Slideshow: Times of crisis (2)

Emerging from recession, the world remains challenged by unprecedented climate change and by grinding poverty. Maryann Bird introduces more images from a Reuters multimedia project depicting a year of upheaval.

The 10 photographs in the slideshow are Copyright 2009 Thomson Reuters and published by chinadialogue with the permission of Thomson Reuters.

When the global financial crisis exploded just over a year ago, plunging much of the world into the worst economic times in several decades, governments made difficult, risky decisions. They threw trillions of dollars at their financial and economic institutions in the hope of propping them up. Feeling their way through dark and uncertain days, national leaders and central bankers did not know if the steps they were taking — the measures being rushed through legislatures, the demands being made on business and industry — would actually work. Nor did they know what unintended consequences might result.

At a time of shattered confidence, when banks didn’t even trust other banks, the governments knew only that they had to get money flowing again, yet their talk seemed almost contradictory. There could be no return to “business as usual”, yet countries had to get back to business and a semblance of normality as soon as possible. So the leaders spoke of a new economy, of “green jobs”, a sustainable and transparent financial system, car-scrappage schemes, renewable energy projects.

Many think the world is now emerging from the financial and economic drama, a bit more than a year after the international investment firm Lehman Brothers collapsed into bankruptcy in September 2008, igniting the crisis. But is it ending, or are the “green shoots of recovery” only a mirage? Fundamentally, has anything changed very much? Is the world going to carry on operating in the same way, albeit with more wind turbines and solar panels?

In the words of John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK: “If you think the demise of some of our famous banks was scary, wait till you see the full impacts of climate change from retreating glaciers that feed our great rivers in Asia or the melting of the summer Arctic sea ice at the North Pole.”

“For decades, our sub-prime relationship to reality has seen us, as a species, withdraw so much from the earth that our account with the planet is now heavily overdrawn,” Sauven asserts. “The environment was never going to be able to take it; it was always destined to crumble under the pressure of unchecked growth. Now we are facing two toxic time-bombs, financial and ecological — and they are not unrelated. Our leaders are still consumed by the rather naive belief that we can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. But what kind of world will that leave us with?”

Countries need to find ways to measure happiness and social well-being alongside raw economic growth, reported a panel of top economists commissioned by French president Nicolas Sarkozy in September. One of those economists, the Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, has long urged world leaders to consider broader measures of prosperity, rather than focusing heavily on gross domestic product. “GDP has increasingly become used as a measure of societal well-being, and changes in the structure of the economy and our society have made it an increasingly poor one,” according to Stiglitz. As governments contend with reviving the global economy and how to limit the effects of climate change, he argues, it is critical that they broaden the range of data they consider.

“So many things that are important to individuals are not included in GDP,” he added. One shortcoming of the GDP model, Stiglitz indicated, is the difficulty in estimating improvements in the quality – instead of just the quantity – of products such as cars. Such factors, along with environmental sustainability, need to be considered in policy making, he said. “If you take one message out of our report, make it ‘avoid GDP fetishism’. The message is to encourage political leaders away from that.”

The French president, for one, seems ready to listen. Sarkozy warned: “Across the whole world, citizens think that we’re lying to them, that the figures are false and, worse, that they’re being manipulated.” France, he said, “will fight for all international organisations to modify their statistical methods; France will urge its European partners to set an example and will therefore modify its own systems.”

As signs of recovery, of a slow turn-around from the brink of disaster, grow, the Reuters news agency has launched a multimedia special, Times of Crisis, providing some of that other critical data in the form of arresting images. Charting a year of upheaval, they show “how lives everywhere have changed as a divergent world embarks on a new era of historic uncertainty”.

Unemployment is continuing to rise, and consumer confidence remains shaky. And looming large on the horizon is the United Nations climate change conference (COP15) in December, at which a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol is meant to be agreed in Copenhagen. Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), expects the recession will have an impact on those negotiations.

“You see already that investments in renewable energy projects are going down, partly because of the oil price going down and partly because of the economic activity going down,” de Boer said in a recent interview. Shrinking industrial activities currently are slowing the rate of greenhouse-gas emissions, but the UN climate chief does not believe that will lessen the pressure on negotiators in Copenhagen.

Business people “still want clarity from Copenhagen”, he said. “If you’re making investments now, for example in the energy sector, in power plants that are going to be around for the next 30 to 50 years, you can’t really afford to keep waiting and waiting and waiting for governments to say where they’re going to go on this issue.”

In addition to energy issues, a broad array of environmental and economic problems confronts the planet in these times of crisis and uncertainty, problems that are inextricably linked to the effects of poverty and climate change, to consumption and waste disposal, on a planet with limited resources.

“We have one chance and one chance only to get this problem right, and this is the year at Copenhagen in which we take that chance,” says Sauven. “What will history say of us? The events that define the future have not yet happened. What we do this year may well determine the outcome. We have no alternative to making change.”

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.