It's a question of perspective. Quarantined by the coronavirus, the world quarantined having had to suspend the evolution of its activities, wanting to recover a sense of direction needs to be careful that it takes the right path. Above all, there is no room to commit past errors. First among these is that of thinking that health is a consequence of economic growth. “Growth is the wrong goal. What we need to aim for is human development – sustainable human development”, states Janet Ranganathan, Vice-President of Research, Data, and Innovation of World Resource Institute, one of the experts invited by Pope Francis as a member of the Vatican Covid-19 Commission. Ranganathan has an idea so that the poor will not be left pay the virus's high costs: “One concrete first step would be for Pope Francis to convene a summit with other religious leaders and to form a virtuous Circle of Sustainability that keeps expanding until it envelopes the entire planet”.
You are part of the Vatican COVID 19 Commission, Pope Francis’ response mechanism to an unprecedented virus. What do you personally hope to learn from this experience? In what way do you think society as a whole can be inspired by the work of the Commission?
R. – I hope to learn more about the church’s role in addressing global crises. The same underlying causes have likely played a role in previous crises documented in the bible e.g., leaders that represent only the privileged few, overconsumption of natural resources, preoccupation with today at the expense of tomorrow, limited transparency and accountability, and an inability to envision how the effects of problems/responses play out across time and scales and in terms of who gets the benefits and who bears the costs. The Commission will inspire others (and ourselves!) if we truly collaborate on creating/testing approaches to solve the root causes of climate change, food and water insecurity, disease, and massive inequity. The imperative for collaboration has never been greater.
Pope Francis asked the COVID 19 Commission to prepare the future instead of prepare for it. What should be the role of the Catholic Church as an institution in this endeavor?
R. – Pope Francis should join forces with other religious leaders to create a global to local movement that demands, votes for, and walks the talk on preparing a sustainable future. The Commission can provide the evidence, milestones, and signposts to underpin the movement. Time is of the essence. One concrete first step would be for Pope Francis to convene a summit with other religious leaders and to form a virtuous Circle of Sustainability that keeps expanding until it envelopes the entire planet.
What personal lessons (if any) have you derived from the experience of the pandemic? What concrete changes do you hope to see after this crisis both personally and globally?
R. – The pandemic reveals the risk that come from global environmental, social and economic interconnectedness. Each global crisis (climate change, pandemics, food and water insecurity, recessions, migration), exacerbates existing problems and vulnerabilities, especially for the poor. For me personally, the pandemic carved an even greater gap between me and my globally distributed family. After this crisis ends, I hope that inequity will rise to the top of political agendas everywhere and be a top priority for my own organization. Climate change and inequity share similar root causes. They must be tackled together.
We are not certain about the origin of the coronavirus, but we are aware of the damage it can and is causing. Could there be a connection between the Sars-cov-2 pandemic and climate change. That is, is the virus a sign of our delay in taking action?
R. – It’s too early to make a call on the origin of the Covid pandemic. It’s likely zoonotic in origin. Zoonotic diseases share a common driver with climate change – the conversion of natural ecosystems. The loss of natural habitat brings wild animals and humans into closer proximity. Land change, especially deforestation, is a major contributor to climate change (around 11% of global GHGs). Climate change in turn, affects the spread of disease, changing reservoir-vector dynamics and creating new ecological niches for diseases and their vectors. Governments can tackle the common root causes of zoonotic pandemics and climate change in a joined-up manner and prioritize efforts to decarbonize their economies in economic recovery packages.
If the international community were to take decisive action against the climate crisis, could it push the global economy toward growth?
R. – Growth is the wrong goal. What we need to aim for is human development – sustainable human development. That is what the UN SDGs call for. Too many governments have pursued economic growth, allowing it to become the “end” rather than the “means.” This has contributed to growing inequalities and degradation of the natural resource base that supports life on earth. Effective climate change action must be an integral part of efforts to rewire economies to deliver sustainable development. This requires a shift in focus to tackle the root causes of inequity and environmental degradation some of which I mentioned above – vested interests, overconsumption, lack of transparency and accountability, etc.
However, growth in and of itself would not be enough, if its benefits are not equally distributed. Without a better distribution of wealth, there is little chance of coordinating the fight against the climate crisis. Do you agree with this?
R. – Yes, that’s right. We need better yardsticks for measuring the health of an economy. GDP excludes the value of natural assets and the cost of environmental externalities. A country can degrade its soil, cut down its forests, pollute its water, while recording these activities as positive economic contributions. The UN SDGs can measure what GDP does not, but their comprehensiveness (17 SDGs, 169 targets, and 232 indicators) is not suited to providing the narrow dashboard needed by policymakers. To address this, governments can engage citizens in prioritizing which SDGs and targets are most relevant to their country’s context.
Once again, it seems clear that there are well-known solutions that would offer everyone a sustainable future in our “common home”, which must be passed on to future generations in better condition than it is now. But equally clear is the feeling that nothing or next to nothing is being done. Why?
R. – A solution is not a solution unless it’s actually implemented to solve a problem. And since most global problems that I work on are getting worse, we either don’t have the right “solutions” or we are not tackling the forces that prevent their adoption. Here I will go back to my earlier point that we need to tackle the root causes of inequity and environmental degradation. The same root causes manifest themselves as forces opposing the adoption of promising solutions that offer everyone a sustainable future in our “common home.” The saying “economics describes the problem, governnace explains it” is on the mark. We must strengthen our govenrnace systems, local to global, to deliver a more sustainable and equitable future. The church can help catalyze the demand for such changes.
Some people still say that the fight against climate change only involves environmentalists. Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, affirms that the “climate is a common good’, and therefore an issue that touches everyone. Are governments aware of this? Or is it of little importance that “its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades”?
R. – Whenever I read a report that refers to climate change as an environmental problem, I want to cross it out and insert “development problem.” Climate change is a threat multiplier for other development challenges, including food and water insecurity, inequality, resource-driven conflict/migration, disease, fires, to name a few. And while its effects will hurt us all, poor countries and vulnerable groups will likely be the hardest hit. My sense is that there are individuals in most governments that get this. But their voices are not the majority ones and they are rarely the loudest. To address this, we will need a sustained global bottom-up movement to call for action. Here, the church can play an important role catalyzing and channeling the movement to prepare a sustainable future.