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Photo by — @aalokatreya

Talking About Crises in Plural

The Climate Crisis and the Coronavirus

This article is co-written together with Christoffer Bouwer who recently finished his MsC in Industrial Economics Technology (SIVING) at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. His specializations are within innovation, management, mechanical engineering and energy systems. He has worked with innovation processes and led conferences within the energy sector.

This article takes a quick look at the two crises that we find ourselves in: namely the Coronavirus and the climate crisis. In doing so it repeats a question asked by journalists pertaining to why one crisis is more important than the other in terms of drastic measures. Then it explores in short aerosols, a previous environmental crisis in history that was handled in an urgent manner. Thereafter it proceeds to a look at scarcity related to the environment contrasting it with the narratives of scarcity present in online communication of the Coronavirus. Towards the end it brings in water scarcity and the language of crisis pertaining to climate with the recent shift from ‘change’ to ‘crisis’.

What is the biggest crisis? That seems a strange question to ask, yet there has been discussions of the immediate outcomes of the coronavirus on emissions and about how it will influence our crisis planning in the time ahead.

The headline of an opinion article by Owen Jones in the Guardian on the 5th of March 2020 read:

“Why don’t we treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as coronavirus? […] More than 3,000 people have succumbed to coronavirus yet, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone — just one aspect of our central planetary crisis — kills seven million people every year. […] Imagine, then, that we felt the same sense of emergency about the climate crisis as we do about coronavirus. What action would we take?”

Jones made a point of exploring recent events that have been disastrous across our planet and questioning why nations do not react to a greater extent. These examples include the:

The key difference as he says is that one could use the narrative: “We did not know it was coming.” As such crisis measures for the climate crisis we have known about for 30–40 years is underwhelming.

“Urgent action to prevent a pandemic is of course necessary and pressing. […] Coronavirus shows it can be done — but it needs determination and willpower, which, when it comes to the future of our planet, are desperately lacking.”

Solving a Crisis With Incentives, Policy and Bans

Many have already argued the case that climate change in reality can be tackled within the means we have readily available today. Jørgen Randers argued in the Norwegian podcast Verdibørsen (The Value Stock Exchange), made by the economy-newspaper E24, that we not only have existing technology that could solve the crisis given the right frames and incentives. He also argued that one could use simple economical tools that western economies abandoned after the great depression, such as printing money that are earmarked to create value by being earmarked for emission-reducing activities. By creating value with printed money, he argues, one avoids the inflation-argument such measures are often countered with. For those who want to listen to his reasoning, a link to the podcast is provided below. Be informed that the podcast is in Norwegian, but you can find multiple English works by Randers both in book-form (he was part of starting the discussion on climate change in 1972 with “The limits to growth”) and on YouTube.

Limits to Growth (1972) can be downloaded for free here:

Others have argued that there is a very low probability that we will be able to handle the increasing emissions. Vaclav Smil, a world-renowned climate scientist, argues that society is completely dependent on fossil fuels to run at the pace it currently is. Our dependence on it is not solely for transportation or electricity, but also for the concrete used in construction, various types of plastic and more. The goods we desire and use to make lives easier are not based on resources that are renewable, and are used at a pace unbeknown to the history of the world (The Guardian).

And indeed, the argument has often been made that the crisis of climate is in reality a crisis of consumption. Due to our aggressive expansion of civilization, we are already running out of usable sand — the second most used resource in the world after water. Desert sand is too round to be used for human purposes (BBC). In Asia, mafia-run business is already using slave labour to dig up river banks for sand to supply the ever-growing construction and tech industry in their respective countries and internationally, causing enormous ecological consequences for both animal habitats and human cities and activities.

Previous crises have also challenged humanity’s resolve to survive despite having to let go of the things that have made our lives materially easier or better. The usage of aerosols with CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) gases, most prominently used as part of cosmetic and refrigeration products, ended up seriously damaging the ozone layer — that’s until a global ban on the gases was initiated in the 1980’s. Interestingly, our solution to the ban was not much better, and indeed is still part of speeding up climate change. The replacement was HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) gases, which are between 1000–9000 stronger than CO2, despite much smaller emission volumes. Recently, these gases were banned as well, leaving us hoping that there is a solution to refrigeration that does not cause yet another future crisis.

