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Covid-19 and Climate Change: Lessons of Difference, not Similarity

By admin

This is the third blogpost in our series of blogposts related to the corona virus. The others can be found here and here.


By Mike Leach, post doc Tilburg Law School



Thomas Kuhn once wrote that crises are ‘a necessary precondition for the emergence of novel theories.’[1] This dynamic is on display today as scholars (including this one) from all disciplines around the world scramble to come up with relevant lessons to learn from the ongoing coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic. Whether in the hard sciences, social sciences,  humanities and law, with each new blogpost, opinion column, grant application, journal article, and even entire monographs, the urgency of the moment is inspiring thinking and encouraging new forms of collaboration as people try to establish conceptual or empirical linkages between the pandemic and areas of scholarship they habitually write in. Indeed, so great is the siren call of the pandemic that it is posing a monumental distraction to virtually all other kinds of research.

This is certainly also the case with legal research on climate change and the Anthropocene. While it is beyond the scope of this post to summarize all of the pandemic-related work that legal scholars have devoted to the topic, it is worth observing that much of the lesson-learning happening now shares a methodological approach that identifies some parallel, overlap, or comparative similarity between the pandemic and whatever intellectual niches that legal scholars inhabit. Many such contributions either use the pandemic as a revelatory moment to re-emphasize what we already know (such as how existing law does not manage human-wildlife interactions well);  or to use it to reveal something new (such as coronavirus lawsuits posing opportunities for climate litigation; or the comparative effectiveness of swift state action in uniquely urgent moments of crisis). The object here is not to critique the hard and positive work that has been committed to this collective effort to explore the broader meaning of this moment we are in. However, while this moment is inspiring efforts to identify disciplinary similarities and overlaps with legal research on climate change and the pandemic, the meaningful differences between them are being neglected. The argument here is that this general methodological preference  is leaving the overall discourse somewhat imbalanced and that what makes this pandemic different from climate change may provide equally, if not more, meaningful insights into the times in which we now live.

Similarities between the two are not very difficult to find. Both have been categorized as ‘crises’, thereby inviting related questions be asked about things like emergency powers, state obligations, moral imperatives, among others. They both speak to threats to human life and health by natural forces beyond our control, and therefore pose questions about rights and the equal distribution of access to means and appropriate legal frameworks and mechanisms for protection. However, while playing out these similarities, which are valid and relevant in their own ways, one should not lose sight of why and in what ways they are also very different. As ‘crises’, both inspire political responsiveness, but they motivate it in very different ways. While some may look to recent emission statistics with optimism that the pandemic is revealing the capacity of the state to engineer massive social behavioural changes that can produce positive environmental impacts, the vast scale and duration of behavioural change that is required to achieve any lasting impact on climate change probably makes the pandemic a poor proxy for it. Even though this pandemic-induced economic slowdown may allow countries to actually meet their Paris climate accord commitments for the first time since 2015, few should expect the very modest emissions reduction trends of the current period to last once it is over. The temporal dimension is another reason to be cautious about hasty comparisons. While we may marvel at the clear skies over Milan, Paris, or Beijing, our collective anticipation of ‘returning to normal’ in the next 6 months, or year, or even two years, is simply an eagerness to return to our pre-pandemic role as net contributors to climate change.

And it is with this temporal stir of the pot that a much more significant difference rises to the surface. Our collective fears and concerns about Covid-19 that are motivating legal reimaginings and legislative innovations these days are very different from the fears and concerns we have (or perhaps should have) about climate change because they are based on very different perceptions of our relationship to science and mortality. The general panic that is spreading around the world hand in hand with the disease is mitigated by an expectation that the vaccine-less moment in which we currently live is time-bound and will end at some discrete point in the near(ish) future. Any discussion about vaccines as resolving this pandemic reifies the inevitable conquest of the virus by science and technology, making it a question of when, and not if, we will once again feel safe and ‘normal’. Descriptions of Covid-19 as some novel expression of a vengeful ‘Nature’  are ultimately temporary accounts of human vulnerability to a force whose effects are terrifying, but ultimately fixable and reversible. Until a vaccine is found, the pandemic is being addressed as a temporary public health concern, which has made it possible for populations to adjust to forced changes to social norms, like social distancing, but also to new forms of state coercion. However, this unlikely to be more than a stop-gap until such time as the heroic labs of virologists (and the distributive logic of pharmaceutical markets) can rescue us, a stop-gap whose end is currently being accelerated by experimental efforts to relax restrictions and gingerly return to ‘normal’ ahead of time.

