for the vast majority of humanity. Citizens deservedly demand that their governments act with urgency in response to such catastrophes, in order to build dynamic, inclusive and sustainable recovery agendas that prevent social divides from deepening, or becoming more permanent, thanks to our indifference.
It would be a mistake to lead these recovery efforts without a long-term view, sensitive to the ecological crisis and climate change. Among the multitudinous, difficult lessons the pandemic has taught is, it has demonstrated how being unprepared is simply unaffordable. We must approach this experience as a wakeup call, aware of how, as my friend in Costa Rica used to say, «the short-term and long-term begin at the same time.»
The COVID-19 crisis has indeed served as devastating proof (as have the fires in Australia at the beginning of 2020, the deterioration of the Brazilian Amazon, the floods experienced this year in several countries in Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as the recent hurricane Iota devastating Central America) that the environmental crisis we are suffering has not only been cemented, but it has also been accelerating for decades.
The polar ice caps and glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, two and a half times faster than during the last century. Eighteen of the 19 years with the highest planetary temperatures recorded have occurred post-2000. In other words, virtually every year in the past 20 years has been warmer than the previous. Scientific research projects that at this rate, the planet’s temperature will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2050. This, in turn, will cause a substantial rise in sea levels.
In exceeding this temperature, the loss of species and biodiversity will become irreparable, and major, extreme environmental phenomena (including droughts, hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes) will take place more frequently, affecting millions of people throughout the planet. This will generate humanitarian crises. Examples include ones that we are already witnessing, including the so-called «dry corridor» of Central America, from which hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers and coffee farmers are fleeing. If this trend continues, even the best-case scenario will resemble a bad scenario. We cannot delude ourselves otherwise.
One of author Elena Poniatowska’s characters states, «I do not choose what is right for me.» Like her, we should remain conscious of the fact that if we continue this way, we are not choosing what is right for us, nor will we choose what is right for us. At this point in time, humanity is not choosing what is right for itself, because our modes of production and consumption are leading to self-destruction.
At the same time, while the COVID-19 pandemic is symptomatic of something greater, and serves as a wake-up call and alarm, fearmongering does nothing to fix the issue. We must operate in crisis mode, without descending into panic mode. We must remain alert, but not frightened. Defeatism and pessimism are of no use, as they are passive emotions; instead, we require the opposite. We have an immense task ahead of us, and to accomplish it as quickly as is necessary, we must nurture a sense of hope, possibility, innovation and creativity. We must call for collective, multi-actor and multi-level action. This is a cross-cutting moment for both societies and territories. Society and geography are intertwined. This is particularly the case in Latin America as the most urbanized region on the planet (with 80% of its population living in rural areas). At the height of the COVID-19 health emergency, we have witnessed cities around the world transform into epidemiological epicenters (becoming concentrations of contagion and death), and simultaneously converting into epicenters of health management and prevention, reorganizing services, closing or vacating, according to their populations’ needs.
In this sense, we could venture that, «transformation will take place via cities, or not at all,» as cities concentrate population, production and environmental footprint (including at the political level) to the point that the urban and local become fundamental in facing the great challenges that lie ahead. At the same time, we must take into account the entire urban-rural spectrum, especially indigenous communities, which represent the sentinels of a quarter of the world’s diversity. We can leave no one behind.
Humanity’s greatest challenge in coordination
The COVID-19 pandemic has, above all, become a challenge in global coordination. The world’s various countries were unexpectedly forced to share solutions and equipment, to coordinate border closures or repatriation flights, to procure urgent materials from distant factories, and to agree on different criteria. This time, more than ever, the interconnectedness of our world has led to our interdependence.
However, even though we have suddenly become aware of our common destiny, this did not prevent a beyond national, «nationalistic,» response, as political interests ran contrary to coordinated and joint action. Moreover, the international level became too overwhelming, both in terms of reacting with sufficient speed and in the international organizations’ and agencies’ available instruments to deal with the pandemic.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated anything, it is that we are not institutionally organized for the challenges of today. I believe it is very much linked with risk aversion within our institutions. This is an issue that is not discussed much, but in my opinion, is responsible for gradually expelling innovative talent from such institutions. In order to achieve something innovative, possessing resilience in the face of failure is key. No one can innovate without failing. This is precisely what our institutions lack. They maintain an antiquated mentality, espousing the idea that entrepreneurship is only advisable if it guarantees results, as if it were possible to predict the unknown. This mindset works at cross-purposes, representing inertia that maintains our institutions operating via outdated systems, with little or no room for potential new ideas, innovative solutions or political courage.