Flight Shame and Toilet Rolls

There is awareness around the need to reduce, and another phenomenon that emerged during 2018 amongst the wealthy was ‘flight shame’. The term was coined to describe unease about flying experienced by environmentally conscious travellers. This however did not do much globally to reduce emissions or consumption. Yet with the arrival of the Coronavirus a side effect has been the drop in flights. There has been a drop in emissions to some extent due to the decreased movement of people. Earlier this week President Donald Trump banned flights from Europe (CNN). During a three-week span in China, daily flights went down from over 15,000 to barely 2,000 (Al Jazeera). There are indications that the Coronavirus has decreased emissions due to the decrease in consumption of both flights and goods.

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A still image from an animation showing nitrogen dioxide levels in northern Italy decreasing over 2020, in part in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Image credit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data (2020), processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

We cannot however hope that this will persist, or that this is a pervasive solution. It would be too easy to begin asking oneself: can one crisis solve the other? The answer is likely to be no — as you see the supermarket shelves in grocery stores emptied in a rush to conserve food in case the systems shut down. There are running jokes around the Internet about toilet paper — people placing bodily functions as more important than food or water.

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Beyond Toilet Rolls Lies Water Scarcity

Why do people buy toilet paper and not food or water? They may of course end up buying all these items, however it is interesting to experience the dynamic of entering a grocery store. People flocking in the doors, rushing down aisles and attempting to get as much as they can was a strange sight.

“Scarcity is the limited availability of a commodity, which may be in demand in the market or by the commons. Scarcity also includes an individual’s lack of resources to buy commodities. The opposite of scarcity is abundance.”

The economic concept of scarcity is a strange one, at least with the market-driven perception of scarcity — a scarcity of toilet rolls? The Norwegian society entered a stage of lockdown closing workplaces, universities, cultural events and more. It is the most stringent measures taken during peacetime.

However a large part of the world is suffering a different scarcity around the equator, namely water scarcity. This is not temporary either, it is a pervasive crisis far more severe than the potential market-driven scarcity of toilet rolls.

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Mapping water stress from article in Bloomsbury published the 6th of August 2019

How precious is water? Without it humans cannot live, yet the world is increasingly populous and the world is simultaneously drying up. It is not a question of how many will die in the future, because people are dying as we speak or are being forced to migrate from areas with increasingly less water. That is not to say that the Coronavirus is any less of a crisis, quite the contrary, yet we are speaking of two crises with different responses.

The mention of climate change has been heard for many decades, yet it was recently the wording was deliberately changed. Greta Thunberg was a clear proponent in instigating this change in speaking, yet it was adopted by one very respected publisher of news, The Guardian writes this in their environmental climate pledge 2019:

“We will use language that recognises the severity of the crisis we’re in. In May 2019, the Guardian updated its style guide to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world, using “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” instead of “climate change” and “global warming”. We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on the urgency of this issue.” (The Guardian)

When talking of crises in plural one must be clear, yet with this increase clarity should come action, policy, regulations, admissions, advocacy, change and leadership.

Conclusion

In conclusion we have as such made drastic turn-arounds of our lives before before, and with the current exemplification of this ability through the coronavirus response, we should at least ask ourselves why this should not also be done for climate once we emerge at the other side of the Corona-tunnel. And perhaps also how, because even though we do not see the immediate consequences of climate change in our every-day life as of yet, it will happen at some point. And when governments all over the world shuts down everything in fear of Corona, for preventative reasons, there are few reasons why we should not attempt something similar to prevent inevitable changes to our surprisingly stable Earthly climate.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 283. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. My current focus for 100 days 200–300 is national and international strategies for artificial intelligence. I have decided to spend the last 25 days of my AI strategy writing to focus on the climate crisis.

Written by

AI Policy and Ethics at www.nora.ai. Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own. twitter.com/AlexMoltzau

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