Climate change discourses, on the other hand, are coloured by completely different orientations towards the future and very different understandings of the dynamics of humanity’s relationship to the threat it poses. If with Covid-19 the role of science is to understand and conquer or defeat ‘Nature’ in the form of a virus, its role in climate change is more about trying to understand it, which is hard enough, but also to trying to predict the future, determine human causality and responsibility for it, and figuring out what should be done to somehow ensure a manageably perilous future for humanity (along whatever other species might survive with us). Scientific models predict futures of what will come from transgressing planetary boundaries which foretell scenarios where, unlike with Covid-19, there will be no ‘return to normal.’ There is no anticipated ‘vaccine’ for climate change that will allow us to return or suspend the world in some optimal state. Even fantastical, if not frightful, geo-engineering solutions are really just salves treating symptoms, that cannot be expected to reverse or ‘cure’ climate change. Although the pandemic has re-educated the public of what exponential growth means, whatever fears that public feels about transmission and death statistics are associated at least with a discrete virus. This makes them very different from fears about climate change that rest on far more abstract, difficult and uncertain knowledge bases about possible future states, even though they are hoped to similarly motivate world leaders to organize and commit to painful collective action goals to reach manageable future states.

It is these time/science/death distinctions between Covid-19 and climate change that make them fundamentally different legal problems to address. Legal responses to climate change are more about engineering durable and systemic change to mitigate its worst effects, rather than the current temporary restructurings of social practices that are designed to ‘flatten the curve’ and life until a ‘cure’ can be found. While state responses to Covid-19 have been more or less strong (if often distressingly delayed), international cooperation has been highly imperfect, reflecting something that is by now well known to climate change activists, that it is only with great difficulty that states can coordinate collective responses to global threats. Indeed, if anything, the pandemic is perversely undoing, rather than augmenting, ongoing efforts to come up with global political and legal solutions to climate change.

Furthermore, Covid-19 offers a clear target and focus for our attentions. It is easily described as a dangerous and tiny semi-alive bundle of RNA encased in a thin lipid shell, but whose danger to the human immune system is discrete enough to mobilize entire populations to temporarily suffer to protect themselves from it. Climate change, in contrast, for decades now has been a much more difficult flag to rally populations around. In these senses, then, the political bases upon which legal solutions to climate change have to work are much more difficult than those of Covid-19. The public has been demonstrably permissive of aggressive state action to deal with the pandemic, far more so than it would be for climate change, because the urgency is so much more psychologically palpable and obvious (and seemingly temporary). While we continue to fight Covid-19 with 19th Century public health techniques and the far more ancient technology of bars of soap, we do so in anticipation that science and technological innovation will, eventually, save us. It is this faith that presents the world’s leaders with the political space that they need to make dark calculations that weigh public health and death rates with economic needs. Both leaders and their electorates know that at some point in the foreseeable future this will all end. With climate change, though, no such comfort can be had. The climate-related calculations that have been put before world leaders and their diplomats for years now is not only far more massive, but also far more absolute and perpetual, and therefore harder to imagine, much less convince skeptical voters.

If there is any inspiration that legal scholars of climate change can draw from epidemiology, it is that the most of world-wide decreases in mortality rates and increases to human lifespans over the past few centuries[2] have come from large-scale behavioural and infrastructural changes and collective action campaigns, far more than from vaccine technologies.[3] Hundreds of thousands of years of short human lives, lived amid constant fears of ever-imminent death by mysterious disease, were upended primarily by combinations of germ theory, significant public infrastructural investments, and social behavioural changes, all engineered through improvements to public sanitation, road building, urban planning, food production and preparation, education, hygiene, workplace safety, among others, well before vaccination campaigns on a global scale were ever possible. What the advent of vaccines and antibiotics did, though, was to erase social fears of microbiology, thereby allowing us to forego behavioural sacrifices about how we can or should live. Vaccines and antibiotics vanquished death by turning it into a technological, economic, and distributive problem. The same cannot be said for climate change.

While newspapers are filled with heart-wrenching stories of pain and suffering caused by the current public-health responses to the pandemic, it is also evident, to varying degrees, that such measures are proving effective at curbing and slowing the rates and spread of infection.[4] This pandemic is suddenly revealing to us that collective responses to protect humanity from natural dangers is extremely costly. However, the sudden immediacy of the death it is causing somehow makes the extreme (temporary) costs of fighting it more obviously worthwhile to bear compared to the lower, but longer-term costs that would be required to regularly meet the commitments made in 2015 in the Paris Accords. It is also revealing how ill-suited the current international order is to coordinating collective action on a global scale, even in response to a crisis that is so specific and urgent as the Covid-19 pandemic. However, if, for many the global political response to the pandemic has been insufficient, slow, and poorly managed, compared to global climate change it has been remarkable, leaving environmentalists and climate change activists alike breathless, envious, and thirsty to seize the opportunity and somehow harness, redirect, or repurpose that same energy and political opportunitytowards the infinitely more complex and difficult Anthropocenic challenge at hand.

