In times of global crisis, time to formulate the narrative of the way out

Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC, 2020.

In just a couple of weeks an invisible virus got the world economy on its knees and made 2020 the year of postponement. Not only concerts and conferences, sports and theaters have been suspended or postponed. Even pivotal UN meetings have been postponed and among them the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 26 in Glasgow. A meeting that should have at its best ramped up the ambitions to cut the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Incredible amounts of money have been thrown in by different governments of the world to keep the economy from a total collapse. And no one seems to be against it.

COVID-19 has shown us the great interconnectedness with which we humans live on this planet, and also the vulnerability of our systems. The way our economies are organized and how we produce goods and services today can be smashed in a couple of weeks, and millions of people become insolvent and thrown out in uncertainty of incomes that have been taken for granted.

Now is the time for shaping the world after COVID-19. There are voices that speak about taking us back to normal. But why should we go back to the normal that brought us to this situation? The hypersensitive capitalism built on market forces without any kind of long-term resilience and no ability to create robust systems that can protect health or the Earth. The emergency that we are in is not something that we can say that we didn’t see coming! On the contrary, a pandemic was very likely to happen. But in times of rampant short-term thinking and profit maximization there is no space in the system to breathe. We don’t have the capacity to cope with things that can delay the processes. And no one can really think that market forces or private initiatives can take us out of the pandemic.

But COVID-19 has an end. It is possible to see that it will fade out even if we can assume more waves of outbreaks before COVID is a virus that some have immunity against and there is a vaccine to protect the most vulnerable. Those who have lost dear ones and never will get them back must not be ignored. This is the reality we see today. But it is likely that we will have COVID-19 and 2020 as a mark that we talk about before and after. We will start to ask ourselves how the future will look like. What narrative will be the dominating one? Now is the time to choose if we are going to learn something from this crisis and create a more robust society. Now is the time to form the narrative that will conduct our choices on what ways to go. Because we have another emergency behind COVID-19 that has been growing over the years and it demands even greater transformation of our society – the climate crisis.

Even if COVID-19 is a disaster in many aspects and the suffering for those most affected should not be diminished, we can also note that there is a readiness to transform in a very limited time to adjust to the situation. People stay at home, people stop traveling and people adjust their social and working life to the situation. There are incredible amounts of money put into the different countries to stop the transmitting of the virus. This gives evidence that people can actually change their habits when it is really needed. Rich societies do have the amount needed. There is no excuse anymore to say that we cannot meet the long-term emergency that climate change is! And it also reveals the injustice of the world when poor people are left behind since the rich economies first look to save their own structures.

It might seem a long time ago but some may still remember how young people flooded the streets all around the world in late September 2019, about six months ago, to raise our voices for the emergent and urgent situation that the whole Earth is in. It was serious then and it is serious now! Young people and old people, indigenous people, people of faith, labor unions, all kinds of people went out on the streets not as a thing that was posh for the moment. It was out of a deep understanding of the critical moment we are in today. If we don’t halt the climate crisis now, we are in deep trouble tomorrow. It was, and still is, a cry from the Earth, a cry from the poor and a cry from the coming generations to act now. To disclose the blindness that the powers of the world seem to have on climate change. Or as Neil Young says it in his song “Shut It Down:”

“There's a blindness that just can't see/Have to shut the whole system down/They’re all wearing climate change/As cool as they can be…”

There is a blindness in so much of the talk that goes around on climate change. To be climate-friendly is too often a shallow opinion that is chic to have until it challenges something of the basis that our unsustainable world is lying on. The climate crisis is a justice crisis and even bigger than COVID-19. I hope that this deeper understanding can become clearer after COVID-19.

The world has known about the threat of pandemics years before COVID-19 emerged, but there was no long-term strategy to meet the threat. We have a lot of data about the disruption of the climate system and predictions about where it will take us but are the measures to meet the climate crisis there? Definitely not! Is there a lesson to be learned from how we meet the COVID-19 crisis? Absolutely! If the world after the COVID-19 crisis is over goes back to where we were before we will be in a really bad position—and no lesson learned. We will be in the same situation again and far behind in meeting the needs to overcome the climate crisis. There is a risk that all efforts made today to save the economy and jobs will pour money into short-term unsustainable projects in the same economic model that have made this world so unsustainable and humanity so vulnerable. There is also a risk that the efforts to overcome the pandemic create more isolationisms among rich countries to protect their interests at the costs of the poor people. To keep up the power to of the extractive economy that amplifies the gap between rich and poor. Internationally but also inside countries. None of these models will solve the challenges we are standing in front of.

It is important to remember that none of the former societal solutions we historically have seen to distribute wealth will work for the task the world has to deal with today. To respect the planetary boundaries, and at the same time share the gifts of mother Earth in an equitable way, demands new ways of thinking. We have to find new paths. Capitalism or socialism in their pure forms will not be efficient to meet the sustainability crisis we are in today. We all have to leave a comfort zone where ever we are standing ideologically today to create a new narrative about how we meet the threats we are facing on a global level today. And with all I mean science, politics, culture, faith communities – everything that is an expression of human dignity – all these must come together to stand up to the crisis we that our home, our Oikos, Mother Earth is facing today.

We need robust economic models based on long-term visions inspired by indigenous spirituality, that take into account the health of the eco-systems to maintain stability. Systems that distribute more than accumulate economic power to a small minority. Models built on cooperation and trust on the other.

We need to do very swift transformations to "flatten the curve" when it comes to emissions of greenhouse gases and decreasing bio diversity. It will take exceptional conversions but who has said that this will mean a lower quality of life? To let things go can be a liberation to something better. In different Christian theological traditions we need to interpret this in a context that offers transformation. It is not always without pain but there is a narrative about love to the other, that includes the creation and to God that leaves the openness to life and to creation. The flights, the shopping and the unsustainable food are all things that those who have overused the resources can let go. It is rather easy to let it go when we know it is really necessary. Many have practiced that in their quarantines because they know it will serve the other. We have to do this also when it comes to the climate crisis. We can flatten the curve today to give space possibilities for the others to have a decent life. People living today and those living tomorrow. We can do it but we need to create the narratives today that takes us there tomorrow.

The message during the pandemic has been: Lower the risks for spreading the infection and protect the most vulnerable. It is the same message as climate justice activists have said for years now. Lower the emissions and protect the most vulnerable to the damage that climate change anyway will do.

COVID-19 is a real life situation that we are living in today when people’s will to solidarity is tested. There are many testimonies of love and compassion and solidarity that grow in this crisis. If we take that solidarity and the possibility to change and transition we could overcome the huge crisis that lies in climate change that is ongoing and will  have an impact for many generations to come. We believe that we are able to build this narrative together and walk a new path that no one walked before.

About the author :

Rev. Henrik Grape is officer for sustainable development in the Church of Sweden, and coordinator of the WCC Working Group on Climate Change.
He also blogs in Swedish at


The impressions expressed in the blog posts are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.