This is all reinforced by a culture that penalizes failure and does not reward initiative. Our aversion to failure is to such an extent that if a public official attempts something innovative that does not work, not only will he or she not be applauded in their attempt (and for the inevitable lessons that trial and error offers), but they will have to assume all of the costs incurred. This way of thinking is incongruent with innovation and entrepreneurship, which are concepts that are usually exclusively linked with the private sector, yet remain fundamental for public institutions (including multilateral ones). We need institutions that are open: to ideas, to alliances and to mistakes.
A second problem with today’s institutions includes how they often lack long-term incentive, which then makes inter-temporal justice difficult. In my country of Costa Rica, a popular saying comes to mind when discussing climate issues: «one person eats the pineapple, and then sometimes another’s belly hurts.» This is descriptive of what many Global South countries may experience, as despite the fact that there CO2 emissions are relatively low as compared with those of more industrialized countries, they suffer most directly from climate change. In order words, some have reaped benefits while others are left to bear the unjust consequences of decades of excess.
The most significant challenges facing humanity, and the great threat of environmental crisis, requires public management, both at the national and international level, with the capacity to conceive of and plan for the long term. We require an institutional framework that can be sustained over time, with the ability to strategize beyond the immediate political cycle. We do not need leaders who only manage with the next election cycle in view—rather, they should be considering the next generation.
Escaping the political ups and downs of public policies, and taking measures to safeguard the rights of future generations, is a practically unattainable goal if only transient institutions or leaders are setting the agenda. This is why the Green New Deal has come to prominence; the environmental crisis necessitates a new social pact. This entails a new societal project based on consensus among all sectors, not limited to the superficial trimmings of the status quo, but rather, promoting real and profound transformation from the ground up.
Such a new social agreement must truly modify our way of living and interacting with the environment. It should also manage to construct a different type of institution. It should pursue institutions that are more responsive, dynamic, adaptative and resilient. Above all, they should be capable of keeping pace with a talented citizenry, offering new and good ideas.
The main takeaway from the 1930s New Deal is that it was first and foremost a distinct social contract. At the heart of this New Deal was a normative proposal: it made assertions regarding social justice and minimum standards for quality of life. It communicated what we owed to each other, and how we should organize ourselves as a society. It was complemented with a public policy package, consisting of a series of macroeconomic measures and a plan for creating infrastructure.
It is imperative that we redouble our defense of this New Social Pact, which must be built on the principles and institutions inherent to a multilateral system.
Multilateralism for a socio-ecological transition
There is widespread awareness that multilateralism is undergoing a crisis, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has further strained certain «hot spots» in global geopolitics. However, altogether, it is still an essential tool for setting the discussed socio-ecological transition in motion. Multilateralism, with all of its mistakes and shortcomings, is nonetheless an inspiring instrument with which to tackle future challenges. It serves as a reminder that humanity can overcome its own destruction via reason, cooperation, dialogue and peace.
Multilateralism is closely related with the idea of the New Pact or Social Contract, as both engage in important conversation. It specifically involves dialogue at a civilizational level, regarding the future of our ecosystem and survival of our species; we find ourselves collectively as humans within the same realm of action, transcending sectarian, identity, partisan and national differences. This is a great, universal conversation regarding a global agreement that finds its basis in two major pre-pandemic accords: the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Climate Change agreement. These are the only two milestones up until this point that have rallied us toward solidarity and universal cooperation.
In short, we need a great, multi-level and multi-stakeholder social pact, ranging from cities and communities to the multilateral sphere, i.e., the global and local, or glocal. This will assist us in overcoming the great bottleneck that is preventing the measures we are currently discussing, even though science has evidenced time and time again that these measures are in need of urgent implementation. Obstruction of this implementation can take the form of perverse political economy, polarization or confrontation, all of which do not allow for solidifying agreements within political systems, structures and institutions.
For this reason, we have the tools of negotiation and political persuasion. Multilateralism is not an infallible instrument, but rather imperfect, and thus requires high levels of coordination at global, national and local levels. This of course entails a great challenge in terms of governance. At the same time, multilateralism is undoubtably the single most promising tool for returning to the common, societal project.
In sum, I believe that both the COVID-19 and environmental crises present us with «future» problems (with threats we have been forecasting for some time, and which are already upon us), and that, as «future» problems, we cannot continue to reckon with them through institutions of the past. Both crises (the COVID-19 one as a symptom, and the environmental as a major cause) also constitute systemic crises, and therefore necessitate equally systemic solutions at the institutional level.
As such, it remains urgent to build a new social contract, one in which we find ourselves in a situation of equality and freedom; with it, we can advance a new, green, inclusive agenda of solidarity, in order to face our civilization’s great glocal challenges.