Yet, what is almost certain is that the kind of collective behavioural changes that are required to achieve the modest goals of temperature rises of 1 or 2 percent will require far greater cost and even suffering than we have been witnessing and experiencing these past few months. And if any lesson is to be learned from this pandemic it is that it is the working classes, the poor, and the vulnerable who are routinely shoved to the front to bear the brunt of its worst effects. Joining doctors and lab technicians on the front lines have also been nurses, grocery store clerks, postal workers, pizza delivery drivers, public transport drivers, and slaughterhouse workers, who have been exposed to a greater degree of risk than those of us who can self-isolate and e-commute from home, not to mention the elderly, the chronically sick, and the homeless. Some exposed themselves to danger out of noble self-sacrifice for the greater good; while for others poverty or immobility left them with no other choice. This pandemic did not suddenly create social inequality in the world, but it has exposed its pre-pandemic structures and is worsening its effects.  This pattern is as ubiquitous in histories of past epidemics and pandemics[5] as it is with natural (and un-natural) disasters.[6] If mass collective action is the only way to respond meaningfully to climate change, then this pandemic is giving us a taste of how bitter that pill is likely to be, and for whom more than others.

In light of this, it is hard to imagine how in the balance of things this pandemic augurs well for our climate change futures. Strange as it may sound, we should savour our current fears of Covid-19, not to be masochistic, but to be mindful that the fears we should be feeling about the dangers that climate change poses should be magnified to a much larger degree than what we are currently feeling about this virus. Like Covid-19, climate change will make us all considerably poorer, and we can be sure that the poor and vulnerable will also suffer its worst effects. But at least we can hope that with a Covid-19 vaccine our children’s children will not have to worry about it as much as we do now (assuming, of course, that no other novel virus will emerge, which is extremely unlikely). We can afford no such hope with climate change, though, and must think about that entirely differently.


* Many thanks to my colleagues Phil Paiement and Marie Petersmann for their valuable comments and suggestions.

[1] Kuhn, The Structure Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press 1962) 77.

[2] BD Smedley et al., ‘Promoting Health: Intervention Strategies from Social and Behavioral Research’ (2001) American Journal of Health Promotion, 15(3), 149–166.

[3] JB McKinlay and SM McKinlay, ‘The Questionable Contribution of Medical Measures to the Decline of Mortality in the United States in the Twentieth Century,’ (1977) The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly: Health and Society 55(3) 405.

[4] L Matrajt L and T Leung, ‘Evaluating the Effectiveness of Social Distancing Interventions to Delay or Flatten the Epidemic Curve of Coronavirus Disease’ (2020) Emerging Infectious Diseases.’ 26(8).

[5] See: S Kaufmann, The New Plagues: Pandemics and Poverty in a Globalized World (Haus Publishing 2009) ; TJ Bollyky, Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways, (MIT Press 2019).

[6] See: A Fothergill and LA Peek, ‘Poverty and Disasters in the United States: A Review of Recent Sociological Findings’ (2004) Natural Hazards 32, 89–110; Q Shahabuddin  and Z Ali, ‘Natural Disasters, Risks, Vulnerability and Persistence of Poverty: An Analysis of Household-Level Data’ (2006) PRCPB Working Paper No. 15; S Hoffman, ‘The Hidden Victims of Disaster, Global Environmental Change Part B’ (2003) Environmental Hazards 5(2), 67-70.


Sensing Covid-19 and Climate Change

By Anna Berti Suman

This is the second blogpost in our series of blogposts related to the corona virus. The first one can be found here.

corona virus

By Dr. Marie Petersman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) based at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, and Anna Berti Suman, PhD candidate Tilburg Law School

Over the past weeks, a plethora of articles explored the relations between the corona crisis and the climate catastrophe by framing the former as an opportunity to learn lessons for tackling the latter. Among the firsts was an essay by Bruno Latour, inviting us to address the current pandemic as a ‘dress rehearsal’ that incites us to prepare for climate change. Elsewhere, Latour argued that the pandemic had ‘actually proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world and at the same time, a system that we were told it was impossible to slow down or redirect’. Yet, despite the fact that both events constitute globally shared ‘collective’ experiences, immediate societal responses to them vary greatly. While both events are partially intertwined in their causes and effects, their differences in spatio-temporal scales and socio-ecological implications make socio-political responses to them difficult to compare.

