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Philippe Cousteau: Our encroachment into nature increases the risk of future pandemics

Covid-19 has put our economic activity into an induced coma but given the planet a rare chance to take a deep breath. Is it a blessing in disguise, or is it too early to celebrate Earth being given a second chance? We talked about this with the environmental advocate, explorer, filmmaker and Emmy-nominated host and producer, Philippe Cousteau.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Philippe Cousteau, environmental advocate, explorer, filmmaker, an Emmy nominated host and producer, great to have you with us today. Wow, what a time to be speaking to a world-renowned environmental advocate.

Philippe Cousteau: Right. Thank you.

SS: So here's the thing after everyone sort of settled and spent some time in lockdown, the internet got flooded with pictures of nature bouncing back: dolphins in Venice and deers in the streets of Paris and Himalayas visible in smoke-free Indian towns... So here's the thing: is there any real truth to those “wildlife triumph” stories? Or are we deceiving ourselves, trying to sort of find a silver lining in this mess?

PC: It's a really good question. I think it's a little bit of both, as is so often the case. Certainly, there are instances, I live in Los Angeles where air pollution has plummeted. The air quality is better than it's been in generations, that is certainly a result of the lack of cars on the road. Seeing the Himalayas from India (I've seen those photographs, it's stunning) is also a result of a reduction in air pollution. I think what these images are showing us is what the world could look like in a different future - a future that we could build. It's a result of a reduction in pollution. It's a result of, you know, a reduction of human activities. But, you know, as life gets back to normal, unfortunately, I think a lot of those will fade away.

SS: So the satellite images shot weeks after strict lockdowns started, also showed the air indeed became cleaner not only in LA but over many industrial hubs...

PC: … all over the world.

SS: … in Europe and China, and after more than like a century of constant pollution it turns out all it takes is only two months of sitting at home and we already see the results. Does this mean that the problem of air quality is actually a lot easier to fix than we thought?

PC: Well, you know, it does. It teaches us a few important things. And one thing I want to point out is... I have a great concern and many of my colleagues are very concerned that people are making a false connection that for the environment to succeed the economy has to decline. That's not true. What it's showing us is that when we adopt the kinds of technologies, the kinds of behaviours that can reduce pollution, nature has an incredible ability to be resilient and bounce back. As you pointed out, in just a few short months, we can transform the air that we breathe. Imagine, you know, there's a lot of speculation and initial research [says], because it's still very early, that a lot of deaths have been avoided because of improved air quality in many places. So I think that this is really a glimpse or window, if you will, what the world can be like when we start to adopt clean energy and start to invest in that kind of technology and make our air and our water healthier, cleaner for all of us.

SS: So let's talk a bit more in detail about what you mean by when we talk about environment and clean air, it doesn't always have to be juxtaposed to economic downfall. And that's a reassuring thought for many because once the pandemic is over, everyone's going to rush to make up for the losses, factories will start running again, traffic will come back, all the construction exploration will resume etc. So all these positive changes we see in the environment - I feel like it's not going to be there to stay for a long time. And I'm kind of like having itchy feelings about it. What do you think?

PC: Well, I think that, you know, one of the realities coming out of this crisis is going to be a different economic landscape. There's already a tremendous amount of suffering from an economic perspective, as well as a health perspective, a lot of unemployment. And so I believe that it's our decision now to decide what kind of a world we want to build coming out of this crisis. For example, in clean energy in the United States, in 2019, 700,000 people were employed in coal, 2.3 or more million people were employed in energy efficiency and clean energy projects. So the opportunity to create jobs coming out of this crisis, to tackle the unemployment that will exist... The opportunity exists to invest in energy efficiency, which is relevant in Moscow, relevant in Los Angeles, relevant in Paris, in Sao Paolo, it doesn't matter where you are in the world. Energy efficiency, those kinds of jobs and infrastructure and rethinking our energy grids -  that provides long-term benefits to our health, but it also provides whole new industries for employment. So instead of investing in some of the dirty industries that we had in the past, I think the opportunity is to accelerate our investment in clean energy and those are the jobs of the future anyway. And so we can get a head start on building the economy of the future coming out of COVID and also having the double benefit of building a world with healthier, cleaner air and cleaner water for ourselves and our children.

SS: Let's be even more specific, because this is like a very important topic. What kind of measures more than what you've said can be put in place so that after the pandemic, the rebound of the economy doesn't carry with itself a massive emission spike? If you were president of the United States, what top five measures would you implement coming out of this pandemic in terms of smooth transition and saving the good that we’ve done to the environment during the pandemic?

