Climate & Energy
Environmental Justice
Food & Water
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Spring 2021

Cops, Climate, and COVID

Climate change and the pandemic present compounding dangers that are as political as police brutality

Author: Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

Commemorative statue of the Irish potato famine in Dublin

This has been a year full of crisis, but each might be more interconnected than it first seems. Our political system must adapt as we work to find solutions to these compound crises.

In the United States, protests against a recent spate of police killings and controversies, including the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky and of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, set off protests across the nation, which then spread across the globe. All 54 states on the African continent united in response to demand urgent debate in the United Nations’ Human Rights Council over police brutality. State violence and anti-Black racism are facing a global crisis of legitimacy.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis are provoked by the response of natural phenomena to our human activity, the dangers they present are just as political as the crisis of police violence. Moreover, these crises overlap and compound each other in important ways. The size, scope, and longevity of the suffering they trigger will be largely decided by the institutional responses to challenges and the power dynamics that structure them. A historic debate about the relationship of famine to colonialism and democracy helps illustrate why. 

A starting point: the much-discussed distinction between two different approaches to explaining famines. 

The first approach appeals to food scarcity: famine involves starvation, and starvation is lack of food. The “food availability approach” has been assumed in classic works of economics and philosophy, perhaps most famously by Thomas Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Population. It focuses on phenomena in the natural world that could plausibly explain contractions in food supply, such as droughts, temperature variations, and pest infestations. It’s hard to dispute the plausibility of this approach. Other things being equal, surely anything disrupting food production in a region would make famine more likely. 

Other things, however, often aren’t equal. Amartya Sen gives two examples from colonial history, both involving the British empire, in “Famines,” the inaugural annual lecture of the Development Studies Association he gave in 1979. The first: a famine in Ireland following a potato crop failure in 1822, when people starved to death even during a glut of corn supply. The second concerns the Bengal famine of 1943, in which 3 million people starved to death even though food production had actually increased relative to 1941, when there was no famine at all.

Food availability isn’t what went wrong. What did? Sen calls his alternative the “entitlement approach.” Here’s how it works: we have direct causal powers on ourselves and our environment. If we were all subsistence farmers, then maybe it would be enough to focus on these to explain our eating or starving. But part of the reason we don’t all have to be subsistence farmers are the indirect powers we have, via our access to a global system of production and distribution. People get resources (like food) from that distribution system by being politically positioned in the right sort of way—that is, being able to make claims on that distribution system that are effective in moving resources into their community or household. 

This way of framing things, unlike the food availability approach, does succeed in explaining the suffering and death in Ireland and Bengal. Sen’s lecture recounts legendary economist David Ricardo’s address to Parliament in 1822, explaining that the potato failure led to starvation despite an abundance of corn because Irish workers’ wages were tied to potato revenue. The potato crop failure did not lead to an inadequate supply of food—it led to an inadequate supply of wages, which serve as the default basis for claim rights over food in a capitalist system. 

In both Bengal and Ireland, people starved to death despite an abundance of food. 

The legal structure acted to protect the food supply from the people dying of hunger, rather than to protect hungry people from starvation. Economic, agricultural, and military problems created these crises, but were not, in and of themselves, decisive. The crucial famine-making ingredient was their toxic combination with a capitalist economy as a backdrop, the indifference of colonial elites to the evaporation of the claim rights of colonized people (thus, functionally, to their slow and horrific death), and their dogged determination to protect property, financial, and military interests.

But once you frame the problem in terms of effective claim rights (“entitlements” for Sen), its political dimension becomes clearer. In Bengal, famine deaths were unequally distributed. The city of Kolkata (then Calcutta) was spared the worst thanks to heavy subsidies in its food market, which enabled residents to survive wage fluctuations. By contrast, rural Bengal did not enjoy such market protections. The British colonial authorities closed alternatives by expropriating rice stocks and destroyed large boats (which could have been used for fishing) in order to prevent a Japanese invasion. Similarly, distributive questions are at the heart of our failed pandemic response: disproportionately, the deaths and economic fallout from the pandemic have fallen on those who were already most vulnerable, while large corporations have used the legislative and political opportunities to seize even more wealth and social control.