Of course, this is not to say that links between the two events do not exist. The outbreak of the zoonotic coronavirus is entangled with multiple and often interacting ‘threats to ecosystems and wildlife, including habitat loss, illegal trade, pollution, invasive species and, increasingly, climate change’. On a positive note, we observed a widely shared enthusiasm among the climate scientific community when the measurements of the European Copernicus agency registered an unusual drop in nitrogen dioxide levels in February 2020, as analysed by NASA’s ground observation team. The coronavirus is indeed set to have caused the ‘largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions’, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war. Studies also showed, inversely, that low levels of air pollution may be a key contributor to prevent Covid-19 deaths. Finally, the plunging demand for oil wrought by the coronavirus was said to have permanently altered the course of the climate catastrophe. As a result, after 2019 being coined ‘the year of climate consciousness’ with a ‘growing momentum’ for climate activism, the current drop of atmospheric pollution was welcomed as a windfall by many. A call for caution was, however, voiced by those who plead for more nuance and refrain from granting agency to the virus itself, pointing instead to the temporary retreat from capitalism’s ‘industrial production and its handmaidens’ to explain the current low emissions. Although praised by many as a ‘catalyst for transformation’ that brings aboutan unprecedented opportunity to rethink how our beliefs, values, and institutions shape our relationships’, on the long run, the economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus may well lead to a suspension of adopted and prospective climate measures. Circular economists and de-growth advocates also pointed to the short-term risks that the pandemic may trigger by increasing the use of private transportation means or the consumption of single use plastic (including gloves, masks and disposable cups in bars). This has led certain cities, such as Amsterdam, to pro-actively consider the ‘“doughnut” model to mend the post-coronavirus economy’, bearing in mind that ‘calls for solidarity with the weak and disadvantaged must be part and parcel of [such] shifts’. Ultimately, the fact that even in a world that has come to a halt, we still fall short of the emission targets needed to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, shows the structural and systemic deficiencies we need to deal with and signal ‘how much further there is to go’.

Whether or not the corona crisis will be beneficial for tackling climate change on the long run beyond the immediate drop in atmospheric pollution remains, thus, a question open to debate, which outcome will dependent on the political will of states, corporations and citizens. Our purpose here is not to add one more proposal to the existing ‘menu’ of policy goals for the post-corona time to come. Neither do we wish to celebrate the environmental impact of the corona crisis, which feels inappropriate at a time when many are suffering from the disease and its related harms (from dead relatives that could not be buried, bodies that decomposed in trucks for overflow storage in funeral homes, unprecedented unemployment rates, soaring queues before food banks or unaffordable medical bills) and others are sacrificing themselves ‘at the front’ of the health emergency. Instead, our objective is to explore how the turn to sensing as a distinctive mode of engagement with socio-ecological issues can be productive to (re)imagine and address ongoing events such as the coronavirus and climate change. In line with Fleur Johns, ‘[s]ensing, in this context, refers to the work of eliciting, receiving, and processing impressions and information, both in the mode of intuitions or feelings, and in terms of data’ – it ‘includes all bodily faculties of perception, but is not restricted to corporeal sensation, individual or collective’. Sensing, as such, ‘is never just about the body, as distinct from the mind’ (Johns, at 60-61). In the next section, we start by theoretically defining and elaborating on the potential of sensing as a way to cope with events like the current pandemic and climate change, which call for a different (re)configuration of existence. We see the turn to sensing as responding to Donna Haraway’s invitation to ‘stay with the trouble’ of living and dying together on a damaged earth, perceived as more conducive to the kind of thinking that would provide means to build more liveable futures. We then turn to specific examples of ‘citizen sensing’ initiatives and conclude by questioning how the insights drawn from such ‘sensing practices’ can be fruitful to cope with the risks associated to the corona crisis and climate change.

Sensing the Unknown

Both the coronavirus and climate change are examples of ‘hyperobjects’ – a term coined by philosopher Timothy Morton to refer to entities that are so massively distributed in space and time that they defy not only our understanding but also our control. The coronavirus cannot be seen, yet its latent presence is everywhere. Gone pandemic, the coronavirus cannot be contained nor controlled, only its effects can be mitigated through specific ‘guidelines’ and ‘physical distancing’ (a survival tool revealing inequalities that span across class, gender, race and mental health dimensions). Similarly, climate change affects us all (unequally), despite it being ‘almost impossible for changes in climate to be perceived through individual experience’ (Bauer and Bhan, at 19). Both the coronavirus and climate change share the characteristics that Morton ascribes to hyperobjects: they are ‘viscous’ (they ‘stick’ to us); ‘nonlocal’ (their overall effects are globally distributed across space and time); ‘phased’ (we can only experience local manifestations of them at any one time and place) and ‘inter-objective’ (they are intertwined with other objects to which they cannot be reduced). Their reality and existence challenge human perception and imagination. The objects under concern remain, in other words, elusive or invisible, although their reality is unquestionable. While they defy, as a whole, immediate and unmediated human experience, we can, however, sense their existence and omnipresence.

