Change is now.

What the coronavirus crisis teaches us about the climate emergency


All the world's whistle-blowers, the Greta Thunberg, the IPCC experts, the green, yellow or blue activists, the defenders of the Paris Agreement, the greenest of environmentalists, all are just small arms. They are beaten to a pulp. A virus has managed to achieve what they had always dreamed of: lowering the planet's CO2 emissions to an exceptional level. There is no question of rejoicing in the human consequences of this health and economic crisis. Carbon emissions are falling, but the number of deaths is soaring, with its attendant deprivation and despair. But the effects of the drastic reduction in travel and human activities are obvious; they will be long-lasting, as will the new reflexes and behaviours that we have been led, forced and coerced to adopt. Profound changes from which we must learn.

The satellite images speak for themselves: pollution has been evaporated wherever containment measures have been taken. The fine particles released by motor traffic and industrial activities have disappeared, they no longer make us sick because the air we breathe, even through a mask, is the purest. We can well imagine that, as soon as the containment measures and restrictions are lifted, pollution levels will skyrocket. But what we have learned is that they can disappear with unprecedented speed as soon as our behaviour changes.

In terms of CO2 released into the atmosphere, the effects could be more lasting. Indeed, what is often forgotten is that burning fossil fuel today compromises the lives of generations in the future. Reducing these emissions today is an immediate benefit that will lighten the load for generations to come.

The specialists s tell us that the current contraction in activity will result in a halving of the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. This is huge and unheard of in modern history. This reduction will not be reversed when the virus is defeated and human activity starts up again. It's a gain, period. Not all the air travel we've cancelled will be made up for. Missed trips are lost. The same goes for business trips as for leisure activities.

Our car stays in the garage and no longer emits carbon dioxide. It's a gain; because when the activity starts up again, we won't throw ourselves on the roads like madmen to make up for lost time. Economic activity in some parts of the world will drop by 30 to 40 % because of the pandemic. This drop in activity mechanically leads to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. It is a gain because after containment we will not be running the economy much faster and stronger than before.

But this gain comes at a high price. To flatten the CO2 emissions curve, how much loss of life and suffering has the coronavirus caused us? pay ? Our dilemma in the future will be how to reduce our impact on the climate with minimum suffering and maximum social and economic justice. Should we wait for nature to oblige us as it is doing in this pandemic? We must hope for better.

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The coronavirus pandemic forced us to change our lifestyles in just a few days. It is the hallmark of a disaster that it is never considered until it happens; but when it does, upsetting all our habits, it seems to be installed in our daily furniture. Its reality makes it banal. The health crisis is reducing half of the human population on Earth to confinement, and forcing an abrupt halt to most economic activities. The consequences are innumerable, but those that concern the climate appear in full light. We are becoming aware that what seemed immutable, our activity, our business, our way of working and living in general could be changed. Radically. The relentless formula " business as usual "is dislocated. This strange situation, caused by a natural phenomenon - the spread of a virus - leads to profound changes in our social consciousness. We will have to understand what has changed in it in order to take advantage of it and prevent the climate crisis from turning into collective suicide.

Science restored

Around the world, news channels around the world are looping on the only news of the moment: the pandemic. On the screen, the best epidemiologists, doctors, researchers and biologists from each country are on the screen. Some have become stars in a few days, stealing the spotlight from politicians. Their words are drunk by everyone, eagerly awaited. We listen to them because we believe them. Leaders openly defer to them in their decisions. The President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and all ministers open their mouths only after hearing the scientists' words. Is it necessary to confine an entire country, to close schools in order to stop the spread of the virus? The scientists say so; the politicians decide. Let them do it.

The situation in the United States is taking turns that might be comical if the stakes were not so high. President Trump is contradicted by a little guy next to him, Anthony Fauci. A huge scientist called to the rescue by the White House to manage the crisis. He does not hesitate to publicly cut the chew to the tweeting president. He contradicts him, annoys him, annoys him, it shows. But he's always there and Trump seems to resign himself, like a teenager badly licked, to obey. Fauci's word, like that of all his counterparts in the United States and elsewhere, is respected. For these men are scientists; what they say seems to be true and their injunctions worthy of hearing.

Donald Trump with Anthony Fauci, March 30, 2020. Image ABC News

Behind these headliners, there is an army; the army of doctors, nurses, but also the army of statisticians who work in the shadows, the army of researchers in their labs, the army of science journalists who enlighten the public. A scientific armada mobilized to save lives and restore the normal organization of society as quickly as possible. The coronavirus crisis has revealed their importance. Their warnings should have been heard in time; they were not and we mourn them today. So their prestige is enhanced and shines in the shadows of the tragedy that is unfolding.

Scientists are known in a different field than biology and epidemics. They are specialists in climate, biodiversity, oceans and nature. For decades they have been warning us; they produce countless studies, reports, manifestos that seem to fall into the sidereal void of indifference. They warn us of dangers that we do not believe in. Will we have to wait for these dangers to hit us in the face, like a coronavirus, that they kill en masse and destroy everything that was built by man, before we finally recognize that they were telling the truth?

It is a safe bet that the current pandemic, by restoring the prestige of scientists, will be beneficial in the fight against climate change. In just a few days, we have learned to listen to scientists who know what lies ahead. We must continue to listen to them and implement their injunctions. It is not too late to do the right thing.