Famines are not merely conceptually helpful for learning about the political dimensions and stakes of the rapidly combining COVID-19 and climate crises. Famines are the stakes of the crises.

Famines are not merely conceptually helpful for learning about the political dimensions and stakes of the rapidly combining COVID-19 and climate crises. Famines are the stakes of the crises. Even before the pandemic broke out, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) warned that 135 million people faced “crisis levels of hunger or worse,” owing to political conditions that climate-related shocks had contributed to. After the onset of the pandemic, this number doubled in addition to the 821 million people who are “chronically hungry.” Throw in, for good measure, a casual glance at the image provided above, taken from the appropriately titled commentary “Compound climate risks in the COVID-19 pandemic.” Without the proper political systems in place, we can expect these stressors to provoke crises of “entitlement”—i.e., famine conditions, in Sen’s view. The executive director of the WFP is not being hyperbolic, then, when he suggests that we are on the brink of a famine of “Biblical proportions.” 

Throughout the world, people’s access to claim rights on the distribution system are collapsing. The United Kingdom and the United States are on pace to face record levels of joblessness; in much of the Global South, the policies instituted to control the spread of the virus are wreaking havoc in their gargantuan informal economies. Meanwhile, the rich get richer and are poised to snatch even more political control. And, just as with famine, the potentially impending collapse in the ability to claim food, goods, and even housing has a political explanation.

The political dimensions of our current crisis are particularly exposed in the United States, whose long history of racial domination looms decisively over its distributions of political power —a social order maintained and cemented by a long history of violent policing. The call to police resulting in the death of George Floyd was based on the caller’s allegation that he attempted to pay for items with a counterfeit bill—that is, in protection of the distribution system from supposedly illegitimate claims. In response, President Donald Trump tweeted an assurance that military support was on its way, and insinuated that they were or would be authorized to use lethal force; “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

The compound climate and pandemic crisis have not stopped police from using lethal force: these crises seem likelier to intensify police violence. Like the United States, countries whose political structure makes use of regular police violence, like Brazil and Kenya, have continued to see frequent police violence even during pandemic lockdowns. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, residents have taken to the streets in protest of police violence for weeks on end in many of Nigeria’s major cities. The police in Nigeria are a colonial institution: begun in 1920 by the occupying British Empire to fuel a colonial system built on forced labor, which was used to run the colonial government itself and also to build the infrastructure it used to extract revenue from the country as a whole. The exploitative role of the police continues to the present day: police have helped raze slums to the ground in recent decades to clear land for luxury real estate to house the Nigerian middle class and funnel profit to its ruling class. The #EndSARS protestors on the streets of Nigeria demand, amongst other things, an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the “most notorious” perpetrators of crimes endemic to policing in a country where more than three out of four Nigerians who have encountered police over the past year report having been extorted for bribes, and sexual assault and extrajudicial killings are also chillingly common throughout the country.

The message from the ruling class in Nigeria is much the same as the message from those in power in Kenya, the United States, or Brazil. When times get hard—and they will, as climate and COVID compound each other—the state will act to defend the interests it has chosen to defend. The rich will get secret unaccountable bailouts and the poor will get a stimulus package of tear gas and rubber bullets. If the military fires on civilians to prevent “looting” in the protests that are sure to continue—as the President insinuated that he was prepared to order—then protestors risk death in front of stocked shelves protected by the police, just like the colonial Irish subjects before them.

As the chart demonstrates, the climate and COVID-19 crises are combining and compounding each other. How they interact is, primarily, a question of whom and what the political system chooses to protect: and their continued defense of violent police demonstrates their answer. As the impacts accelerate, locusts will swarm, floods will come, and winds will blow. Our only hope of surviving the wrath of the natural world is wrestling back control of our political one.

amartya sen
environmental racism
George Floyd
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
police brutality
State violence
Thomas Malthus