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Lives vs. Livelihoods

Wuhan, the Chinese city where it all started, was locked down for 79 days before the restrictions on movement were finally lifted last week. A bit over-cautious, perhaps, but in China the coronavirus does really seem to be under control – not totally eradicated, but controllable without extreme measures.

If Donald Trump “reopens” the United States at the end of this month, then California and a few other states will have been under lockdown for only half that many days, and some states for much less time or even none. Far from being under control, the Covid-19 virus is killing huge numbers of Americans (2,405 on Tuesday), and the number is still rising.

These two giants define the extremes of the ‘lives vs. livelihoods’ debate, but almost every other country is having it too. Everybody knows that you can’t shut the economy down indefinitely, but nobody wants to risk a second wave of infections by moving too soon.

Well, almost nobody. The toddler-in-chief in the White House is frantic to reopen the economy because he has an election coming up in six months, and he will lose it if the economy has not recovered by then.

Dr Anthony Fauci has doubtless explained that lifting the restrictions on movement on 1 May will cause a second wave of deaths and a second lockdown before November, but Trump doesn’t retain that sort of information for long. His attention span is not only short but selective: he forgets unwelcome information very quickly.

Trump might actually order the country to reopen on 1 May, as he believes that “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” But most states wouldn’t obey his command: as New York governor Andrew Cuomo said: “We have a constitution … we don’t have a king … the president doesn’t have total authority.”

Elsewhere, some countries are cautiously reopening their economies a bit at a time, but they either had a very high death rate early and have now wrestled it down again – China, Italy and Spain – or responded hard and early and never had a high infection rate, like Germany, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand.

We should also note two countries that never closed their economies down at all, because they could test, identify the infected, and trace their contacts fast enough to break the chains of infection and keep deaths low: Taiwan and South Korea. All three of these groups have one vital thing in common.

They have the ability to “test, test, test”, as the World Health Organisation’s Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, put it a month ago, warning countries that they “cannot fight a fire blindfolded.” And they can follow up the tests with contact-tracing teams and apps so that not just the individual who tested positive but the whole cluster of other people who had contact with him or her can be isolated.

Any countries that have their infection rate down AND have their testing and tracing teams ready can start reopening their economies, although there will be a continuing low but steady toll of deaths until a vaccine is found. France, Canada and Australia can probably do it next month.

Countries like Turkey, Russia and South Africa are more debatable, because they gave the virus a head start, but their medical infrastructure is strong enough that they could think about letting their citizens go back to work by July. However, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India are very worrisome.

India is doing the right things, but it started late, its medical resources are limited, and the sheer numbers of victims may overwhelm the system. Brazil has a complete fool in charge, Jair Bolsonaro, and the many sensible people in the healthcare system may be unable to overcome his malign influence.

As for the US and the UK, they both reacted very late to the threat, which guarantees that their casualties would be considerably above the rich-country average. Worse, they do not have the testing and tracking resources in place that would make reopening the economy a relatively safe proposition.

On 3 April the British Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, pledged 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of the month. Half the month is gone, and the maximum number of tests carried out on a single day has been under 15,000.

The US situation is harder to judge, since there is not a unified healthcare system but a highly fragmented ‘healthcare sector’. However, nobody has spotted evidence of nationwide preparations for extensive testing and tracking once everybody goes back to work, so a second wave of deaths later in the year is practically guaranteed.

Finis Trump, perhaps, but at a high price.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12 (“Countries…influence”)

Lives vs. Livelihoods

Wuhan, the Chinese city where it all started, was locked down for 79 days before the restrictions on movement were finally lifted last week. A bit over-cautious, perhaps, but in China the coronavirus does really seem to be under control – not totally eradicated, but controllable without extreme measures.

If Donald Trump “reopens” the United States at the end of this month, then California and a few other states will have been under lockdown for only half that many days, and some states for much less time or even none. Far from being under control, the Covid-19 virus is killing huge numbers of Americans (2,405 on Tuesday), and the number is still rising.

These two giants define the extremes of the ‘lives vs. livelihoods’ debate, but almost every other country is having it too. Everybody knows that you can’t shut the economy down indefinitely, but nobody wants to risk a second wave of infections by moving too soon.

Well, almost nobody. The toddler-in-chief in the White House is frantic to reopen the economy because he has an election coming up in six months, and he will lose it if the economy has not recovered by then.

Dr Anthony Fauci has doubtless explained that lifting the restrictions on movement on 1 May will cause a second wave of deaths and a second lockdown before November, but Trump doesn’t retain that sort of information for long. His attention span is not only short but selective: he forgets unwelcome information very quickly.

