Discover the FAC #ST11 [fr]
Since 2017, The Embassy of France in Australia, in partnership with The Conversation, has organised a series of conference-debates called The French Australian Conversations (FAC). Its aim is to bring together academic and research contributors from The Conversation France and Australia, to share their expertise with the general public and initiate dialogue on the major relevant topics of today.
Over the past three years, the six editions of the series have involved many partners, including the Alliances Françaises of Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne, The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, the Universities of Melbourne, New South Wales (UNSW) and South Australia (UniSA). They have been held in several cities, mainly Adelaide and Melbourne, and have touched on themes of Climate change and sustainable development (#FAC1), The impact of social networks in the political-media sphere (#FAC2), Same-sex marriage (#FAC3), Fake news (#FAC4) and Refugee protection and integration (#FAC5).
The sixth edition was the first 100% online event, in an effort to continue the series in the face of restrictions on travel and gatherings related to the COVID-19. This changeover brought together panellists and attendees located in Australia and France, but also several other countries. Entitled The Domino Effect: Climate Change and Pandemics, this FAC6 aimed to address a reflection on the connection between the COVID-19 crisis and the climate and biodiversity crises:
All animals harbour viruses and other pathogens, and when environmental pressures force them into contact with humans, the results can be catastrophic. Environmental damage can also make humans more susceptible to the effects of infectious diseases.
Governments have demonstrated they can take immediate, radical emergency measures, which go beyond purely economic concerns, to protect the wellbeing of all. And yet, despite being declared a global emergency, the world has largely failed to address climate change and the environmental effects of our pursuit for economic growth.
Three infectious experts in diseases and environmental health were brought together; on the Australian side Fiona Armstrong (Executive Director and Founder of Climate and Health Alliance) and Dr Natasha Chassagne (Adjunct Research Fellow, Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University), and on the French side Dr Jean-François Guégan (Director of Research at the Institute of Research for Development, France) to discuss why, for humans to survive, it is critical to connect human health, civilisation and the natural systems on which we depend. The event was facilitated by Misha Ketchell, Editor at The Conversation AU.
Click HERE to watch the replay on Youtube
Dr Jean-François Guégan, The underworld, a civilisation issue
Director of research at the IDR, Jean-François Guégan discussed the increased power of viruses to cross species barriers thanks to human activities. Indeed, we have seen in the last 30 years more and more zoonotic infection (coming from wildlife, but also domestic animals) and the frequency of occurrence is increasing as well, while habitat alterations (land use changes like deforestation or agriculture) mean that many more species have to co-exist, so viruses and bacteria can be transmitted between species and indeed to humans if they are present. In short, our way of life increasingly puts us in contact with this “underworld” made of myriads of natural micro-organisms and today these contagions are spreading on a large scale, jeopardising not only individual humans but also our whole civilisation.
Reducing that risk is a complex challenge. Biologists and bacteriologists need material, so they can’t study pandemics unless they occur. We need to develop an upstream research approach and raise more questions around what happens in the different local conditions which allow these epidemics to begin, rather than relying solely upon a downstream approach like vaccine production. Other issues include working on the ground with the high-risk populations to develop their agriculture and calculate and minimize the hazards and risks.
Dr Natasha Chassagne, A chance to reset
Adjunct research fellow on sustainability, wellbeing and development issues at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University, Natasha Chassagne gave us examples of how holistic worldviews and people’s leading ideas like Buen Vivir, a Latin-American philosophy, could help us to achieve sustainability and wellbeing by recognising the vital connection between nature and our health. As several jurisdictions gave legal recognition to the rights of nature (like Ecuador, as part of its constitutional reform in 2008), our society needs to internalise this relation with more effective public policy and a shift in our behaviours toward collective climate action.
Many say that COVID-19 has presented a drastic shift in terms of the ways in which government and society are implementing actions to respond to crises, with both positive and negative consequences. Since the pandemic and climate crises hit the most vulnerable first, this pandemic highlighted the inherent problems with the current economic system, as evidenced in massive jumps in unemployment rates. A slowdown of our way of life leads to a slowdown of the economy, but it also leads to a decrease in carbon emissions. Beyond the world’s economies, it often means communities come together, strengthening their sense of solidarity and humanity. This event could set a precedent, if we decide that we don’t want to go back to “the normal” because the normal was the problem; instead starting a “degrowth” policy (beginning in priority with the more polluting sectors), and focussing on more socially and environmentally stable sectors of the economy like health care, sanitation, education, etc.
Fiona Armstrong, Dreaming of our future
Executive Director and Founder of the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) in Australia, a national coalition of health groups with a mission to build a powerful health sector movement for climate action, Fiona Armstrong complemented the idea of using the opportunity provided by this disruption to head on a different course. In times of disruption, people are willing to consider more radical change than they might have been willing to otherwise. That window is short, and people might want to go back to normal even if normal wasn’t ideal, but we are now face-to-face with the impact climate change will have in the long term and ignoring this underlying crises will create larger crises in the future.
As governments feel a strong imperative to get people back into jobs, we need to invest in the economic recovery in ways that are going to enhance our resilience in the future and build a better comeback, economically, socially and culturally. For people and policymakers to whom many of these concepts are meaningless compared to the present reality, we have to think more deeply and creatively to convert them in tangible ways relatable to their everyday lives. For example, rethinking urban planning and neighbourhood renewal are perfect ways to sell a more positive vision by reducing social isolation, creating space to walk, cycle, grow food, decrease carbon emissions, etc.
To conclude, the current period is a big moment for science and for people. The snowballing destructive effect of land cleaning, farming & intensive agriculture is leading to emerging and re-emerging diseases, even in developed countries like Australia. Plus, while we once had hundreds of varieties of seeds, each one absolutely adapted to a specific context, we now heavily depend on just a few. If a virus, bacteria or fungus were to appear, harvest crops are susceptible to disappear and starvation would follow. We need to consider ways to identify these new threads. Changing the status quo has to go through better evidence-based research, and the term “biodiversity” needs to be considered not only across the different species of vegetable and animal, but also across their genetic backgrounds.
These new habits are being considered today for example through new disciplines like the One health concept, in order to protect nature so that nature can protect us.