The Perfect Storm: Climate Change, Ecosystem Degradation, and COVID-19

June 6, 2022

The clearing of forests and draining of wetlands, littering and polluting the environment are putting our very own lives at risk.


By: Stephen Rodriques UNDP Resident Representative in Liberia

After nearly three months of rigorous Stockholm+50 nationwide consultations in Liberia on the theme “A healthy planet for the prosperity of all”, it is now time to observe World Environment Day (WED). This day is aimed at raising awareness on the fact that we have “only one Earth”, and our collective survival depends on it.

But this year WED comes at a critical moment in history, as the world is grappling with the triple crises of climate change, ecosystem degradation, and the continued devastating effects of COVID-19. There are two things we have learnt from dealing with these crises. First, they require global multi-lateral cooperation and solidarity.

No one country can solve these issues on their own. Second, solutions cannot be left to governments only; we all have collective and individual responsibilities to do our part, no matter how small, to save Mother Earth and protect ourselves from global crises.

With respect to climate change, despite all the denial, science has prevailed, and there is growing global consensus that it is real. Certainly, it is a very present reality for many people in Liberia. Even those who may not know much about greenhouse gases and increasing atmospheric temperatures, have noticed that rising sea levels are decimating the country’s coastline and wreaking havoc in the lives of thousands of families across Liberia.

From West Point and New Kru Town in Monrovia, and indeed the entire coastline from Robertsport to Harper, there are thousands of families who can point out to sea to show some location where their homes once stood. Abandoned homes on the edge of the coast battered by sea storms, roads abruptly cut off by sea erosion and schools which only continue to stand because of protective rock revetments constructed to hold at bay the advancing ocean are all evidence of the reality of climate change.

The country’s unique forests and wetlands are also under assault from shifting agriculture, mining, logging and construction activities. Losing these valuable ecosystems would present a double tragedy because these ecosystems provide vital environmental services including absorbing atmospheric carbon helping to minimize temperature increases that are driving climate change.

The degradation of forests and wetlands is also accompanied by the loss of plants, animals and other creatures that may hold the key to cures for diseases such as cancer, malaria, Ebola and COVID-19. The clearing of forests and draining of wetlands, littering and polluting the environment are putting our very own lives at risk. With 68% of biodiversity lost globally in the past 50 years, it appears we are consigning ourselves to extinction!

And, as if climate change and biodiversity loss are not enough, COVID-19 has thrown another spanner into the works. The world is struggling to get back on its feet after COVID-19 claimed millions of lives, brought the global economy to a standstill for well over a year, and reversed critical development gains. COVID-19 has proved to be more than a medical emergency.

It disrupted health services, stunted agricultural production, throttled small businesses that are the lifeline of most Liberians, and resulted in a further rise in poverty. It also wiped out an entire school year as the country’s limited access to electricity, computers and internet connectivity eliminated the digital learning option. COVID-19 sparked a development emergency that continues to unfold in unpredictable ways compelling governments, including that of Liberia, to review and revise their national development plans.  The world has been hit by a perfect storm.  

This year, which marks 50 years since the first UN conference in Stockholm on the environment and development, provides a timely opportunity for the world to pause and re-look at our relationship with nature, our goals and aspirations for growth and prosperity, and our resilience in the face of existing and emerging crises. We simply cannot afford to continue with business as usual, or to be caught as unprepared as we were for another global crisis.

Here in Liberia, the Stockholm +50 consultations engaged more than 900 Liberians in debates focusing on new ideas to achieve prosperity, a healthy planet, and greater preparedness and resilience to disasters. Women, youth, people with disabilities, students, NGOs, private sector companies, international development actors, and government officials, among others, all came together, recognizing our common destiny and shared responsibility. The discussions were rich, the recommendations practical, and the sense of urgency great.

Some examples of the priorities which emerged included better waste management at the household, city, and national levels, and the need to scale up plastic recycling into a full-fledged circular economy. (This is an area UNDP has started to act, partnering with Government to provide grants to some of Liberia’s waste management companies to help them scale up their activities. This is resulting in innovative waste recycling initiatives, job creation for youth and women, as well as a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.) There were also calls for job creation programmes tied to forest protection activities.  

Liberians also recommended a multi-sectoral approach to post-COVID recovery that draws on lessons from past epidemics and creation of social safety nets to help those whose livelihoods were obliterated by lockdowns to get back on their feet. (UNDP this year supported LISGIS to undertake a comprehensive socio-economic impact assessment of COVID-19 on small informal businesses. The data, which is currently being analyzed, will help the government and development actors to design better targeted programmes and initiatives to aid a green, inclusive recovery from COVID-19.)

The full report from the consultations, with all the recommendations, was presented last week at the global Stockholm +50 conference in Sweden.

The clock is ticking towards 2030.  If there was one common refrain from the national consultations, it was “After all the talk, let us act!” This message was repeated during each consultation event. Now is the time to act. Many participants also agreed on the need to implement the commitments the government has signed up to and decentralize information dissemination to all counties because “Monrovia is not Liberia”.

So, as Liberians converge in Ganta and other parts of the country to observe World Environment Day, the messages are clear: We have only one Earth and a shared responsibility for ensuring sustainable use of our natural resources. We must act together to tackle climate change and confront global crises. The time to act is now.