“If you want a proper adaptation strategy to the Coronavirus, then you must finally properly tackle climate change. There. I said it.”
In this Episode 34, The Angry Clean Energy Guy describes what the “exit strategy” is for the global Coronavirus lockdown and how this exit strategy is so similar to the one from climate change; and then he describes some of the future trends that we can already see shaping our society post-Coronavirus and what these mean, especially from the perspective of climate change.
Photo by Assaad W. Razzouk
I am quite used to living with a catastrophic emergency all around me. Indeed, you could say that I know the drill, and practice it daily.
I don’t know if this might ring a bell, but the catastrophic emergency I am talking about is:
It instills fear when you think about it.
It’s an emergency.
You can’t touch it.
It affects the poor more than the rich
It’s solvable if we could only bend the curve.
And no, it’s not the Coronavirus, it’s climate change: The parallels between the two are incredible. They’re astounding.
What I would like to talk about today, if you’ll allow me, are two things: First, what is the exit strategy for the Coronavirus, now that billions of us are in lockdown? And how is this exit strategy so similar to the climate change one? Second, what are some of the future trends that we can already see shaping our society post Coronavirus – and I mean relatively permanent future trends – and what do these mean, especially sorry from the perspective of climate change?
Welcome to Episode 34 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy with me, Assaad Razzouk. Thank you for listening.
TRAVELING BETWEEN THE US, THE UK AND LEBANON
I want to tell you a story. It’s about the recent experience of a friend of mine who lives between Beirut and Washington, D. C., traveling between these two cities.
On the eighth of March, she travels to Washington, D. C. From London. At that time, she leaves London and there are no health checks at Heathrow. She arrives in Washington, D. C.; there are no health checks in Washington, D. C. It’s the eighth of March.
By then, Lebanon, in the middle of a banking crisis and having defaulted on its debt, had closed all of its schools because of the Coronavirus “to bend the curve”.
My friend stays in D. C. until the first of April. She desperately wants to get back to Beirut, her home.
She flies on the first of April, that’s 10 days ago, from Washington, D. C. To London. Her temperature is not checked flying out of the United States. Her temperature is not checked coming into the United Kingdom. Nobody forces her to isolate, quarantine or anything like that. She then sits and waits for the Lebanese Embassy in London to inform her when her evacuation flight to Beirut is going to take place.
Because Lebanon, meanwhile, had not only closed its schools, restaurants, bars, etc., it’s also closed its airport.
Nine days later, on the ninth of April, she gets a seat on an evacuation flight from London to Beirut. When she arrives at the airport, the flight is one-third full in order to maintain social distancing. Onboard, there are two doctors roaming the plane. The crew is decked out like astronauts with all the latest protective equipment. Everyone, when they come on board, are asked to throw away their masks and gloves, if any, and to put on masks and gloves that the crew give them. Everybody’s temperature is checked. Everybody gets a color bracelet that indicates their condition, whether they have been tested before boarding, whether they need to be tested at landing, whether they have any symptoms, etc. Everybody’s given pre-packaged food on arrival.
In Beirut, disembarkation is slow and takes place on a row by row basis. First, they’re checked by people from the Ministry of Health. Then they’re tested for the Coronavirus. They get on buses in groups of nine. The suitcases are in a separate bus. They are sent to a hotel, where they sit and wait for the results of their tests. If their tests are negative, they will be able to go home, provided they self-isolate at home for 14 days.
So just contrast how two of the richest countries in the world, the United States and the United Kingdom, are dealing with the Coronavirus compared to some of the poorest or most needy countries in the world, whether, by the way, it’s Lebanon or Tunisia or almost all of Asia.
What is going on? Why is it that seemingly the US simply cannot get their act together? How come a bankrupt country like Lebanon is doing such an amazing job with the incredibly limited resources at their disposal? Because, remember, in Lebanon, Coronavirus tests are free and treatment at the hospitals is free as well. So how come they’re doing such a good job while the UK and the US are not? What happened?
I think I can take a guess at what happened.
IGNORING THE SCIENCE
Let me give you a couple of other observations in addition to the story of my friend.
Somehow, we’re in the midst of a Coronavirus stimulus spending globally of at least five trillion – that’s trillion – dollars and counting, because I’m sure the United States is going top it up with at least another two trillion soon, which materialized instantly.