Against this backdrop, speculative approaches dispense with necessary (phenomenological) correlations between knowledge and first-person experience, and recognize the limits of human thought and imagination to relate to events or entities that humans do not perceive directly. They invite us, instead, to empathically relate to such events and sense their effects even without unmediated access to them. While the realm of ‘experience’ is limited to ‘actual observations’ and the process of ‘learning by practical trial or proof’, the definition of ‘sense’ alludes to the ‘faculty of perception [and] feeling’. As such, it refers both to the detection of certain parameters and the emotions associated with what is revealed. Seen through this prism, sensing aspires to emotionally relate to the distress caused by certain events, whether the harm directly or only indirectly impacts us as human being. In other words, it is an invitation to engage creatively, imaginatively and speculatively with such events beyond immediate human representation and experience, in order to sense their constantly present and emerging effects in the sphere of the actual. As Morton puts it, the mere fact of thinking their existence – or sensing their effects – requires us to care about such hyperobjects.

From a governance perspective, a number of studies showed how a turn to sensing can be productive to re-envisage political perspectives and legal approaches to reconsider the more-than-human world we inhabit. As elaborated by David Chandler, sensing as a form of governance is based on correlation rather than causation, and depends on the disposition to ‘see things in their process of emergence or in real time’ (Chandler, at 22). The deployment of sensing through new technologies can play a decisive role in environmental politics, by inspiring awareness and mobilizing publics. These forms of ‘material participation’ can facilitate the capacity to detect the effects of relational interactions and cast them as either problems or possibilities. As such, ‘biosensory techniques’ can make ‘imperceptible harms perceptible’, ‘knowable’ and ‘measurable’ and permit ‘a growing awareness of planetary life’ (Johnson, at 284-285). By producing ‘forms of correlational sight’, the effects of interactions between entities are rendered perceptible, and enable ‘new forms of (datafied) relational awareness’ (Chandler, at 130). At a local level, the use of sensory technologies by individuals or communities allows for grassroots-driven, bottom-up and auto-empowering engagement with and responsivities to certain threats. Such engagements ‘“empower” citizens by shifting the infrastructures, technologies and practices of monitoring to less institutionalised arrangements’ (Gabrys, at 177). From this perspective, ‘sensing citizens’ are seen as part of ‘material-political arrangements and struggles over who generates, legitimizes, and has authority over data and how data is mobilized to make claims for environmental and other rights’ (Ruppert, Isin and Bigo, at 6). With the burgeoning trend towards a ‘digitalization of mainstream environmental and climate governance’ (Bettini et al., at 2), technology plays a key role in the constitution of socio-ecological assemblages, and promotes a novel ontology that changes the very nature of liberal governance (Beraldo and Milan, at 1). Citizens using sensing technologies are thereby recast as a ‘geo-socially networked community of sensors’ (Chandler, at 158). As such, they are able to ‘make visible politically masked risks’ and claim back their agency in shaping responses to the socio-ecological issues at stake. In the next section, we will explore how forms of ‘citizen sensing’ can facilitate individuals and communities who are sensitive to the material, interdependent world they are part of, to act as proactive agents in their own governance and through responsive care.

Citizen Sensing: From Sensing Radiations to Covid-19

In the immediate aftermath of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan on 11 March 2011 and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, accurate and trustworthy radiation information was publicly unavailable. Against this backdrop, a volunteer-driven non-profit organization called Safecast was formed to enable individuals ‘to monitor, collect and openly share radiation measurements’ and other data on radiation levels. The initiative ‘mobilized individuals and collectives’ in response to risks that were perceived as extremely urgent to monitor, namely the post-Fukushima radiations burdens. Safecast can thus be regarded as a ‘shock-driven’ initiative that constitutes a ‘successful [example of] citizen [sensing] for radiation measurement and communication after Fukushima’. As this initiative grew quickly in size, scope and geographical reach, Safecast’s mission soon expanded to provide citizens worldwide with the necessary tools they need to inform themselves by gathering and sharing accurate environmental data in an open and participatory fashion. Through a form of ‘auto-empowerment’, Safecast participants were able to monitor their own homes and environments, thereby ‘free[ing] themselves of dependence on government and other institutions for this kind of essential information’. As described on Safecast’s website, this process gave rise to ‘technically competent citizen science efforts worldwide’.

