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Inequality as Cause and Consequence

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

What can we learn from COVID-19 in the fight against Climate Change?

By Charlotte Nussey

“When you have gone as badly off course as we have, moderate actions don’t lead to moderate outcomes. They lead to dangerously radical ones.”

Naomi Klein, “On Fire”, p. 159

As COVID-19 began its journey around the world, governments and media assured us that ‘we are all in this together’. Spaces of hope, creativity and solidarity bloomed – applause for essential workers, rainbows in windows, concerts from balconies, online exercise classes with profits donated to health services. We noted the freshness of the air, the renewed mental and physical benefits of green spaces, the drop in emissions.

The reality is, of course, that we are not in this together at all. The virus may not discriminate, but its impacts do. The inequalities which predated it have shaped it. In developed and developing nations the virus has cast a spotlight on socio-economic disparities – the disproportionate rates of death among black and minority ethnic populations in the US and the UK, the speed of the second wave among Singapore’s migrant workers. And it is not only in the rates of contracting and dying from the virus that inequalities are made manifest. In both the political framings and the material effects of lockdowns, new spaces have opened up for deeper discrimination, structural and physical violence – against indigenous populations in the Amazon, against India’s Muslim population, against women and girls everywhere.

In the COVID-era that we are now living through, inequality does not only work as cause, but comes as consequence. Classed distinctions mean that middle class workers are significantly more protected, both in terms of their health and their finances. We have been warned about the significant risk of a hunger pandemic, as COVID-19 and the associated global recession risks doubling the number of people suffering acute hunger by the end of the year. The impact of COVID is landing at the feet of the poorest and most vulnerable. Inequality and COVID-19 are working together in a feedback loop.

It is in the feedback loop of inequality as cause and consequence that parallels with climate change are most pertinent. Climate change does not discriminate, but its impacts do. Climate change too lands at the feet of the poorest and most vulnerable. As the IPCC has warned, even at rises in average temperatures of 1.5°C - the most ambitious of the warming targets – some vulnerable regions, including small islands and least developed countries, are projected to experience high, multiple and interrelated climate risks. Climate change will deepen food insecurity. It too leads to increased gender violence. Climate-related disasters limit movement, result in the closure of educational facilities, and lead to significant loss of life. There is a clear interrelationship of climate crisis and precarious forms of migration, simultaneous with populist states closing borders and attempting to shift blame.

As we come to terms with these radical changes to our ways of life, societies in general, and education in particular, need to take advantage of this moment to learn. Our systems, of course, have needed to adapt. Universities have needed to bring our work online, to connect differently, to innovate in the design and speed of our research. But these adaptations are moderate, and digital divides intensify inequalities. While adaptation may be a necessary response, it is not a sufficient one.

Education can and should positively intervene in the feedback loop of inequality. In both crises, there is a central role for education – formally and informally – to challenge conspiracy theories, and to work against disbelief at the human causes and forgetfulness at the human cost. Neither climate change nor COVID-19 are fake news. Educational institutions should be a key source of truth. But further than this, education can teach us to interpret ‘truth’; higher education institutions should provide important spaces for the development of critical thinking skills, and for shaping social values that help to build societies founded in care, resilience and regeneration. We need to engage, not disenfranchise, young and disadvantaged populations.

Our lockdowns may be local, but our solutions need to be global. Higher education institutions need to build meaningful and long-term connections with local communities, and act in ways that promote the public good. Transforming their own spaces so that their campuses are greener and more energy efficient is vital, but can only be the start. The kinds of partnerships that we have seen flourishing in scientific responses to the pandemic need to be continued and reapplied with equal energy to the climate crisis. Education systems need to be spaces of connection, for both people and ideas, that go beyond boundaries and work in the spaces between. Our responses to pandemics and to climate change need to be founded in social justice - vaccines need to be shared to be effective; responses to climate cannot continue to privilege one state or region at the expense of others. To break the inequality feedback loop, education needs to work in ways that promote equality, that are conscious of power inequalities, and that speak to connections between climate, hunger, wealth and health. Isolated policies in the era of self-isolation are insufficient.


My thanks to Laila Kadiwal, Elaine Unterhalter, Laela Adamson, Tristan McCowan and all those who have participated in UCL’s Centre for Education and International Development Naomi Klein reading group, whose conversations have helped to shape these ideas.

Charlotte is a Research Associate at UCL’s Institute of Education, on the ‘Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate’ research project. Her research focuses on the intersections and connections between forms of disadvantage, particularly around gender, violence and education.

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