Earth Day 2020: 'The recovery after this crisis must be a new direction for humanity'

April 23, 2020

To mark this year’s Earth Day (April 22), Sweden's Nobel Prize Museum hosted an online conversation between Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and Johan Rockström, joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

Taking place amidst the global Coronavirus pandemic, Thunberg and Rockström both emphasised that the climate emergency is ongoing, and that the two crises are interconnected.

"The corona pandemic has turned everything upside down,” said Thunberg. "During crises like this, it is even more important that we listen to scientists, science and to the experts. That goes for all crises, whether it's the corona crisis or whether it's the climate crisis.

"Today is Earth Day and that reminds us that the climate and environmental emergency is still ongoing and we need to tackle both the corona pandemic, this crisis, at the same time as we tackle climate and environmental emergency, because we need to be able to tackle two crises at once."

"We have a devastating pandemic crisis in the world. We are also having a climate crisis and the scientific evidence shows that these are interconnected and part of the same global planetary crisis that we are facing,” said Rockström.

"The scientific community ... already half a year before the corona crisis, declared a state of planetary emergency, and that declaration of planetary emergency is because of the exponential pressures of humanity on the planet, because of the risk of crossing irreversible changes in the Earth system that provides all our life support — both for human health and for planetary stability.

"Planetary health, recognising that risks of antibiotic resistance, infectious diseases from animals that spill over to humans — through what we call zoonotic disease outbreaks — interacts with global warming and biodiversity.

Rockström  empahsised that such pandemics were predicted and that COVID-19  was not a “black swan”.

“We were predicting that this could happen.

"Global warming and degrading of ecosystems increase the risk of pandemics. And this is laid out quite well in the scientific literature today.

"A rising globalised network of travel and trade, combined with risky agriculture and food systems, and wildlife handling, combined with deforestation and loss of biodiversity leads to this cocktail of risk.

"We are living beyond the carrying capacity of the planet and we are thereby putting human health and nature's health into a collision course. COVID-19, the corona crisis is a manifestation of this fact.

Rockström emphasised that this is the critical year to take meaningful action around climate change, at the same time as tackling the COVID crisis.

"Back in 2017 we concluded that 2020 is the 'super year'. This is the year that we need to bend the global curve of emission of GHGs [greenhouse gases]. It is the year we have to start halting the loss of ecosystems and habitats for wildlife, that threatens the risk of outbreaks of pandemics, and start to move along a trajectory that cuts emissions by half by 2030.

"That is a revolutionary pace, cutting emissions by half in one decade.

"Now that 'super year' does not disappear because of the COVID crisis.

“The recovery after this crisis must be a new direction for humanity.

"The collective action we are seeing — as we speak — of people being able to rise in the face of this health crisis gives a lot of positive signals that we can also rise in the face of the climate crisis ... and we need need to rise very rapidly to address them collectively.”

As COVID-19 infections started to spread across the globe, Thunberg said that Fridays for Future had to rethink its approach and strategies.

“We have tried to find new ways to still be activists and still be pushing, so we have gone online. We have tried to do lots of different local actions, both trying to spread awareness ... smaller symbolic actions ... but also local Fridays For Future groups have been finding ways that they can help their communities to cope with this, for example to help people in risk groups.”

Thunberg said that despite no one really knowing how long the pandemic will last, “within the Fridays For Future group there is still this big sense of resistance and that we will get out of this and when we do, we will ... do everything we can ... to continue to push even harder.

“People have not lost their sense of hope. We have just changed the way we do things.

Rockstrom added: “The ‘super year’ 2020 has not disappeared, it is on a little pause button, but it will return and we will be rising in 2021 much stronger than before.”

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