Safecast covid testing map

(image credit: Safecast and Ushahidi (CC))

Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the Safecast collective engaged in a rapid response to the virus by setting up an information platform on the evolution of the crisis and a map of Covid-19 testing that provides a picture of where to obtain testing options in various locations (see Over the years, Safecast had accumulated much experience and insights on ‘trust, crisis communication, public perception, and what happens when people feel threatened by a lack of reliable information’. Yet, the Safecast collective still struggles to be heard as ‘many scientists ignore their data’. Despite this scarce official recognition, Safecast took advantage of its experience and societal impact to rapidly respond to the current pandemic. As observed by Safecast volunteers, ‘[w]e find ourselves again trying to better understand what is happening’. In a webinar on ‘Lessons we are learning from the Covid-19 pandemic for radiological risk communication’, Azby Brown (as volunteer at Safecast and director of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology’s Future Design Institute in Tokyo) drew several links between the nature of ionising radiations and the coronavirus. By alluding to the invisible presence and constant risks posed by such hyperobjects, the invitation to the webinar started by highlighting that ‘[y]ou can’t see, smell, or taste it, but it may be a problem’, which applies equally to radiations as well as viruses. Elsewhere, Brown observed that:

 Fear of the unknown is normal, and radiation and viruses are both invisible threats that heighten anxiety. Most people have almost no way to determine for themselves whether they have come into contact with either of these threats, and they find themselves dependent on specialists, testing devices, and government and media reports. If the government and media do not provide clear, credible explanations and prompt communications, misinformation and mistrust can easily take root and spread.

For Brown, Safecast could provide a relevant risk communication perspective in the current Covid-19 context based on the experience gained after the Fukushima disaster. Despite major differences between ionising radiations and Covid-19, similarities in risks communications are worth exploring. Analogous governmental failures on risk communication were observed regarding, for example, shortcomings in rapidly conveying clear messages to the public and communicate strategies based on non-conflicting expert and policy opinions. The ambiguous and incomplete information received from the authorities generated a sense of uncertainty and distrust for many citizens dependent on single sources of official information. Against this backdrop, initiatives such as Safecast that enable people to control and monitor the presence and degrees of certain risks provide an alternative source of credible crowdsourced information. Beyond the immediate informational benefit for sensing citizens, such tools can further enable holding governments and officials into account.

At the time of writing, citizen sensing initiatives tackling Covid-19 are multiplying around the world (as listed here and here or exemplified here). Such citizen sensing practices ‘constitute ways of expressing care about environments, communities and individual and public health’ (Gabrys, at 175). As argued by Gabrys, these practices ‘are not just ways of documenting the presence of [threats]’ but are also ‘techniques for tuning sensation and feeling environments through different experiential registers’ (Ibid, 177). Granular monitoring by sensing citizens is seen as particularly valuable in times of emergencies, when governments are faced with urgent, massive and systemic risks of spatial and temporal scales that defy immediate control – such as the current pandemic. Civic ‘sentries’ can both offer relief to affected people through solidarity networks and provide resources to policy-makers and scientists through wider access to grassroots-driven and situated information ‘from below’. Citizen sensing initiatives also enable lay people, turned into ‘sensing citizens’, to retain a greater degree of agency over the production and use of the data assembled. Against the ever-increasing rise of ‘bio-surveillance states’ and the development of ‘symptoms-tracking’ and ‘contact-tracing’ apps, ‘bottom-up innovations’ might help to counter the acceleration of ‘digital surveillance’ that may be hard to scale back after the pandemic. Open access citizens’ sensed data may be considered more transparent and trustworthy by the public and convey important information on widely shared everyday lived experiences. By rendering data about real but invisible threats (and how these are perceived and felt) available through the intermediary of sensing citizens, a redistribution of (access to) information and agency in knowledge production is enabled. Finally, the increased ‘(datafied) relational awareness’ and ‘forms of correlational sight’ (Chandler, at 130) that are produced can create new appreciations of inherent yet invisible connections between human and non-human coexisting lifeforms.

Concluding thoughts

As hyperobjects, both the coronavirus and climate change defy not only our understanding but also our control. Their causes and effects are so massively dispersed across space and time that they evade unmediated appearance. The impacts of hyperobjects operate through forms of ‘slow violence’, which are ‘often attritional, disguised, and temporally latent, making the articulation of slow violence a representational challenge’ (Davies, at 2). Only partial, local and deferred manifestations can be captured through experience. Our way of relating and responding to such hyperobjects depends on temporal, spatial and emotional predicaments. The more temporally immediate, spatially proximate and emotionally tangible the threats of hyperobjects are, the greater and quicker our responses tend to be. Temporal, spatial and emotional scales are central to our ability to sense the presence of invisible threats such as viruses and changes in the climate.