PC: You know, a couple things that come to mind when I think about what we need to do going forward economically. One is infrastructure. Green building, building higher energy efficiency, retrofitting buildings is a very, very simple way that we can provide jobs, put people to work, save money by reducing energy consumption, and building energy efficiency. And that kind of infrastructure investment in major cities around the country would be what could provide millions of jobs. Just air green building is absolutely critical and retrofitting existing buildings is one way that we can dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. The other thing is I would be looking to invest further in is sustainable transportation. So when we look at the explosion of electric cars that we've seen around the world, the investment in battery technology, the investment in energy storage is absolutely the focus of the future. So from an R&D perspective, if I had federal dollars that I was going to invest in either traditional... propping up traditional fossil fuels, as is the current administration's focus, I would rather be investing in technology that the rest of the world is increasingly consuming and looking forward. I think that's really important from an R&D perspective and technology. In food, one of the challenges with and one of the concerns around this crisis has been a recognition that our global food system is vulnerable. And so investing in people being able to provide food and build farms in local communities, investing in urban farms, being able to allow local food for people eat healthy food is something I would be investing and also can provide jobs for people. So I think looking at some of the fundamentals of our society and how they work, how we eat, how we travel, and where we live, are the kinds of places, the low hanging fruit…

SS: But a sceptic will tell you that most probably most of the presidents are not going to start implementing that amazing plan, right after Corona is over. So coming back to the reality right now could the environmental situation actually worsen after Corona because, you know, one would expect the industry to be working overtime to offset the damages sustained during the pandemic? 

PC: You know, from the research that I've done and the people I've consulted in my industry, there's a strong belief that the economic recovery will not be V-shaped, as people have talked about, but rather U-shaped and be a longer recovery. So I think we're going to have a period of time of months, if not years, before gross domestic product returns to pre-COVID levels in Europe, Russia, United States, likely years. So in that case, we do have a period of time so that we could think about how we kickstart the economy, and it's not gonna happen overnight. So I don't think unfortunately, we're going to be rushing back into the status quo and the way we were doing business overnight, we will have a little bit of time to think this through. We have an election coming up here in the United States, we have a lot of, you know, changes going on around the world. So I do think that there's an opportunity to grasp the moment and invest in a better world for all of us because there is a direct correlation between this disease, this coronavirus and man's destruction of nature. We know that these kinds of diseases - there's still a lot of research to be done - but we know that these kinds of diseases oftentimes originate in nature, and that our continued destruction and encroachment into nature is putting us more and more at risk of encountering these kinds of diseases. So our destruction of nature is connected to this pandemic. There's a lesson there that I think we need to heed and be listening to, or else we're going to repeat this over and over as we continue to destroy the last wild places on earth and we encounter these kinds of diseases. This has happened many, many times before. Fortunately, a lot of the diseases that have come out of nature in the past few decades have not been as virulent or as aggressive as coronavirus. But there have been other cases, many other cases where we have encroached into a virgin rainforest, into virgin forests around the world, not just rain forests but dry forests even, and we've encountered these kinds of viruses that are deadly, but fortunately, in the past, not nearly as contagious.

SS: I think it's fair to say that the issue of the environment is something that has become more prevalent and more important to normal people who’ve become more aware of it. But when it comes down to it, still until lately we sort of see it side-rushed by the big politicians when it comes to money. So this time how do you attract attention to the green part of the problem when right now you have to compete with attention grabbers like fear of dying and unemployment and uncertainty?

PC: So as we look... Let's take the pandemic and COVID-19 for an example. People with underlying health conditions are more susceptible to extreme distress or even death from this virus. Now, there are a lot of underlying health conditions, respiratory health conditions, for example, that are caused or exacerbated by poor air quality. We talk about the short-term balance and thinking wow, we have to destroy the environment to build the economy. I think this pandemic demonstrates to us that is not true, that is a false choice, because ultimately when we destroy the environment, now we're sitting in a situation that is costing the global economy tens, ultimately, probably tens of trillions of dollars. Now, no one can argue that a little bit of conservation would have gone a long way preventing some of the activities, encroachments, some of the hunting, some of the things like that that's going on, that is exposing us to these diseases and more investment in conservation, could have avoided this crisis.

