In my April 2nd article (I dare to hope that the world after COVID-19 will no longer be as it was), I referred, among other ideas, to the link between the current turmoil generated by COVID-19 and the effects of climate change.
I also shared my deep hopes that with our full support as corporates and private citizens, decision-makers “will dedicate the same energy and authority toward the development and deployment of a similar action plan to cure and save the lungs of our planet, i.e. our forests and trees”. Indeed, as Indian author and environmental activist Arundhati Roy puts it: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
Personally, I don’t see why this shouldn’t hold true in our current context or why we would be too foolish to miss this opportunity to mend what is broken.
As Winston Churchill noted, “we should never waste a good crisis”!
Let me develop this idea further by first repeating the direct links between this virus and climate change followed by an investigation of the major parallels, but also differences between the two. In doing so, I aim to provide some reflections on the lessons learned from COVID-19 and ideas on how to take this fight forward.
COVID-19: A message from nature!
The COVID-19 virus attacks our lungs or, more precisely, the pulmonary alveoli at the exact point where the exchange between air and blood takes place. Scientists have made it very clear that forests and trees play a similar role for our planet as lungs do for us.
As such, forests and lungs are integrally connected. In 2011, when Milda Sebris turned 100 at the Ellen Memorial Health Care Center, she described this symbiotic relationship so beautifully: “To breathe is to live embodied. Without this exquisite process going on day after day, year after year, moment after moment we would not be functional – we would not be alive! Trees help the planet breathe by turning carbon dioxide into clean, pure oxygen. Plants are considered the lungs of the earth because plants produce oxygen, which is necessary for all life, so in essence, since our lungs keep us alive and trees keep our lungs alive, we can consider trees to be a part of our lungs’ existence. This is all part of the deep interconnectedness of all life”.
Scientists provide any evidence we need (except for those who cannot or do not want to understand) as to how much our increased CO2 emissions and our continued killing of forests, and the global warming that comes with it, have been deeply linked to the development of dangerous viruses over the last decades. Of all emerging infectious diseases, 75% come from wildlife and our destruction of the natural habitat for farming, mining, housing and energy.
So, we need to make a choice: Do we want to live in harmony with nature, or will we keep fighting it?
It’s obvious – and we’ve received a clear demonstration of it over the last weeks – that the planet does not need us to survive but we desperately need it. In fact, we are the most dependent of all different forms of life. Nature on the other hand, existed long before us, and even seems to be better off as we humans are confined. As we have been immobilized, Nature serenely carries on; it keeps growing, keeps breathing, keeps giving life irrespective of the turmoil humankind is currently facing.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) states it so well: “Nature is sending us a message…we are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we do not take care of nature, we do not take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally“.
I hope we get this wake-up call nature sends us!
Parallels and differences between COVID-19 and climate change
A sad parallel can be drawn around the president of the United States, who has denounced both COVID-19 and climate change respectively as a “Chinese hoax” and as topics embraced by Democrats in hopes of winning the November elections. With both crises far from being a hoax, we must look deeper and analyze the serious parallels and differences that exist between COVID-19 and climate change. They must be laid out and understood with clarity so that we may generate much-needed buy-in from the public and become proponents of a well-thought-out strategy that can tackle climate change with the urgency it deserves.
The first major parallel between COVID-19 and climate change is that both seem primarily to hurt the most vulnerable segments of global population. Climate change, through its global warming effect, has disproportionately impacted developing countries that often lack the required infrastructure to cope with such drastic changes in climate, weather, and natural disasters.
Even within OECD countries, the most vulnerable people of the population suffer the most, for example the elderly, those with pre-existing health problems and those whose immune functions have been weakened by their living conditions. Therefore, as we discuss which segments of our population should be most protected and receive priority access to health services, we must realize that in developing countries, and even some developed countries, health care is far from a given. In fact, half of the world’s population has no access to the health care it needs.
Similarly, with respect to climate change, it is those countries — at this stage at least – that are the least affected by the effects of global warming and which have the required infrastructure to cope with its effects — and are responsible for the vast majority of CO2 emissions. Here again we can draw a parallel with the current pandemic where those who are most responsible for spreading it are not necessarily those who will suffer the most!
