The Kyoto Protocol essentially collapsed, to be replaced in 2015 by the Paris Agreement, a non-binding agreement to limit the global average temperature to no more than 2 degrees. This was superseded by the Glasgow Climate Pact late last year, where nations agreed to ‘phase down’ (as opposed to the original plan to ‘phase out’) coal production. Again, a lot of nothing, tempered somewhat, perhaps, by the current drive of the global financial sector to support net zero emissions, either by 2030 or 2050 depending on who you ask.
As for inequalities, no one will be surprised to know that they have increased, but the details are surprising. According to the World Inequality Report 2022, global inequality is as high today as it was at the height of Western imperialism in the early 20th century. Interestingly, inequality is far greater in some countries, such as the United States, Russia and India, than in Western Europe or China, which confirms, as the report states, “that inequality are not inevitable, it is a political choice”.
Furthermore, over the past 40 years, countries have become significantly richer, but their governments have become significantly poorer, a trend that has been amplified by the COVID-19 crisis, during which governments have borrowed the equivalent 10 to 20% of their gross income. domestic product, mainly from the private sector.
“The current low wealth of governments has important implications for states’ abilities to tackle inequality in the future, as well as for key 21st century challenges such as climate change,” the report notes.
And since 1995, the share of global wealth held by billionaires has increased dramatically and was so exacerbated during the pandemic that 2020 marked the largest increase in the share of global billionaire wealth on record.
We have now been three years into a pandemic that has already infected 317,567,929 people and killed 5.5 million worldwide and shows no signs of letting up. In addition to being a health hazard, the pandemic is proving to be a major accelerator of inequalities. Our political systems are tested and mostly found to be insufficient; the consequences could be catastrophic. Increasingly, governments are prioritizing economic health over human health and risking the latter when necessary to achieve the former.
Australia’s relaxation of close contact and isolation provisions are examples. These new policies are anchored on the supposed availability and equitable distribution of rapid antigen tests, which we know is not happening, with the result that infected workers are likely to unwittingly spread an already endemic virus. Figures produced earlier this week by Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, professor of epidemiology at the University of NSW, show that so far in 2022 Australia has recorded 58,799 new cases and 16 deaths. one day.
Finding the balance between economic health and human health is not easy, and there are no rules and few relevant precedents, but we know that increasingly health experts are being ignored in the advantage of commercial interests. The long-term consequences could well be devastating.
Already in Australia, we are seeing the deliberate erosion of expertise in the civil service, which means that governments often have no reliable database on which to formulate health policy, diplomacy (another disaster) or any other matter involving our national survival. Universities have been the subject of intellectual vandalism by being denied JobKeeper while corporations, including luxury suppliers and other non-essential industries, have sent their big social benefits straight to the bottom line.
These inequalities are political choices. They result from a race of politicians without commitment or even interest in the common good. They govern for narrow sectoral interests, diverting public funds to support their political supporters while ignoring the economic plight of so many in the population.
It is this kind of governmental mismanagement of economic hardship that has increasingly been experienced by large populations and that has fueled people’s anger, exacerbated growing distrust of governments, and made political evangelists and snake oil dealers. It poses a growing threat to democratic processes in many Western countries.
Australia’s compulsory voting and fair federal electoral system fortunately makes us less vulnerable to forces actively trying to destroy democracy in the United States, but the blatant vote buying in the past, and heralded in the election budget of this year shows that we have a federal government that has no respect for process.
The problems facing the world – and we in Australia cannot escape most of them the way we dodged the GFC – require smart, informed leaders who understand that we need more, and no less, of equality to preserve democracy and thus enable us to face the urgent threats posed to our very existence by the aggravation of climate change and pandemics.
The kind of dystopian future this entails is portrayed grimly in In Paradise, the impressive new novel by Hanya Yanagihara (from A little life fame), released this week and whose final section depicts a totalitarian America in the year 2093, living with regular pandemics and ravaged by climate change.
Central Park’s vegetation has been killed off by rising temperatures, people are donning cooling suits to go out, food as we know it today is non-existent, infected people and their families are being sent to offshore islands ( Sound familiar?) and left for dead, while the way climate refugees seeking to arrive by boat in the United States are treated makes Scott Morrison’s Operation Sovereign Borders look like a welcome red carpet. It’s speculative fiction but the plots are no longer implausible and it’s as scary as hell.
Peter Hartcher is on leave. Anne Summers is an author and columnist.