While socio-ecological threats posed by climate change have been present for decades and increasingly materialized across the globe in recent years (for certain peoples more than others), responses remained relatively marginal in light of the risks at stake. Conversely, while the (health) threats posed by the coronavirus are of a relatively shorter-term (leaving aside the longer-term consequences of the socio-economic crisis it engendered), those risks triggered immediate and radical responses. The fact that the coronavirus is sensed as a ‘direct risk’ to individuals or vulnerable relatives prompts instant reactions. The sensed proximity (both temporal and spatial) of the invisible threat points to important questions. The current pandemic brought to light what climate activists deplored for long, namely that we tend to care more for risks posed to our individual conditions. A sense of emotional distance is generated by spatial and temporal gaps. This self-centred sentiment is reinforced by an anthropocentric appraisal that limits our ethics of care to the sole concern for the human species, instead of striving to ‘support the flourishing of other animals and natural things’ with which we are intrinsically entangled. While pessimistic projections on climate change have often been framed as triggering a sense of denial, paralysis or aporia, the current pandemic shows how emotions such as fear, anxiety and dread can also lead to mobilization, collective concern and action. Emotions are, ultimately, about social movement, stirring and agitation: the root of the word ‘emotion’ is the Latin emovere, which implies both movement and agitation. Despite serious risks of strategic exploitation of fear or despair by political actors instrumentalizing a ‘state of exception’, such emotions can also unleash an enhanced sense of solidarity and cohesion through increased awareness of our fragile state of coexistence and new forms of collective attachment. This is true at the human level – as we saw emerging a myriad of new forms of ‘social proximity’ – but also at a ‘more-than-human’ level, by inviting to be alert and attentive to ‘humans’ impact on and interdependence with the ‘natural’ world we are part of. Such sensibilities can give rise to a sense of cross-species shared vulnerability, where hope and grief enable to re-envision different forms of ‘collaborative survival’ (Tsing, at 4). In this short blogpost, we did not tackle any of these ethical questions in depth. More modestly, we explored how citizen sensing initiatives can help bridging the temporal, spatial and emotional distance between human (re)actions and present, yet invisible, threats through self-production of independent knowledge and agency. As Gabrys reminds us:

These practices are not just ways to rework the data and evidence that might be brought to bear on environmental problems. They are also ways of creating sensing entities, relations, and politics, which come together through particular ways of making sense of environmental problems (Gabrys, at 732).

We argued that, by recasting the actants and subjectivities involved, the technological and data-based sensors used by ‘sensing citizens’ have a world-making effect by facilitating awareness and intelligibility of certain threats. While physical isolation is being implemented (almost) globally, this doesn’t mean that we need to feel isolated and powerless. Daily citizen science is all about re-imagining scales and the potential of working together to provide a sense of connection and purpose. In reconfiguring the ‘distribution of the sensible’ – as a ‘system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it’ (Rancière, at 12) – new avenues are opened up for citizens to foresee, understand and visualize threats, and ‘(ac)count’ the damages caused (Bettini et al., at 6 and 8). Beyond the realm of immediate perception and individual or collective (re)actions, decentralized, grassroots-driven and cooperative sensing technologies may also redistribute agency to challenge more ‘official’ monitoring infrastructures and hold actors into account to galvanize appropriate political responses. Politics, ultimately, ‘revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time’ (Rancière, at 13). These configurations of the sensible, we argue, provide an important terrain for rethinking the politics of hyperobjects such as the coronavirus and climate change.


Corona and environmental law

By Jonathan Verschuuren (TLS)

corona virus

The rapid global spread of the infectious disease Covid-19 by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is shaking the world to its foundations. Many call it the greatest health crisis since the Spanish flu of 1918. Besides a health crisis, this is also an environmental crisis. After all, environmental problems underlie the rapid rise of infectious diseases in recent decades.

Viruses are parasites that live in wild animals without those animals noticing or bothering them. This “home base” of a virus is called a reservoir. It is estimated that 320,000 species of virus live in mammals alone. Only a fraction (less than 6,000) of these have been discovered. The most recent discovery concerns SARS-CoV-2. Viruses are thought to have existed as long as there is life on Earth. They only become harmful to humans and other animal species if they somehow escape from that reservoir and spread and multiply in all sorts of very ingenious ways. The rabies virus, for example, induces a dog to bite around so that the virus can spread, the SARS-CoV-2 virus hijacks the RNA material in human cells to multiply quickly, and the influenza virus constantly adapts to bypass the immune system.

When a virus escapes and jumps to a humans is called spillover. Such a spillover can go directly from reservoir to human, but often it happens via an intermediate step, for example a pig, a horse, a chicken, a dog. Those intermediates are called a host, from which the virus infects humans. Sometimes insects act as transmitters, called vector, such as with malaria. Besides viruses, bacteria that cause deadly infectious diseases also jump from animals to humans. Q-fever and Lyme disease are examples of this. An infectious disease that originates from animals is called zoonosis.