Another major parallel is the need to react and act with the highest sense of urgency! Both COVID-19 and climate change have the potential to be catastrophic for humanity but they operate on different timescales. If the degree of emergency is the same for COVID-19 and climate, the speed of our respective reactions is far from the same.
This does not come as a surprise as both are not actually perceived with the same sense of urgency. In terms of the pandemic, we feel it and we suffer from it today; climate change, on the other hand, started by affecting the more southern countries first and, as such, is perceived by us (if at all perceived) as a remote and not immediate threat. It’s not knocking at our front doors the same way COVID-19 is.
I dare to hope, though, as the link between climate change and an increased risk and frequency of pandemics is clearly proven, that this pandemic will allow us to understand and perceive the real gravity and urgency of the climate issue before it might be devastating in its impact and possibly become irreversible.
In fact, there is another major difference here: while health conditions might eventually go back to normal, many of the damages caused to our environment are irreversible. So, we need to accept that if we do not change anything, we will globally surpass the Paris Agreement targets by 2028.
Yes, in 2028 and not in 2050 as planned in the Paris agreement. Despite the good intentions of all the signatories of the Paris Agreement, today there is only one single country that has developed and deployed a concrete action plan to meet the commitments taken by all, and that is Morocco. However, Morocco cannot win this battle on its own.
Major lessons learned
Optimist by nature, I am pretty confident that most of us – whether policy-makers, decision-makers, businesswomen and men, citizens, elderly, young, wherever we may live – will come out of this crisis with a strong commitment not to go back to ‘normal’, as ‘normal’ has clearly proven to be ‘the’ problem. And I hope that we will learn as much as we can from the present crisis to avoid repeating the same or similar mistakes going forward.
First, COVID-19, as well as climate change, are global issues, and as such they need a global response: we need to listen to the warnings and trust the assessments of scientists and other experts.
The present crisis has proven that despite the level of the crisis varying by country or community, we try as best as we can to align approaches among countries and are ready to help each other when needed — for example, China helping Italy, or Luxembourg taking on emergency cases from Lorraine.
Yes, there will always be selfish decision-makers (like in the US or Brazil) who continue to defy scientists and who do not see the value of global cooperation. But that should not serve as an excuse to all others not to join forces. And I dare to hope that the citizens and voters of countries who refuse to buy into a shared strategy will be smart enough to realize over time that the personal selfishness that drives their leaders’ actions will not pay off in the medium and long term.
But more importantly, I hope we realize that we need to acknowledge and react to the warnings we receive. Though we’ve had scientists pushing us to recognize the increasing risk of pandemics for some decades now, we must admit that we have not done much to prepare ourselves for that risk over the last years. It is now that we need to make the fight against climate change a priority, combat its root causes and reduce CO2 emissions to zero.
Time is of the essence if we want to avoid dire emergency situations going forward. It is crucial that we embrace the warning calls with respect to climate change and act now. The Paris Agreement cannot remain a best intention only. All the countries that signed it now need to develop a serious action plan – not only a best intention plan – to make it happen. Morocco has shown us the way!
This COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated clearly that it is those countries — South-Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Iceland…– which were the fastest in trusting expert opinions as to the magnitude and risk of the issue, and which were the fastest, in partnership with those same experts, in taking appropriate measures, and which are coming out of this crisis the best.
The fact that many of these countries are currently under the leadership of female top decision-makers should make us reflect on whether there is a clear root cause relationship between both. This interesting topic has generated a lot of discussions lately around questions like: Is there a cultural aspect to it? Meaning, is the culture of those societies encouraging and supporting female leaders more than others, or do citizens trust female political decision-makers more? And if ‘yes’, why is this the case? Do women have better competencies to deal with crisis situations? Are they less selfish?
It is definitely not my intention to enter into that discussion here. I leave it to the experts. Although I realize that all those countries that have best handled this COVID-19 crisis seem to have something in common — following the experts’ advice and learning from the experience of first-hit countries, they all developed a crisis action plan which:
- gives the highest level of priority to public welfare, not only in the short term but also in the medium and long term (as opposed to continuing to pursue short-term economic and financial gains)
- was not led by, what I would call, selfish ‘action heroes. Quite the contrary: these plans favored constructive cooperation over selfishness and a competitive spirit.
And — surprise, surprise – I dare not to hope this time but, rather, to confirm that again this is exactly what is needed to fight the large looming climate crisis!
