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Geopolitics, public health and climate change issues are interwoven

Tanvir Ahmad, Guest Writer   |
Update: 2022-01-06 14:29:50
Geopolitics, public health and climate change issues are interwoven Tanvir Ahmad

The pandemic of COVID-19 is a global public policy challenge. The impact of the pandemic has varied considerably from country to country, exposing inequalities and vulnerabilities in health care, political systems and economies at local, national and international levels. Disparities in infection fatality rates and nations’ varying ability to manage the outbreak point to socioeconomic and geopolitical factors that have as much impact on the progress of the pandemic as do the characteristics of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Pandemics share similarities with climate change; both issues are complex and urgent, and if left unchecked will continue to place huge burdens on the future health and well-being of humanity and the biosphere. An increase in the incidence of vector-borne and zoonotic disease emergence and transmission is a long-predicted consequence of environmental change. Like other climate-induced disasters that threaten the well-being of national populations, diseases have no respect for national borders. While neither problem respects national borders, the impact of pandemics and climate change within countries is highly dependent on the intersection of laws, policies and social factors. Collective human action is needed to resolve these super-wicked problems. 

The geopolitics of pandemics and climate change traverse. Both are complex and urgent problems that demand collective action in the light of their global and trans-boundary scope. Some of the tensions and contradictions in global governance and cooperation are revealed by the pandemic of COVID-19. The pandemic provides an early warning of the dangers inherent in weakened international cooperation. 

Climate change and its drivers – particularly biodiversity loss and land-use change – makes the emergence of novel infectious diseases and their spread more likely to happen in poorer, rural communities, often far from centers of power. For the poorest countries of the world, pandemics join a list of other challenges that are exacerbated by pressures of scarce resources, population density and climate disruption. COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on those living with environmental stresses, such as poor air quality, should guide more holistic approaches to the geopolitical intersection of public health and climate change.

The pandemic is leaving virtually every country in the world with significant burdens of economic debt that are likely to disadvantage long-term plans for climate change mitigation, jeopardize sustainable transport plans and complicate energy transition. The consumption of plastic, for example, has risen during the pandemic because of demand for plastic face shields, facemasks and sanitary packaging.

The pandemic exposes the reality of world politics – that no world government exists to impose consistent, proportionate and uniform public health measures. The world’s states, with their distinct national territories, are reacting individually rather than collectively to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many countries have introduced extraordinary measures that have closed, rather than opened up, international partnership and cooperation. Border closures, restrictions on social mixing, domestic purchase of public health supplies and subsidies for local industry and commerce may offer solutions at the national level but they do not address the global strategic issues. 

The pandemic has placed more pressure on national governments to protect their national economies and supply chains. The COVID-19 outbreak has exacerbated political tensions within and beyond state borders, notably between China and the USA. The geopolitical determinants of health are linked with the inadequacy of health systems in low- and lower-middle income countries, particularly those still recovering from years of internal conflict. There is also discussion on the population level health risks in countries with little choice but to accept economic opportunities that pose a high risk of pollution. By prioritizing strategies to address the immediate concerns of public health, climate change mitigation may be harder in the future.

The pandemic has provided an interesting confluence of public–private health diplomacy and displays of soft power. Non-state actors such as nongovernmental organizations, philanthropists and private companies have emerged to fill gaps where federal or national governments have failed to provide for their own citizens. the role of such actors in the global commons of climate change and public health warrants further consideration.

Another sort of geopolitics that is shaped by rebellion and resistance is emerging. In terms of global health and climate change, there are a growing number of international nongovernmental organizations that call for greater global cooperation in tackling not only ill health but the economic and environmental drivers that lie beneath it. Such organizations include the Planetary Health Alliance, the EcoHealth Alliance and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Memberships of these organizations often cross traditional geopolitical borders, as do those of disruptive environmentalist movements such as Extinction Rebellion. What these organizations share is a desire to cut across national borders and encourage more global and cosmopolitan sensibilities, driving ground-up responses that can meet and merge with more strategic approaches. In effect, these movements achieve a moral consensus over the best course of action and practical rules that everyone is willing to follow.

The politics of nationalism and of populist debates that just because there appear to be powerful incentives to cooperate on public health challenges, it does not mean that cooperation will automatically follow. Narratives of climate change are already highly politicized, such as by categorizing certain countries as net emitters of carbon dioxide or assigning historic burdens of responsibility for environmental impact to countries. It has been noted that world leaders who have responded more slowly and less effectively to the current pandemic, resulting in high case numbers and deaths within their borders, also tend to play down their country’s responsibility for preventing climate change.

Threats to global public health provide a clear reason to act, whether the threat itself comes from pathogenic viruses and bacteria or from environmental damage. The danger, however, is that the role of the environment in health may be forgotten as the focus falls on pharmaceuticals and other medical fixes rather than addressing the root causes of (planetary) ill health. However, we must not forget that susceptibility to COVID-19 has been exacerbated by air pollution and by obesity and diabetes linked to food and social systems that challenge the ability of the poor and disadvantaged to live healthily.

These are problems characterized by the urgent need to find a solution; where the solution to the problem rests with those who are causing it; where central authority to address the problem is weak; and where actions taken today can store up problems for the future. Past experience of problem-solving at the international level, however, is a reminder that some new approaches are needed. For example, countries are struggling to meet the targets of the United Nations sustainable development goals and the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The relationship between geopolitics and the global management of public health also offers insights for leadership in climate change. The ability to negotiate state borders, overcome defensive nationalism and counter anti-science narratives will be integral to managing both public health crises and climate change. Climate change programs must guard against becoming involved in partisan geopolitical actions.

Long-term sustainability needs institutional frameworks to better understand the complex relationship between users and resource systems. For both climate change and global health, therefore, we need to recognize that the pursuit of a narrowly national or strategic advantage generates real dangers. These problems demand expert knowledge of how social, economic and ecological systems interact, and about collective choice rules and shared moral and ethical standards. Neither pandemics nor the adverse effects of climate change can be kept at national borders.

COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on those living with environmental stresses such as poor air quality should guide more holistic approaches to the geopolitical intersection of public health and climate change. We are living in what has been called the Anthropocene. This era is defined as a period in the Earth’s history in which – unlike previous geological time periods – human beings are having more impact on the environment than are biological and geophysical processes. Climate change in the Anthropocene era threatens to cause nonlinear and abrupt changes in environmental and atmospheric conditions. These changes will place further pressures on our current system of international cooperation which has been put to the test by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The current pandemic is giving us lessons on how geopolitical challenges might play out in future and where pressures are already accumulating. Spatial control will never completely protect the wealthiest people from transnational threats such as air pollution or infectious diseases. While shutting down borders and imposing quarantine can be highly effective for containing disease spread, effective prevention of future pandemics demands long-term societal transformation that emphasizes the same adaptation, mitigation and resilience needed to address climate change. A vaccine for COVID-19 will not be a quick and easy solution to the challenges of degraded environments that create and exacerbate ill health. Unless climate change is tackled, far more permanent damage will be inflicted on the environment and on societies, including by future pandemics.

Writer: Tanvir Ahmad, Urban Planner; Climate Change & Public Health Researcher; Email: [email protected]

BDST: 1429 HRS, JAN 06, 2021

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