So all that money materialized instantly through the very same politicians that could have spent a fraction of that amount to beat climate change and the very same politicians and political parties that killed healthcare systems to exacerbate the very same problem – the Coronavirus – that they are today throwing money at.
And the very same politicians today are behind the loss off over 1,000,000,000 jobs, that’s a billion jobs, through government policies that are destroying on a daily basis lives, jobs and businesses just because the politicians killed healthcare systems over decades to the benefit of companies selling arms, to the benefit of Big Oil and to the benefit of other big corporates.
So what happened? I’ll tell you what happened.
We ignored scientific warnings on pandemics for a couple of decades.
We gutted our response mechanisms, our hospitals, our nursing staff, our protective equipment, our ability to test people.
So, we ignored scientific warnings. We ignored the science. We went off and we did something else.
And guess what? That’s exactly what we’re doing with climate change and what we have been doing for decades with climate change.
LACK OF INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION
There’s another thing that’s going on. The lack of international cooperation on the Coronavirus is stunning. It’s everybody for themselves. It’s everybody for themselves, everywhere.
And guess what? The parallels with the climate change talks are uncanny. Just like the climate change talks, where it’s every government for themselves and if we’re lucky, a regional block gets their act together as a group, but broadly speaking, it’s everybody for themselves, the Coronavirus is showing us that very same feature again.
So, the obvious question today is what is the exit strategy? How do we get out of having locked up billions of people in their homes because the politicians have under-invested in our health care systems and don’t quite know what to do, because they have failed to prepare for pandemics?
Governments know that it’s their fault. They know they don’t really have the moral authority, other than through fear and the propagation of fear through the population, to keep billions locked up. They know they don’t have the moral authority because they know that they have failed us. This may not yet be a common refrain, but it will soon become one: Governments have under invested in health care systems; they have under-invested in planning for pandemics, even though scientists have been warning about these for decades; and they’re all guilty. China, the United States, the EU, Britain, all of the rich countries are guilty.
And, to state the obvious, they have been doing exactly the same thing on climate change for a long time.
So how are they going to let us out? Well, to be honest, it’s not that complicated.
In climate change terms, a vaccine is when you’ve solved the problem. We have not solved the Coronavirus problem because we have no vaccine. So what we can do, meanwhile, is we can deal with the problem through mitigation first and adaptation, either at the same time or subsequently.
For COVID-19, mitigation is actually happening years late, but it’s happening. We’re investing in hospital beds. We’re investing in a faster response. We’re investing in tracing. We’re investing in protective equipment and we’re investing in tests. Fine.
What about COVID-19 adaptation? Well, what’s being discussed, which is obvious again, is to keep various forms of social distancing until we have a vaccine. So they’ll open schools first. They’ll then open the offices and ask us to stay two meters apart. They’ll open non-essential shops, then restaurants and cafes. And finally they’ll open public arenas like football stadiums. At the same time, I hope very nicely, they’ll ask the elderly and those with underlying health conditions to stay in.
But what I hardly find discussed is this: If you want proper adaptation to the Coronavirus, then you must tackle climate change. There. I’ve said it. If you want proper adaptation to the Coronavirus, then you must tackle climate change.
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses, so there are lots of them. There is MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. There is SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. In case you did not know, in 2008, a team of researchers from the Zoological Society of London, from the Wildlife Trust and from Columbia University identified 335 – that’s 335 – new diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004. And 60% of these came from animals, in other words, spilled-over from animals.
So we’ve known for a while that outbreaks of animal-born and other infectious diseases such as Ebola that you’ve heard of, the bird flu, SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many can quickly spread to new places. We know that. We’ve known that for a long time. That’s what makes me really angry. We know that, and we’ve done nothing about it in China. We’ve done nothing about it in Europe. In the US, we’ve done even less than nothing: We dialed back the little that we’ve been doing.
At the risk of being repetitive, there’s a combination of elements that explains why we are seeing more and more Coronaviruses infecting humans in the last 50 years. And if we don’t do something about them, expect even more. All are directly linked to human activity.
You’ve got deforestation, combined with illegal wildlife trade, combined with intensive agriculture, combined with the very bad way in which we produce our meat, combined with an overuse of antibiotics. And all of that is wrapped into a climate change crisis, which is a threat multiplier across all of these areas.
So, when you kill biodiversity, what you’re doing is you are not keeping pathogens from leaving the wild. The virus spill-over risk from wildlife to people rises as contact between us and them increases. I mean, that’s obvious.