It is possible to decide

Political action is not dead. It is possible to decide " wrote Sylvain Tesson. The pandemic teaches us that our lives depend on the decisions made by our leaders. They are the ones who close schools, confine us, put us to telework or technical unemployment, and requisition entire sectors of economic activity. By dint of ultraliberal discourse and the relegation of states to the lowest depths of history, by dint of globalization and the dilution of political decisions in supra-state limbo, we had forgotten that political power existed. When it is exercised, it is a lever for action on things and people.

The coronavirus crisis has taught us that the decisions of a state's leaders must be proactive and made in the interest of the people. And of the people alone. When, "as usual", it is business that is privileged, it is the whole society that is running to its doom. The American example is striking. Trump, at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, wanted to privilege the economy, even if it meant sacrificing tens of thousands of lives. What he did not foresee was the speed with which an extreme emergency situation developed. Hospitals in New York City, the first massive outbreak of the epidemic, were immediately overwhelmed, the stock market collapsed, and companies were laid off. At the time of writing, nearly ten million people were out of work in a fortnight. Some without any medical or social security coverage. The crisis has revealed the weaknesses of a political organisation that has long been said to have no alternative.

Leaders are judged by their peoples and will be judged by history not only on how they handled the crisis, but also on how they anticipated it. On this point, the faults are immense, almost everywhere in the world. Scientists in general and the World Health Organization (WHO) had for many years alerted world leaders about the risks of a coming pandemic and the world's blatant unpreparedness. They were never listened to. This song is strangely similar to the one we hear about the climate. Leaders have, on this subject, all the cards in hand to anticipate. They do not do it out of pusillanimity, incredulity, but above all because they cannot resist pressure from opposing interests. Let us bet that, once the coronavirus crisis is over, they will look at the reports that alarm them in a different light. It is up to the citizens who elect them to be vigilant and prompt in urging them to act in the common interest.

The transformation of our lifestyles

During this strange period of confinement, we learned to live differently. We don't have to go outside anymore, parents rediscover life with their childrenFor those who can, workers who can discover that working at a distance can be tamed. Shopping trips seem to be an old memory, weekend getaways forgotten, we buy our products around the corner, avoiding the supermarkets. We make do with what we have on hand: cakes as well as protective masks. System D and frugality are no longer reserved for the few DIY enthusiasts. Short circuits are becoming a necessity. Some people are discovering that frugality is not necessarily a deprivation and that we can give up our consumption and leisure habits for a more noble goal: to stop the illness and death of our fellow human beings.

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Sociologists will be passionately interested in this period we are going through. But it already reveals that we are capable of changing for goals that are beyond us, goals that put the lives of others at stake. Will we be able to change for the climate? Will we be lucid enough to accept that our actions impact the lives of people on the other side of the planet? We will have to.

And we have to be optimistic. Because the crisis we are going through reveals every day the thousands of gestures for others. We realize, in these times of confinement, the importance of relationships with others, solidarity and mutual aid. We talk to each other from one balcony to the other, we call each other, we worry, we live another relationship with strangers as with those who were supposedly close. Here they are suburban youth who bring meals to the homeless or to needy families, while respecting "barrier gestures". There, we reinvent ways of getting together, loving each other or playing. We rediscover important people that we never saw before: the cashiers in the shops, the road hauliers who bring us food, the small farmers who cultivate for us. We realize the importance of what is missing: the mail from the postmen, the work of the garbage collectors... Who, in these strange times, is interested in the trader in the trading room that runs the world's finances, the head of a multinational company managing his troops from his ivory tower, the polychrome star on his yacht? Hierarchies have been reversed and it is now the football stars cheering on the nurses and orderlies.  

The change in the appreciation of the other person is translated into simple gestures; we no longer shake hands or kiss each other. In doing so, one does not withdraw, one does not hide behind one's mask; one protects oneself by protecting the other. The health of others is of the utmost interest to me and, consequently, it is incomprehensible that States have allowed inequalities in access to lifethreatening care to persist. Europeans in general and the French in particular realise, in contrast to the images coming from the United States, that their social and health protection system is a treasure. The health of those in precarious situations and a challenge for the health of all. A lesson that will remain. In the face of climate change, inequalities will be appreciated in a different way. It will be understood that leaving people alone in the face of climatic disasters will have repercussions on each of us. The word climate migration will undoubtedly take on a new meaning.

Is money a fiction?

In this period of unprecedented crisis, governments have asked central banks to turn on the tap of finance. Money is flowing in the thousands of billions to support businesses, households, strategic industries, to find cures for Covid-19 and to support those who can no longer work. European countries have set an example, France in particular, by paying partial unemployment and benefits out of public finances. Trump's America had a snarl at one point before deciding to release 2,500 billion dollars to support the economy. The American president finally did it to reduce the catastrophic consequences of a paralysis of the American economy.

Without state intervention, in these situations of intense crisis, economies can die. They are killed by the virus, as are patients in acute respiratory crisis, for whom doctors do not have respirators available. In this ultimate situation, on this scale, money is only a social fiction. It is a public good, the use of which we must immediately and radically extend and maximise, so that massive, vital, socially-scaled investments can be made, immediately.

The coronavirus crisis tells us that this is possible. Tomorrow, when it is all over and we have the climate crisis to deal with, what will we do? Will states consider the situation urgent enough to grant income to those who would be affected by a vital energy transition? Will they find money to finance the energy sieves that let CO2 out of the windows? Will it find money to reinvent the coastlines threatened by rising water levels, to transform our agricultural models by making them gentler on both people and nature?  

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