Trump might actually order the country to reopen on 1 May, as he believes that “When somebody is the president of the United States, the authority is total.” But most states wouldn’t obey his command: as New York governor Andrew Cuomo said: “We have a constitution … we don’t have a king … the president doesn’t have total authority.”

Elsewhere, some countries are cautiously reopening their economies a bit at a time, but they either had a very high death rate early and have now wrestled it down again – China, Italy and Spain – or responded hard and early and never had a high infection rate, like Germany, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand.

We should also note two countries that never closed their economies down at all, because they could test, identify the infected, and trace their contacts fast enough to break the chains of infection and keep deaths low: Taiwan and South Korea. All three of these groups have one vital thing in common.

They have the ability to “test, test, test”, as the World Health Organisation’s Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, put it a month ago, warning countries that they “cannot fight a fire blindfolded.” And they can follow up the tests with contact-tracing teams and apps so that not just the individual who tested positive but the whole cluster of other people who had contact with him or her can be isolated.

Any countries that have their infection rate down AND have their testing and tracing teams ready can start reopening their economies, although there will be a continuing low but steady toll of deaths until a vaccine is found. France, Canada and Australia can probably do it next month.

Countries like Turkey, Russia and South Africa are more debatable, because they gave the virus a head start, but their medical infrastructure is strong enough that they could think about letting their citizens go back to work by July. However, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India are very worrisome.

India is doing the right things, but it started late, its medical resources are limited, and the sheer numbers of victims may overwhelm the system. Brazil has a complete fool in charge, Jair Bolsonaro, and the many sensible people in the healthcare system may be unable to overcome his malign influence.

As for the US and the UK, they both reacted very late to the threat, which guarantees that their casualties would be considerably above the rich-country average. Worse, they do not have the testing and tracking resources in place that would make reopening the economy a relatively safe proposition.

On 3 April the British Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, pledged 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of the month. Half the month is gone, and the maximum number of tests carried out on a single day has been under 15,000.

The US situation is harder to judge, since there is not a unified healthcare system but a highly fragmented ‘healthcare sector’. However, nobody has spotted evidence of nationwide preparations for extensive testing and tracking once everybody goes back to work, so a second wave of deaths later in the year is practically guaranteed.

Finis Trump, perhaps, but at a high price.
_____________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12 (“Countries…influence”)

Deadlock at Madrid, Firestorms in Australia

“The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” warned UN secretary general António Guterres as the 25th climate summit (COP25) opened in Madrid two weeks ago, and the multitude of delegates from more than a hundred countries presumably understood what he meant. But they ignored it anyway.

The ‘point of no return’ arrives in the mid-2030s, when the rising emissions of greenhouse gases (they are still rising, not falling) pushes the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere up past 450 parts per million. 450 ppm of CO2 drives the average global temperature up past +2̊C (2 degrees higher than the pre-industrial average) and into runaway.

In diplomatic-speak, what happens then is ‘dangerous climate change’, but that is actually happening already, with carbon dioxide at 405 ppm and average global temperature ‘only ‘ 1.1̊C higher. We are seeing firestorms in Australia, rising sea levels, catastrophic storms and melting glaciers.

What happens at 450 ppm is that the two degrees of warming caused by human beings trigger natural processes (‘feedbacks’ or ‘tipping points’) that also cause warming – and once they start, human beings cannot stop them. The Big Three feedbacks are the loss of the Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover, the melting of the permafrost zone, and the release of vast amounts of CO2 by the warming world oceans.

Guterres called it ‘the point of no return’ because after that we lose control. The warming will then continue even if human beings eventually stop all of their own emissions. We will be trapped on an ‘up’ escalator that delivers us into a world three, four, even five degrees hotter than the pre-industrial average.

That is exactly where the World Meteorological Organisation predicts we will be by the end of this century if current promises on emissions cuts are kept, but no more is done. Long before the end of the century that would mean the collapse of food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics, famines and huge refugee flows, mass death.

They never spell these things out at the climate summits, but almost everybody there knows them. And yet, once again, they failed to produce a deal that moves the process forward. The best that can be said is that they stopped a concerted attempt by the biggest emitters, led by Brazil and Australia, to gut the proposed rules for a global carbon market.

How can they be so blind to their own long-term interest in survival? The answer, alas, is that our evolutionary past of human beings has not made human societies good at long-term thinking. Moreover, human politics is dominated by those whose interests will be advanced or damaged by what the government does right now, not in fifteen years’ time. Take Australia, for example.

Australia is the driest continent, and as the heat mounts (much of the country is expecting temperatures in the low to mid-40s C this week) the number and scale of bushfires has exploded. The biggest blaze, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, has already burned over 400,000 hectares and is still growing.

But Australia is also the world’s biggest exporter of coal, mostly to China and Japan. Coal-mining only employs 38,000 Australians, but it brings in a lot of money, some of which inevitably ends up as political contributions that link the industry with all the Australian political parties.

