Climate Action

'Vested interests want their health to come first' – Greenpeace chief Jennifer Morgan on whether climate action can survive COVID-19

A coal-fired power station

Unsustainable … environment and health must start playing a bigger role than the profits of fossil-fuel companies. Image: Pexels

Anna Bruce-Lockhart
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SDG 13: Climate Action

• Jennifer Morgan, International Executive Director of Greenpeace, believes the response to COVID-19 will dictate action on climate change.

• The short-term profit incentive is being challenged by an emphasis on the well-being of people and planet.

• The current choices of government and civic groups could be decisive for the future.

One recurrent question during the COVID-19 pandemic is how, once it is dealt with, it will affect the climate crisis – another global systemic event with potentially much more far-reaching consequences.

Cooperation in the scientific community in the fight against the coronavirus, and some degree of political consensus, has raised hopes that the same unity – elusive in recent climate talks – might be possible over the environment. As oil prices turn negative for the first time in history, could this be the moment where the world finally commits to clean energy?

Environmentalists like Jennifer Morgan, International Executive Director of Greenpeace International, hope the pandemic will be a tipping point, rather than allowing vested interests to reassert themselves and continue blocking the transition to a greener economy.

In this interview, she talks about why rebooting the world economy after COVID-19 and more sustainable ways of doing business don’t have to be competing pressures, and how she is seeing some concrete signs of hope in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow.

Jennifer Morgan speaking on climate justice at Davos 2020. Image: Boris Baldinger

What do you think is going to happen to climate action once we begin emerging from this pandemic?

The climate emergency hasn’t gone away. It’s still very much with us and while we have to prioritize addressing COVID-19, we also have to think together and create the world that we want to see.

We have to be able to move forward at the same time as we’re addressing the pandemic because the pandemic is going to last. It’s not going to be over quickly. Much will depend on the way in which the world and governments respond to the pandemic, how they collaborate and cooperate to protect the most vulnerable people on earth, as well as how they recover. Whether they recover or things regress will have a massive impact on whether or not we have a chance of addressing the climate emergency.

Listen to Jennifer Morgan in conversation in this podcast


Factories will be racing to get back into business, there’s going to be a global recession, and oil and gas will never have been so cheap. Can we really hope to see any climate progress?

I think we can. If you look at the question of how the world will respond with the stimulus packages and the recovery plans that are being made, there is an opportunity to put those funds straight into jobs that will accelerate the pace of decarbonization.

We have a chance to both put people back to work and to chart a different future in a short time frame, but that depends on whether governments listen to people or the polluters and whether the companies that have caused the problem (and in some cases, were starting to shift into a new economy) move more in that direction.

Do you see any real hard evidence of any particular industries or sectors that are taking concrete steps to rebuild the world into a greener, healthier place?

There are a few examples. The Canadian government has put forward a programme, which is putting CAD1.7 billion into cleaning up orphan wells and money into loans to finance reducing methane. The New Zealand government has put forward a strong initial plan, and we’re expecting that it will link this to a new one in May with further measures that would drive the economy into zero carbon. Denmark has just announced that it’s not giving state aid to companies that have tax havens. We’ve also heard from the European Commission and a number of European countries that they’re going to stay the course on the European Green Deal, but they need to move forward with that.

I’m very hopeful about South Korea, where you actually had a people-powered movement before the election making the Green Deal and a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 part of the election platform of the major parties. The party that won in South Korea, and with very high voter turnout, has endorsed that. Now we need to turn this into a reality.

Do you think those are lessons that governments and businesses can learn as well as individuals?

Oh, absolutely. I think there are huge opportunities for collaboration [between governments] and a sense of responsibility, especially towards developing countries. It will be important to share the knowledge that is being generated in developed countries on how to deal with the pandemic, and when a vaccine comes out, share that as a global common good with developing countries, and not have it be held and controlled by a government or a corporation.

Companies have a chance to really be on the right side of history, of moving forward. Companies have learned from the past and should take the opportunity to create a more circular zero-carbon economy for profit and for people.

The youth movement is still present, and in most countries you are seeing the youth collaborating because they know that older, more vulnerable populations, are at risk. Governments must make sure that they’re listening to what the youth movements are looking for, which I think we’ll see more of coming out of Earth Day this week.

Have you read?

Are there any specific businesses or sectors that you think we should be focusing on first? Could it be the kind of energy that we use or transport, or maybe the way we produce food?

One of the things that is so important is the system that we’re building. So I think those are all issues. It’s a mindset shift towards not just thinking about what kind of car you have, but actually, what’s the mobility system that’s going to move people forward in a safe way? Safe from the pandemic, but also a sustainable way? What’s the electricity system that can get electricity to everyone, but is healthier in terms of air pollution and climate change? Decision-makers are thinking more about the well-being of people and taking those indicators as seriously, if not more, than short-term economic growth, which drove policy in the past.

Do you see any particular companies leading the way in that respect?

I haven’t yet. I have seen mostly negative examples, like the airline industry, which is looking at how to get its money; the tar sands industry and the oil sands industries in Canada; car companies that are trying to stop environmental regulations. That’s where I think NGOs, people and governments have to hold these companies to account and stay the course. People will be looking and expecting that kind of leadership.