Of course I did not invent all this myself. I largely derive it from the book “Spillover” by the American science journalist David Quammen. Although this book dates back to 2012, it is incredibly current. It is an exciting and shocking book. Exciting because Quammen takes us on a journey around the world with scientists who research viruses and viral diseases. This detective work is very risky and complex. Shocking because Quammen (following many scientists) already predicted quite precisely in 2012 that what we are now experiencing was about to happen. He even refers to a wet market in China, where wildlife is traded for consumption, as the site of the jump, and to a corona virus as a good candidate for the next pandemic. Shocking also because the book takes you along all kinds of other animal-derived infectious diseases and makes you realize that we are actually well off with SARS-CoV-2. After all, there are also viruses that show mortality rates of 70% or even 100%. In this sense, the current corona virus is still a relatively friendly virus. I leave it to your imagination to think about what the world looks like with a pandemic of a virus with a mortality rate of 70%.

The number of zoonoses has increased sharply in recent decades. The best known example is the HIV-1 virus that causes AIDS and has a death rate of 100% (if untreated). After years of intensive research, the reservoir of this virus was discovered: a particular subspecies of chimpanzee in Cameroon. It was also discovered that the jump occurred as early as 1910 (by slaughtering a chimpanzee to serve as a ‘bushmeat’), although it took until the 1960s for the virus to really spread around the world, with so far an estimated 39 million deaths and currently some 38 million infected. But we also had SARS, MERS, Marburg, Nipah, Ebola, Hanta, etc. Various types of monkeys, bats, palm civets and pangolins were found to act as reservoirs for the viruses that cause these infectious diseases.

The increase in the number of infectious diseases from animals is attributed to three factors. Firstly, humans are advancing further and further at the expense of nature, and in particular of the habitat where the reservoir species live, whereby humans are exposed to the viruses living there. It will be clear that the slaughter of wild animals in particular is a life-threatening activity. In Wuhan, such an activity, probably by a 55 year old person on 17 November 2019, caused the pandemic we are now in. Secondly, we surround ourselves with more and more pigs, cows, chickens and other animals intended for human consumption. All potential hosts. Third, the number of people has increased enormously in the last 100 years: from 2 billion in 1927 to 7.5 billion now, mostly living in cities, close together. Moreover, these people are also very eager to travel and globalization has greatly simplified the spread of a virus. A fourth factor is also expected to play an increasingly important role in the faster emergence of zoonoses: climate change. Climate change changes ecosystems and causes viruses, with their reservoir, host or vector, to go on the move. As a consequence, viruses move to areas where they did not previously exist.

In this way, zoonoses are an environmental problem. Environmental law comes to the fore as a field that needs to play a role in preventing, or at least slowing down, the spread of dangerous infectious diseases. It will be clear that the prevention of a spillover is the most source-oriented measure. Better protection of natural areas, combating poaching, banning bush meat trade and restricting wildlife trade are obvious measures for which often legal instruments already exist. These tools will need to be sharpened and better applied, as professor of environmental law Nicholas Robinson from the USA already wrote in a blog post before the virus reached the US.

In addition, we have to discuss the keeping of livestock. The question is whether we can continue the approach that is now being taken to combat diseases such as swine fever, bird flu and Q-fever, as it is becoming increasingly clear that we are on a time bomb with many undetected and potentially life-threatening viruses. I myself see this as yet another argument, besides pollution of air, soil and water and climate, to discourage meat production and consumption through regulation.

Air pollution also appears to play a role, at least with Covid-19. There is now research that shows a clear link between the amount of nitrogen deposition in an area and the number of fatalities, both in Italy/Spain/France/Germany and in England. The hypothesis is that lungs damaged by nitrogen are less resistant to this disease. Particulate matter also seems to play a similar role. In the United States and in Italy, researchers have discovered that the virus uses tiny particles in the air as a taxi and can therefore spread more easily. The US research, for example, concludes that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate. These studies explain why areas with serious pollution by nitrogen and particulate matter are particularly affected. Air quality regulation is therefore also relevant for the prevention of virus-borne diseases. All this shows once again that in nature everything is interrelated.

You can also think of regulations that are intended to prevent the spread of viruses after a jump has occurred. Examples may be rules for buildings and spatial planning, such as rules with regard to ventilation systems to prevent dispersal of airborne viruses and the availability of sufficient washing facilities and disinfectant items in public space. Finally, of course, all kinds of administrative adjustments are needed to a ‘lockdown’ situation, such as the possibility to adjust legal deadlines, to replace physical inspection of documents by digital inspection, to hold hearings and court room sessions via Zoom or other online platforms, to enable digital decision-making by administrative bodies. etc. Various emergency laws are currently being prepared for this in the Netherlands and other countries. This will prove to be useful for the next pandemic. It is certain that it will come. Scientists are still warning against this: “we are in an era now of chronic emergency“.

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