Coronavirus: momentum for sustainability

Recent outspread of Coronavirus is an anticipation of what the future deserves us, if we will not change our approach towards the climate crisis. Since the First World Climate Conference held in 1979 to prevent anthropogenic climate change, little achievement has been concretely obtained in reducing greenhouse emissions. However, it is clear that under climate change, humanity could be confronted with dangerous surprises, eventually more lethal than COVID-19. Apocalyptic scenarios are becoming closer as days pass, ice melts and the atmosphere and the oceans get hotter. Coronavirus is challenging governments to demonstrate their adaptiveness to the uncertainty of the future. The virus is also showing us that it is possible to embrace a different path. Being a student of Global Sustainability Science, I wonder if as humans we want to increase the vulnerability of our species or if we want to provide resilient alternatives to the surprises ahead of us. The question is: which direction to take now?
What is happening because of COVID-19 is showing that global governments are unprepared to face a health crisis. Coronavirus has a mortality rate of 3.4%, as estimated by the WHO, while climate change is predicted to have an overall higher mortality rate. Even if in the last centuries medicine has progressed, not always cures or vaccines are immediately available. Also, health care systems are not prepared to handle huge affluence due to lack of staff, spaces and medical equipment. Coronavirus has paralyzed half of the world’s population and confined humans inside their houses until date to be established. In Europe, Italy is the most affected nation. While Italian intensive care units are quickly reaching collapse, in most cities the sky is not the dense cloud of smog it used to be. Photos of canals in Venice show pristine water where you can see fishes, swans and even the bottom of the canals for the first time in this century. Milan parks are now inhabited by hares, rare whales and even dolphins were seen roaming near Italian coasts and ducks running around all over deserted city centers. It appears than in less than a month nature has been able to take its space again, showing rapid signs of recovery after human disappearance.

This shows that it is possible to look at COVID-19 under different lenses. Since the outbreak started, in only China coal consumption and power plants has fallen by 36%, satellite based NO2 levels are 37% lower and almost a quarter of the country CO2 emissions has been wiped out. People have stopped flying and using cars, and manufactured production and consumption has decreased drastically. Years of multilateral negotiations between governments were incapable of stopping greenhouse emissions as efficiently as Coronavirus is doing. The disease is creating momentum for a shift in the actual economic paradigm. People can stay at home with their children and have more free time than ever to reflect on their lives. This historical moment is an invitation to stop, stop the treadmills of capitalism, stop the metabolic rift between ecological processes and economic production, stop pollution! The virus is giving us opportunities to make this change happen now. Government precautionary measures do not need to die out after the epidemic is over because they are providing alternatives to the actual stagnant political situation on climate change. COVID-19 is itself a “vaccine” helping humanity to prepare for dire future health risks linked to climate change. But we need to make this vaccine an effective one!

If only politicians were able to realize the similarities between COVID-19 and climate change surprises, and look at it with the above-mentioned perspective, humanity would be a steep further in fighting the threats of the Anthropocene. Unfortunately, people have internalized the characteristics of the actual economic system so badly, that they rather see the problem in terms of economic losses or “forced imprisonment”. People are so absorbed by the industrial world, that they struggle to slow down and to appreciate the simple things in life: health, family and a great environment in which to live. The risk is that when the virus will die, humans will increase their production to make up for lost profits and boost their travel to offset the forced quarantine. Everything might go back to the so-called business as usual: stress, pollution and exhausting work rhythms in the name of development or progress. Happiness will be sacrificed as always, but no media coverage about the consequences of this behavior will alarm people uninterruptedly. And so, we will silently approach the edge of the precipice, without having learnt anything from the Coronavirus foretaste.

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