SS: Does this mean that that as we intrude more brazenly into what's left of nature on our planet pandemics like this one will come more frequently and will be more devastating in scale?

PC: There's, it's a numbers game, the more that we expose ourselves to wilderness, to these last wild places, the more we increase the potential to be exposed to these kinds of viruses. So, you know, epidemiologists have been saying for decades, that it's not a question of if there's going to be a pandemic, it's just when, and we found ourselves unprepared to deal with it because we've ignored those scientific recommendations, because currently in the world today, there are a lot of people that have been conducting, let's face it, a war on science, because they don't like what scientists are telling them. And so, we've ignored science at our peril and here we are, in a situation with this pandemic, that we've been warned, we didn't listen and now we're paying the consequences. 

SS: Philippe, now there are calls for an international ban on black markets where COVID-19 is believed to have made the leap from animals to humans, and on all wildlife trade in general. However, we all know that if something exists already just banning it won’t make it go away. What will work better in preventing future pandemics? Is it better to ban wildlife trade and hunting and spend resources enforcing the ban, or keep wet markets open and under control without running them underground, like extra control?

PC: Well, I think that there's a couple of things that need to happen. One is education. There's a lot of people in these kinds of situations, in these rural areas and these wet markets that really don't understand the consequences of what they're doing. It's not necessarily their fault. I think it's important for us to invest in education in these places and provide alternative opportunities for people to find a livelihood. But we do in some cases need to control, I think, more effectively and more tightly the trade in certain species, particularly species that are illegal, we could do a lot more. China can do a lot more to enforce the laws that already exist, that's very important. But you're right, immediately banning all these things, there's a concern that they would be going into the black market, which already exists. So there needs to be better education. And there certainly needs to be better enforcement. And there needs to be a recognition that we have to help these people find alternative means of income.

SS: And also, when and how to solve this, because humans stepping on each other's toes is, in a way inevitable and we're 8 billion on this earth and maybe double that by the end of the century. So humans needs take precedence, let's say, over the wild animals’ needs and so habitats and ecosystems are destroyed, because I mean, we all love animals, we got to live somewhere. So even though encroaching on nature may well be deadly for us, judging from the virus, how do we actually stop?

PC: Well, cities are a terrific way... I mean, looking at how we manage people and manage growth in this world, we need to be looking less at sprawl, at spreading out and more at how we build livable healthy cities. COVID-19 is just one example of the consequences of humanity destroying nature. But when we think about the destruction in biodiversity on this planet, for example, in the last 40 years, half the biodiversity on Earth has disappeared, has been destroyed by humans. Now that has consequences on us. I'll give just one simple example - bees, pollinator insects. When we start to destroy nature, the amount of the value that nature provides to human beings is tremendous. Simply the value that is provided for free by pollinators to our agricultural sector, which feeds billions of people around the world is incalculable. And yet we are through various activities, pesticides, things like that destroying these pollinators with devastating consequences for our ability to survive on this planet. So there's so many different interlinked layers of the importance of protecting nature and thus protecting ourselves. But one of the tools that we have, we don't need to protect all of nature. The eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, said just a few years ago, we need to protect half of nature for nature, on land, and half for humans. And in the ocean, we need to protect 30% of nature by 2030, 30% of the oceans for these very special protected high biodiverse areas. That I think we can challenge ourselves as humanity to do. There's plenty of space on this planet, we need to focus on how we build livable cities, and then we need to decide (have decided), we need to agree these places that are important biodiversity reservoirs, to preset those aside and protect them and not encroach them. For example, in places like Indonesia, and Brazil, there is a lot of land that is available, that is marginal land that is not very high in biodiversity value that could be used for palm oil plantations. But for various political reasons and perverse incentives oftentimes instead of using that land, people are destroying virgin rainforest. So there is a way for humanity to live in harmony with nature, it is still possible with 8 billion. With 10 billion people it's not easy, but it's certainly possible. One of the things we need to do is recognize where these areas are and set them aside and protect them

SS: And I still want to touch upon the use of plastic. While the air is getting clear, plastic pollution is on the rise and that's because of the medical masks and glove demand - items that get a single use to reduce danger of infection. I mean, even the bans against single-use plastics like grocery bags are given way under pressure from the industry all over the United States, the bags are making a comeback after a long battle to ban them. So, I mean, I just wonder, in times of medical emergency like that, is there a realistic alternative to single-use plastic products?