In fact, as we speak about climate change or the broader sustainability challenge, we tend to speak about ESG (Environment, Social and Governance), or more specifically about the triple bottom line of PPP (People, Planet, Profit) — for example, about strategies that do not chase only the highest short-term profits but also those that recognize a healthy balance between serving, developing, rewarding and respecting people at all levels, not harming the planet and generating reasonable profits.
And what makes me even more hopeful, not to say confident, for the future is that large parts of the respective populations agreed to these strategies and accepted all the sacrifices of being confined, of not being able to see family members and friends and to shop freely, having to wear masks, on and on. And they all endorsed a crisis management strategy that re-prioritizes objectives, puts the public well-being at the top, recognizes that sacrifices need to be made by all and redefines the roles of each of us.
So, if the citizens endorsed it for COVID-19, why should we not utilize this momentum and build on their compliance for a thoroughly developed climate change action plan? The impetus is there. What’s left to do is to realize the urgency of fighting climate change and developing a plan that clearly defines the expectation and role for each of us.
Way forward – we all have our role to play!
Going forward, all of us – political or economic decision-makers, associations, media and journalists, employees or workers, retirees, teachers or students – need collectively, but also individually, to adopt this ESG, or triple bottom-line mindset. If most or all of us collectively and as individuals assume our respective responsibilities, there is no doubt we will win the fight against climate change. We have demonstrated that we can make it happen for the COVID-19 crisis. We have realized that “if we replace the ‘I’ with ‘We’, even ‘Illness’ becomes ‘WEllness’“. There is no reason we should not be able to do the same with the climate crisis.
Media and journalists
This COVID-19 crisis is a tragic reminder of the key role played by our media and just how essential fact-based, outspoken journalism is. It has also demonstrated the crucial responsibility of journalists to push back on fake news and those decision-makers who try to hide or even deny plain facts.
During this COVID-19 crisis many journalists have realized and reinforced the kind of public service role they have in keeping us informed as factually as possible and challenging those who tried to spread fake news or hide information. Now we count on them for deploying the same rigor and required urgency towards the most important challenge of our time: climate change. We now need these same media and journalists who have done such an exceptional job in this pandemic to use the same best practices when reporting on climate change and its risks, including the increased risk of future pandemics.
Economic and financial decision makers
As already mentioned in one of my previous articles, I strongly believe that the current crisis will drastically increase the urgency and pressure on companies and their decision-makers to convert to more sustainable business models and adopt a real triple bottom-line strategy.
The objective of such strategies will obviously remain to generate enough profits to assure their long-term viability. However, they will achieve this in full respect of people (employees, suppliers and people in the supply chain, clients, shareholders and any other stakeholders) and without damaging our planet any further. They need to realize that it is a matter of survival that extends well beyond the short term.
The current pandemic has made all of us more sensitive to the effect of nature on our well-being, to how desperately we need our family and friends around us. It has made us move from a pretty materialistic set of values to a more sober set of values positioned around caring and solidarity or, as I’ve phrased it previously: ‘to be’ has taken the lead on ‘to have’.
Hopefully, the result of this change in mindset is that in the near future we will all be much more sensitive to these same values when choosing how and with whom to spend our time and money. Companies that do not realize that their ‘why’ (why they exist, i.e. their purpose and values) and their ‘what’ (what they stand for) are much more important than the quantity and price of what they sell, might have no future!
We have realized how effective many political decision-makers – in close partnership with scientists – have been in identifying early on the upcoming risk, in developing and deploying concise mitigation packages and even in preparing for the impacts that couldn’t be avoided.
Their actions are rooted in the conviction that public welfare must be the top priority in a crisis. I dare to hope that these same politicians, strengthened by the endorsement they’ve received, will now have the comfort and motivation to tackle the climate change crisis with the same determination. Just as they did for COVID-19:
- I hope that our political decision-makers will trust our scientists and inform their citizens factually about the looming threats of climate change, not only for their own nations but also for our global population as well as future generations. I have no doubt that the efficiency of their partnerships with media and journalists during COVID-19 can be replicated, even strengthened, in the context of climate change.
- I also hope that leaders will not only develop but also deploy targeted mitigation packages: indeed, as signatories of the Paris Agreement, many countries have communicated extensively about their respective commitments. Some have even done a good job of developing thorough roadmaps to accompany those commitments, although we can’t ignore the extent to which deployment plans are drastically lagging behind. The obvious risk now is that with the substantial public support and finance packages centered around COVID-19, deployment of climate change, mitigation strategies might drop down from the top of the priority list.