That’s why, two years ago, Liberal (i.e. conservative) politician Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament. It was ‘clean’ coal, in the sense that it had been lacquered so that it wouldn’t dirty people’s hands. Morrison passed it around to his parliamentary colleagues saying “Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.”

ScoMo (as the Australian media have nicknamed Morrison, presumably because it sounds a bit like ‘scum’), is now prime minister, and as the country burns he continues to deny any link between burning coal and global heating. He offers his “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the fires, but insists that climate change is only one of “many other factors” in fuelling the bushfires.

Deputy Prime Minister Deputy PM Michael McCormack takes an even more robust line, dismissing climate change as a concern of “raving inner-city lefties”. That will not endear him to the hundreds of families who have been burnt out, but there are millions of families who have not yet lost their homes, so this may still be a viable political position.

Of all the major emitters, only the European Union is taking its responsibilities seriously. The rest range from deeply conflicted countries like China and Canada, both aware that climate change is an existential threat but both hugely dependent on fossil fuels, to the outright deniers like Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

So one by one, we are missing all the exits on the Highway to Hell.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“In diplomatic…glaciers”; and “Deputy…position”)

Amazon Fires

The Amazon is not on fire. There are fires in the Amazon rainforest, as there are every year in July-September, because this is the dry season. There may be more fires than usual this year, and it may even be the fault of Jair Bonsonaro, the Trump mini-me who became the president of Brazil last January, but that is not clear.

Yet there now is a great outcry, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying that Bolsonaro lied to him about his stance on climate change. Macron is even threatening to withhold French ratification of the recently signed free trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur (of which Brazil is the biggest member).

British prime minister Bori Johnson declares that it is “an international crisis”, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the fires “an acute emergency…for the whole world.” The Finnish foreign minister even suggests that the European Union should boycott Brazilian beef. Concerted international action at last!

Well, no. They might have done it at the G7 summit of the world’s richest countries last weekend in Biarritz, but they all knew it would just prompt another Donald Trump walk-out like last year’s. And some of their advisers may be warning them by now that they are not on very safe ground when they paint Bolsonaro as the sole culprit of the piece.

Bolsonaro is not a good person. He is an obtuse and obnoxious bully who doesn’t give a fig about the climate and advocates ‘developing’ the Amazon in ways that would ultimately destroy the rainforest.

When environmental activists claimed that farmers encouraged by Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric were setting fires to clear Amazonian land for ranching, he blamed the activists themselves, saying that they were setting the fires to discredit him. He had no evidence, he admitted, but he had a “feeling” about it.

Of course Brazilian farmers and the agribusiness interests behind them are setting fires to destroy bits of the forest, but this is not new with Bolsonaro. The amount of forest they destroyed annually went into steady decline after the Workers’ Party (PT) took power in 2003, but the damage has been trending back up again since the last PT president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by Congress (on spurious charges) in 2015.

Bolsonaro is definitely the icing on the cake, but it’s questionable how much impact he has had after less than eight months in power. The number of fines handed out for illegal burning has dropped by a third this year, but the great majority of illegal burns always went unpunished anyway.

When Brazil’s National Space Research Institute reported an 88% increase in deforestation in June compared with the same month a year ago, nobody except Bolsonaro questioned the data. But that was before this year’s burning season (Queimada) began, and presumably referred to losses of forest due to illegal logging and land-clearing for mining operations, not to fires.

When the same Brazilian space institute claimed more recently that satellite data showed an 83% increase this year in forest fires, mainly in the Amazon region, Bolsonaro promptly fired its director, claiming that he was manipulating the data for political reasons.

Bolsonaro’s relationship with the truth is as distant as Trump’s, but it must be pointed out that NASA’s Earth Observatory, also relying on satellite data, reported on 22 August that “total fire activity across the Amazon basin this year has been close to the average in comparison to the past 15 years.”

There is, to be sure, a pall of smoke hanging over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, at the moment. It’s as bad as Singapore six years ago or Vancouver last summer, and there’s no doubt that it comes from forest fires. They are, however, fires in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, not Brazil’s.

What the hell, you may say. Bolsonaro may not be guilty this time, but he’s guilty of lots of other things, so let’s hang him anyway. This is not a wise way of proceeding, even if you are doing it with the best of intentions.

The data about the climate crisis are always complicated and open to dispute, because the planet is a very complex system. Those who claim to understand enough about it to offer policy advice must be above suspicion, and to go along with the assertion that ‘the Amazon is on fire’ and that it’s all Bolsonaro’s fault is neither prudent or provable.

Although I must admit that it’s very tempting.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 6. (“When…it”)