Looking at the climate agenda, there’ll be millions of people out there who’ve lost jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, who’ll be probably a lot more focused on getting the economy restarted. Do these people, who once had the luxury to worry about climate change, really care any more?

I think there are different parts to your question. First of all, I would say that dealing with climate change isn’t a luxury. Dealing with climate change is a life and death issue, and it has massive economic consequences for people, for farmers who are suffering droughts and particularly people in harm’s way as a result of intense weather events.

Those are things that are happening right now. But of course we need to be looking at how to have either people getting back to work in their jobs that they had, or creating just transitions for people to be trained to move into different jobs. Government funds need to be invested in people for long-term jobs. We have an opportunity to shift coal miners who have been working in those types of jobs into other ones over time. It can’t be an either/or. We need to be thinking about these things together.

Do you see evidence that it’s happening on the ground?

I think we do, in parts of the European Union, the European Green Deal needs to be further strengthened with more social measures. The just transition fund, which is a part of the Green Deal, is even more important than ever before.

The disruption that’s occurring and the people who are suffering as a result are suffering because our system has prioritized creating wealth for a few large corporations, rather than the wellness of everyone.

It’s a moment to step back and really rethink. We set up a new world order after World War II. We’re now in a different world than we were then. I've been encouraged by the Secretary-General’s leadership in a number of ways, but we need to step back and look at the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, and ask what can we be doing differently?

The World Economic Forum has a big responsibility in that as well to be pushing the reset button and looking at how to create well-being for people and for the earth.

The world has been amazingly united in its rapid response to COVID-19. What do you think this tells us about our ability to fight climate change?

It tells us that when we listen to the science and we understand what’s at stake, and we have clarity on what we need to do, we can tackle and address these big issues. And on climate change, we know what the problem is. We know the people who are being impacted by it. We know that we know what the solutions are.

The key is to put the health of people and the planet first. That’s happening with COVID-19, but hasn’t happened yet on climate change because in many cases fossil fuel interests and large industrial farming interests want to keep things the way that they are. There are vested interests that want their health to come before the health of people and the planet. What we’re learning from this crisis and pandemic is that it is possible to switch, it really is. But we need to act on what science and people need.

Next week environment ministers from around the world will be meeting online for the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. Can you tell us a bit about this meeting and how it sets the agenda for COP26?

The Petersberg Climate Dialogue has been taking place for many years. It was founded by Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders after the failure of the Copenhagen meeting. Each year they bring those ministers together, Chancellor Merkel speaks, and they talk through how to address some of the key issues in the negotiations or in their own economies.

It is an excellent moment for those ministers to connect the dots between what we need to be doing to create a resilient society, to the pandemic and to the climate impacts that are happening, and what they can do with their recovery plans so they can rebuild better.

If they are investing in renewable energy and systems that move public transport towards electric vehicles powered by renewable energy that will show up in lower emissions and that will help them meet their Paris Agreement goals. So that’s where I think the space needs to be for them to talk next week.

Chancellor Merkel has in the past been a leader on the climate change issue and is now being recognized for her leadership in responding to the pandemic. She has an opportunity to bring these issues together. I’m hoping her speech will give hope to many and help people see how these different pieces are connected. I think she can set a bar for the world.

It sounds like COP26 is going to be postponed until early next year. It’s being seen as the last chance saloon for international cooperation on the climate crisis. What do you hope will be achieved at the summit?

Every bit of energy that would have gone into this COP in 2020 now has to go into actually building the better systems that we need to address climate crisis. These aren’t two different worlds; the decisions that governments make in coming weeks and months are going to be the ones that will determine whether or not international climate cooperation will work. So, my hope is that what happens now – this creation of societies and economies based more on well-being, where environment, health and science play a bigger role than the short-term profits of fossil fuel companies – will drive us into a very different situation.

When ministers get together next year, they can see how they did it. They can celebrate that they managed to take this moment and put the different pieces together and drive us towards a world that we all want to have – one that is more stable, safer and fair.

There are two views of the world right now: one that’s about survival of the fittest, competition and keeping national boundaries, and another that’s about international collaboration, sharing, taking care of the most vulnerable. The latter is the one that we need to start now and carry into next year.

A lot of these environmental summits are increasingly happening online. Do you think this virtual approach to meetings is a good thing or is it more effective to have everybody in a room together?

The virtual meeting place is a big improvement for the most part, and it’s now being shown that you can do so much online with good video conferencing that you don’t need to get on a plane or in your car. Clearly, there will be times when people need to come together to sort things out, but I think we can radically cut the numbers of meetings.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

If the COP26 is held in Glasgow next year, will you be going and how will you be getting there?

Well, I most likely will go and it’s in the UK, so I’ll be taking the train. I’m lucky to live in Europe, where the train system is good. It’s an example of the type of investment that we need and one that needs to extend to rural areas. There also needs to be sufficient trains and space on trains, ensuring that people can get around safely while contributing to solving climate change.

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