Climate change mitigation needs to become a core element of these same COVID-19 support packages. It would be irresponsible towards younger generations not to tie eligibility for these support packages to sustainable development obligations from beneficiaries. It would be irresponsible to utilize current stimulus packages to finance dying sectors of the economy that have no future in sustainable business. It would be irresponsible to finance fossil fuel companies for anything other than their transition program to cleaner energy technologies.
Hearing many of the key decision-makers over the last weeks, I am pretty confident that most of them got the message. As the Prime Minister of France recently noted in an interview with the Financial Times:“There is a realization that if people could do the unthinkable to their economies to slow a pandemic, they could do the same to arrest catastrophic climate change”.
- I believe that there has never been a better moment to start converting our present ‘labor-based’ tax system to ‘a natural-resources and pollution-based’ system. The present labor-based system causes unemployment as it encourages companies to minimize human resources, while leaving natural resources untaxed, thereby stimulating overconsumption and pollution.
As the COVID-19 crisis will dramatically increase the challenge of unemployment, there could not be a better moment to start this transition than now. An increase in taxation on scarce natural resources not only will allow us to protect our environment but also to reduce the cost of labor, thereby mitigating – at least partially – the risk of unprecedented unemployment levels.
- Finally, governments also have realized how crucial it is for them to lead by example and, as such, they should do the same with respect to climate change. Just imagine the strength of the message to our local Luxembourg community, and the powerful global branding opportunity for our financial marketplace, if Luxembourg were the first country able to claim that all of our cash in the public pension scheme is invested exclusively in sustainable finance products and offerings. And nothing, really nothing prevents us from doing so. It just might require that we as citizens (because in the end it is our money managed by public authorities) express our support and, if needed, exert pressure on the public officials who manage our pension funds.
And that brings me to the last category of actors with the means to play a crucial role in all of this.
We the citizens! We the consumers!
The key role lies with us as citizens and consumers.
I am pretty convinced that, due to the aforementioned shift in our mindset and values, we as citizens are ahead of both political and economic decision-makers in terms of our determination to fight climate change. Therefore, we must use the power offered to us by technology and media to make ourselves heard. Decision-makers need to hear us loud and clear: that we not only support them in their responsibilities in the fight against climate change, but that we require it from them and that we will sanction those who don’t act.
Here again, there is no better way to exert pressure on economic decision-makers than to lead by example. We need to change our behaviors clearly: fly less, and if we do fly, then choose the company with the most sustainable offer; consume less and consume locally; spend our euros on companies with a clear sustainability focus; use the most sustainable transportation offerings and all become active agents of a circular economy. We have demonstrated that we can do it if our hand is forced – so why not take a more preventive (and comfortable) approach over time for climate change, as opposed to a delayed, reactive (and uncomfortable) approach once the panic spreads?
We need to realize that it is all in our hands! If we citizens start to move in this direction, political and economic decision-makers, even the media and journalists will have to follow – or else they won’t survive.
So, in my opinion we are all set to unleash a similar arsenal of mitigation and management strategies to the climate change crisis as we have with COVID-19. There is no doubt about this. The last remaining challenge is to adopt the right behavior. This can be difficult in our western countries, where the climate crisis is not yet felt as dramatically as in other parts of the world.
The most powerful illustration to convey the required sense of urgency might be the famous “boiling frog” fable that says:
- If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out and survive – this is exactly what happened to us in the COVID-19 situation.
- But if the frog is put in tepid water which is then slowly brought to a boil over time, it won’t perceive the danger and will be cooked to death – this is exactly what risks humanity if we fail to realize the urgency of the risk posed by climate change.
To conclude, I will leave you with the powerful words of Inger Andersen, whom I already referred to in the introduction: “The better we manage nature, the better we manage human health…because keeping nature diverse, rich and flourishing is part and parcel of our life’s support system….we need to see how prudent management of nature can be part of this ‘different economy’ that must emerge, one where finance and actions fuel green jobs, green growth and a different way of life, because the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same, and both can thrive in equal measure.”
(N.B. Big thanks to you, Julie and Felix, for your support)