But despite years of shouting from the roofs alongside massive corporate pledges, clearly 99% empty, to stop deforestation, which is the largest driver of biodiversity loss, habitats continue to vanish at incredible rates. And as they vanish, wildlife comes into closer contact with us.
When you tackle climate change, you promote three critical things. You promote resilience, which we’ve now proven we so dramatically lack. You promote biodiversity, which we absolutely need to manage all these virus explosions and you promote sustainability. At the same time, you minimize the risk of an increasing frequency of black swans.
And I want to give you just one example which I don’t know how many of you have heard of: Permafrost.
Permafrost is basically any type of ground that’s been frozen continuously for up to hundreds of thousands of years. It extends down beneath the surface of the earth to sometimes more than a couple of kilometres. Twenty-five per cent of the entire Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, there the ground is frozen year-round. This is widespread in the Arctic regions of Siberia, Canada, Greenland, Alaska, etc.
But it’s what the permafrost represents which is interesting.
When plants and animals die, the microbes that decompose from their bodies release all sorts of gases, including, by the way, greenhouse gases. The permafrost puts a deep freeze and hits the pause button on that process. So you’re preserving organisms and gases that otherwise would have gone into the atmosphere.
So, what you have today stored in the permafrost is many thousands of years of life, from humans to plants to mammoth. And it’s one of the world’s great stores of gases: We have in the Arctic alone, twice as much carbon as exists in the atmosphere now. We also have there an enormous amount of methane, which is another greenhouse gas super-powerful that traps more than 80 times more heat than carbon.
So, we’ve got all that stuff frozen, and we know pretty much what’s frozen: It’s gases and microbes.
And there are enormous amounts of ancient microbes in that permafrost, some dormant for thousands of years. And these are clearly microbes that our organism, that humans have no idea how to deal with if they were to resurface and this is happening slowly for now.
In 2016 there was an outbreak of Anthrax in Siberia linked to a decades old carcass of reindeer, which was infected with this bacterium and then exposed by melting permafrost.
So, what is super clear is that developing the Arctic, extracting permafrost to mine for precious metals and petroleum and exacerbating our climate change problem, well, increasingly that puts permafrost in danger and melts it.
Guess as a result, what our wise governments are promoting and what our big corporates are doing? What they’re doing is they’re warming the hell out of the planet to thaw the permafrost, in other words, to melt it, in other words, to release an enormous amount of carbon that we possibly wouldn’t even survive. And if we did, we would be hit by the enormous amount of microbes that’s just been released.
You know that. I know that everybody should know that. However, we are doing exactly the opposite.
So back to Covid-19.
Mitigation is happening fast because we are throwing an enormous amount of money at it. And the reason we’re throwing an enormous amount of money at it, and that’s $5 trillion counting, is because we have politicians with a guilt complex. They know they indirectly caused it by under-investing in our health care systems. They know that Covid-19 adaptation, however, is a completely different ballgame. Social distancing is not going to be enough. Even when we get a vaccine. A vaccine is not going to be enough because we’re going to have other Coronaviruses that will emerge.
So, what we need if you want proper adaptation to the Coronavirus is, we need to tackle climate change seriously. We need to stop deforestation. We need to stop the illegal wildlife trade. We need to improve our agricultural practices. We need to improve how we produce our meat. We need to be much smarter about how we use antibiotics, and we need to stop emitting greenhouse gases by burning oil, gas and coal.
So as you can see, I’ve had a lot of pent up anger about the Coronavirus. But the good news is that now it’s out and on tape. Thank you for your patience. I really appreciate it. But there is so much to be angry about.
The second part of my podcast is more hopeful, however.
What are some of the future trends that we can already see shaping our society post COVID-19? And what do these mean, including from the perspective of the fight against climate change?
I’ll tell you what, there is one which is super crystal clear, especially if you look at the history of pandemics. The Great Plague, which lasted for hundreds of years and pretty much finished off in the 1666 Great Plague in London, felt like Armageddon. However, it was also the beginning of a scientific awakening in the West, which culminated in the Industrial Revolution.
Why? Because the most important thing society took back from its plague experience is to listen to the science.
Personally, I think that is the most important future trend that you can expect from Covid-19: Science is going to regain the place that it lost over the last couple of decades in the fight against climate change, where anti-science and anti-experts was a line promoted by vested interests that simply had too much money at stake to listen to the science.