PC: Well, plastic is not in and of itself a bad thing. It's plastic in the wrong place at the wrong time that’s a bad thing. Plastic has a role to play in our society, I believe. But as you pointed out, the kinds of single-use plastics, bags, bottles, things like that, that are a convenience but that is all are a bad thing. From the medical perspective, plastic is a very useful and very important tool that helps keep all of us alive at various points. Whenever we go to a hospital and you need IV bags. You know, plastic has an important role to play. But I think that yes, it's laziness and it's the exploitation of certain special interest - they see an opportunity to try and reinsert these kinds of single-use plastic that we don't need in society into us at a time like this crisis that we need to be vigilant and not allow.

SS: But we need the gloves and the mass, we really need them.

PC: Well, the gloves and masks are a different scenario for sure. And I think in that case, we need to make sure that we're disposing of those things properly and they're not ending up in the ocean. But that I think that the need for single-use plastics in a time like this does not really extend to plastic bags and plastic bottles, and things like that, that continue to be a scourge for the ocean. Because remember, what we have found and scientists have discovered is that these plastics break it down into smaller and smaller pieces, they never go away. We're finding these microplastics in the flesh of the fish that human beings are eating. This is part of a... We live in a cycle, there is no such thing as ‘away’, so we are paying health consequences again for our use of this plastic, there is nothing for free. And so something like this crisis can't be a blank slate, a carte blanche for people to just begin polluting again. When it comes to gloves and masks, we absolutely need those, that's a different scenario. And that will come and go, hopefully when this crisis goes away, but it's not an excuse, because I've seen in some cities here in the United States as well, I’ve heard about people starting to use plastic bags and supermarket chains saying, well, let's use plastic bags again because people can't use their own bags again. I think that's laziness and I hope that doesn't lead to rolling back some of the progress we've made on getting rid of plastic waste process.

SS: I want to end this talk on maybe an optimistic note. I spoke to this futurist not long ago, Thomas Frey, and he told me recently, that it would actually be great if once a year there was a coordinated global event, which would literally shut everything down for a week, kind of like the Earth Hour on steroids. And let's assume that our economies can afford that, would this really help the environment? Because if yes, that would be amazing.

PC: I think that a more effective way to to help nature is, as I said earlier, we have tools that we know work. And one of those is recognizing, as we’ve spoken in the early part of this conversation, that nature is resilient. And if we give her a chance she can, she can recover remarkably. We know that there are important parts in the world right now and this year 2020, - I know it sounds like it's very far away but it's a part of the world that has a huge influence on us and it's very relevant, actually, to Russia because it's the 200th anniversary of Russia discovering Antarctica. And there’s an effort this year to protect a large [area of] 4 million square kilometers of ocean around Antarctica. These are the kinds of initiatives that we need to be approving and we need to be supporting, and in fact this year on the 200th anniversary this area, this big initiative that I'm involved in and that global organizations are binding together to support this establishment of marine protected area in Antarctica, is one of those kinds of tools that I think would be much more effective. It’s a part of the world, even though it's far away, that regulates our climate. It's a part of the world that provides nutrients into the ocean food web that spreads throughout the ocean. So people that rely on seafood for the economic potential need a healthy area of the Antarctica to thrive. And in particular, Russia right now has an opportunity to take a leadership role in supporting the establishment of this marine protected area, of these three marine protected areas. It would be the single largest Conservation Act in history on the 200th anniversary of Russia discovering Antarctica. So those are the kinds of initiatives that I think are more important for investing in. We know that there are special parts of the world that we can set aside and the benefit of that to humanity, to our economy, to our health is tremendous. If we can do that, and we can come together, as we have an opportunity this year, and as Russia particularly has an opportunity to play a leadership role in this year about protecting this area in Antarctica, it would be transformative. Because if we can protect ultimately 30% of our ocean, then we can, we can stop the biodiversity decline that we've seen, that threatens all of us. Those are the kinds of innovative ideas that we need to be establishing. Humanity can leverage and continue to use large areas of the world. But let's set aside a few small areas so that nature can thrive and give us all the benefits that she gives us. I think that's the kind of vision for the future that we have, is a world where humanity can live in harmony with nature. We know how to do it, we just need to do it.

SS: Philippe, thank you so much for this wonderful talk, for your insight, for your thoughts. And I hope you succeed in every single thing you put forward during this talk.

PC: Thank you very much, I very much appreciate the opportunity. Excited and look forward to the next time. 

SS: Thank you.

PC: Bye-bye.