Corona’s silver lining

We must not go back to our excessive and fossil-burning ways.

As a masked woman looks on, Roni Ben-Ari and Yonatan Meushar celebrate their wedding at Ein Hemed, which is offering free, small-scale weddings for young couples due to restrictions imposed by the government to fight coronavirus on March 18 (photo credit: REUTERS)
As a masked woman looks on, Roni Ben-Ari and Yonatan Meushar celebrate their wedding at Ein Hemed, which is offering free, small-scale weddings for young couples due to restrictions imposed by the government to fight coronavirus on March 18
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The streets of Jerusalem are bare, stores are shuttered, and the air is refreshingly clean. Is it the effects of quarantine or a religious holiday? At sundown every Friday, for 25 hours of Shabbat, Israel’s air pollution and greenhouse gas levels drop by a third. They nearly zero out on Yom Kippur,Judaism’s holiest day.  
 
The climate march planned for Israel on Friday, March 27, like all the ones planned worldwide, has been cancelled. Yet now that worldwide schools, cafes, malls and many workplaces are being closed for a prolonged time, the silver lining of the corona crisis is that humanity has seen that we can reverse and win the climate battle.  Historically, too little has been done to resolve the 
climate crisis because there was no global precedent for drastic action, in every country in the world in short order, and because there has been little sense of urgency for the slow-moving yet deadly effects of climate change.  
 
Drastic climate action has also been undermined by the plague of spineless politicians advancing the interests of the fossil fuel industry to pass government decisions that are against the public health and climate interest.  Here in Israel, for example, we are blessed with endless sun, plenty of rooftops and land on kibbutzim and army bases, and great technology.  Yet the fossil fuel industry has a 94% choking monopoly on electricity production at more than three times the price of solar power, and our 2030 targets are
terminally gas-centric.   
 
The corona pandemic sweeping the globe is a wake-up call to all leaders. They need to realize that there are indeed instances when making difficult and economically painful short-term decisions are necessary to save lives and strengthen economies in the long-term.  They also need to know that their political fortunes can rise or fall based on the public’s perception of their leaders’ actions to keep them safe.  
 
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Climate change will also affect infectious disease occurrence.” Climate change is speeding the spread of mosquito-transmitted diseases like West Nile virus, Zika virus and malaria, which alone killed 400,000 people last year, mostly young children.
 
Millions of people are already affected by climate-related diseases, and God knows what kind of Jurassic viruses embedded in permafrost will be unleashed by their accelerated melting.  Do we really want to take that chance? 
 
According to the WHO, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to kill an additional quarter of a million people a year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress. The rapid spread of the coronavirus, and its devastating human and economic toll, should have the global community reconsider its fossil-friendly incrementalism on climate.  Subconsciously, I believe it already has; note the dramatic loss in value of the oil and gas companies, a toxic-asset class that more and more investors Instinctively now know must become stranded. 
 
GROUND ZERO for the climate-virus battleground is the race for more fossil fuel in the Arctic, with presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump greedily opening the area to drilling, and a Pandora’s box that could bring about another corona-type virus.  In 2016, an infected 75-year-old frozen deer carcass emerged from the melting permafrost above the Arctic Circle in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia, spreading the trapped anthrax, infecting local people and killing a 12-year-old boy.  
 
The projected deaths just from the novel corona, a virus scientists have studied and understand, are staggering.  As of March 25, there were nearly 20,000 deaths and more than 440,000 confirmed cases in 195 countries and territories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the worst-case scenarios of between 200,000 and 1.7 millions deaths from the virus in the United States alone, and the Australian National University estimates the best-case scenario of 15 million deaths worldwide and possibly
as high as 68 million. How dangerous - and costly - could a mysterious, ancient virus be that emerges from melting permafrost?  
There is a business case for the drastic actions finally being taken by the global community to fight corona, which is to take the historic hit now in the trillions of dollars to preserve even more value once the virus is under control.  Now that we’ve had the taste of this very bitter medicine, it can be applied to the climate crisis, with the new-found understanding and fear of future pandemics and other tragedies that a hotter planet will undoubtedly unleash.  
 
President Trump was essentially a virus-denier, minimizing its risks. He sang a new tune after $7 trillion in shareholder value was wiped out in one day, which signaled that the markets believe in science rather than the leader of the free world.  
 
The same can happen with the climate.  Voters, investors and consumers worldwide are now more likely to punish climate-denying leaders who enable,subsidize and advocate for other manifestations of global death-causing actions. 
The International Monetary Fund concluded that in 2017, national leaders globally gifted the fossil fuel industries a staggering $5.2 trillion in subsidies.
 
Trillions, with a T.
 
Yet no oil, gas or coal company is going to foot the bill for trillions of dollars to fight a climate-unleashed pandemic and wildfires that wipe out entire towns, or to compensate coastal cities when they are going to be flooded by rising sea levels and turbo-charged storms.  
 
Until recently, there has been a disconnect between the slow death approaching us from climate change and the need for dramatic global action. For example, air pollution accounts for more than six million deaths a year, but it is not (yet) considered a crime against humanity for polluting power plants and vehicles to continue business as usual.
 
To immunize the world against new, massive and preventable deaths there should be: an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel plants and all oil and gas exploration, the elimination of subsidies for fossil fuels, and a global carbon tax starting in Q4 2020 that will accelerate the worldwide adoption of renewables.
 
In Israel, that means no new development or building of gas plants, a halt to all fossil fuel exploration licenses that the Energy Ministry has issued or is planning to issue, and an end to the tax and other benefits that have been granted for the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields. Israel can and must become 100% solar-powered, at least during the day, as soon as possible.
From the quiet of our quarantines and social distancing, many people are feeling like the Earth is punishing humanity for our endless and greedy exploitation. As world leaders grapple too late with monumental life and death decisions, they inadvertently are solving belatedly for both the coronavirus for and for the other global threat to health and economies: climate change.   
 
There is a part of me that appreciates the Shabbat-like quality time at home, the reconnecting with family and friends, the family dinners, the quiet streets, the lack of consumerism and the clean air.  Most of us are consuming less and burning less during this pandemic. As a result, the air, water, atmosphere and animals are benefitting. 
 
Swift global action is the only way to beat corona. So, too, for climate change. We must not go back to our excessive and fossil-burning ways.
 
Celebrating a weekly day of rest in a post-corona world is one affirmative decision we each can take right now that can reduce by one-seventh the current level of global greenhouse gas emissions, reduce consumerism, and bring greater balance to the Earth and our lives. 
 
The writer is CEO of impact platform EnergiyaGlobal, and served on the Israeli negotiating team at the Paris Climate Conference.  He can be followed @Kaptainsunshine.


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