Well, now guess what. They will not be able to push back against scientific evidence anymore. This is a trend that I think will solidify and accelerate in the next few years, and I’m very much hoping that what it means is it means that we will actually fight climate change now seriously. Because if you listen to the science, that’s what you’ll end up doing. I mean, it’s pretty obvious.
The great plague was the beginning of a scientific awakening in the West.
Similarly, Covid-19 I hope scared the hell out of everybody enough into listening to the experts, listening to the science, into planning, into preparing and into mitigating what we’re doing.
If you listen to the science, what you will also do, and this is another future trend that I’m expecting, is you’ll start actually investing properly in biotechnology and health care.
That is not what we’ve been doing for decades because we’ve had pharmaceutical companies, basically not that incentivized to invest in vaccines because people use vaccines just once, and so, it’s not such a profitable product – that is going to change because we have been investing but now we’ll invest faster in dramatic solutions to health problems and in genomic technologies.
I am very much hoping that the takeaway is that we will extend lives, by doing a lot more science and a lot more investment in biotech and health care; and that the health care available across the board, to the poorest members of society as well as the richest, is going to be a significant standard higher than what it has been and what it is today. And hopefully international cooperation will also improve. And we would see the benefit of that in the fight against climate change.
So, a massive science comeback is the principal future trend you should expect, I expect from Covid-19. And it will have ramifications across a multitude of sectors.
For example, as I said, in biotech and health care we’ll see more money directed at R&D.
But take Big Oil too for example. Big Oil will see less money directed at new exploration and development. Big Oil actually will see less money in general. If you’re investing according to what science does, that’s what you do.
The coal industry is completely finished now.
Similarly, I expect we will eat healthier. We will work healthier.
I’ll tell you another thing. I know for sure WeWork is finished. Places like WeWork don’t need to exist anymore. Business models premised on long term leases that are let to gig economy workers are dead.
The gig economy itself is significantly weakened because the financial industry will look at a gig economy worker now like the equivalent of a junk bond from a credit perspective.
So old fashioned jobs might just be making a comeback.
You can also look at commercial real estate, for example. If only 10% of the people currently working from home, which is pretty much everybody, if only 10% of those decide that they’re going to stay at work at home, and I’m thinking particularly of the gig economy, then the growth curve that every single city and country has been expecting for its commercial real estate market is no longer what it was. It’s going to flatten for a long while, and the only thing that can help it is a continuing increase in population, which, as we know, is not something that’s happening in the more developed economies.
And then take a close look at the ESG investment space. So that’s money directed at responsible companies, which are companies generally defined as environmentally and socially responsible and with a robust governance structure. Clearly, the ESG segment of the market is superior to the other segment because the one thing that Covid-19 has shown is that resilience is pretty much priceless. And if you were environmentally and socially sound, if you’ve got strong governance, then that probably means that you’re a lot more resilient than your competitors that don’t share these qualities.
So, expect ESG investing to take off even faster than it had before Covid-19.
So, these are some of the big trends that I see.
There are lesser trends as well. For example, it’s going to take a long time for air travel to recover. Why? Look at the fashion industry for example. The fashion industry, worth $1.4 trillion globally, has recently discovered that buyers from China and Indonesia and Brazil and New York don’t all need to travel to Paris and Milan to pick what they are going to sell back in their home market. And so, they, by and large, won’t be doing that anymore because they can do that with 3D video, for example, or at the very least they will do a lot less travel, and so air travel will recover slowly.
Hotels will recover slowly, except, I would expect, at the very top end.
Even restaurants will recover initially fast but then, in the medium term, slowly.
And so brace yourself for some big changes, some of them obvious, like the fact that WeWork is finished, or the fact that commercial real estate is not what it was. And some of them more subtle and of a more medium-term nature, the most important one of which is that science is back. And that’s one thing that does not make me angry.
Thank you so much for listening to this Episode 34 of The Angry Clean Energy Guy and have a great a couple of weeks.
There is so much to be angry about, if you are a clean energy guy.
Every day, so many things that happen around the world make me angry when I look at them with lenses colored by the climate change chaos unfolding everywhere around us. And I am especially angry because I know we can solve the climate change crisis if we were only trying.
Each week, I will share with you a few topics that struck me and that I was very angry about – and this will generally have to do with climate change, solar or wind power, plastic pollution, environmental degradation, wildlife, the oceans and other related topics.