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Covid-19 and climate change

Written By: - Date published: 10:19 am, May 3rd, 2020 - 55 comments
Categories: climate change, Economy, Environment, public transport, science, transport - Tags: ,

Things have been different recently. Auckland has been clearer and more vibrant than it has for decades. The skies are mostly blue and the forest in Titirangi has been as green as I can remember.

And life has been slower. People are buying less and driving less. Each afternoon when I have gone for my regular walk I have seen many others doing the same.

The lack of air travel is pronounced. The international barriers are well and truly up. A Luthanza air low flight over Auckland on April 10 was a particularly poignant way to remind us that things are changing.

These features, a simplified life, reduced driving and the dramatic cessation of international air travel are the sorts of measures the world has discussed for decades as being necessary if we are to avert the worst excesses of climate change.

The effects already are pronounced. Crude oil is pretty well unsalable right now with storage facilities full and the world’s normal consumption of 100 million barrels a day has plummeted. This will have a flow on effect. Canada’s tar sand industry must now be dead in the water. Good riddance. Less profitable oil rigs will be closed down hopefully for ever. And new off sea oil drilling projects will surely be shelved. OMV’s earlier announcement that it was shelving its last remaining oil and gas exploration plans in the Taranaki Basin will hopefully be the first of many to be cancelled.

Greenhouse gas generation has also taken a hit. It was estimated that for a time earlier this year China’s output of CO2 was reduced by a quarter. And Simon Evans at Carbonbrief believes that the reductions this year could be the greatest ever.

From his article:

This updated tentative estimate is equivalent to around 5.5% of the global total in 2019. As a result, the coronavirus crisis could trigger the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war.

Even this would not come close to bringing the 1.5C global temperature limit within reach. Global emissions would need to fall by some 7.6% every year this decade – nearly 2,800MtCO2 in 2020 – in order to limit warming to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures.

To put it another way, atmospheric carbon levels are expected to increase again this year, even if CO2 emissions cuts are greater still. Rising CO2 concentrations – and related global warming – will only stabilise once annual emissions reach net-zero.

Subsequent IEA analysis suggests that this year’s reduction could be as high as 8%.

Congratulations World, it looks like this year at least we have given ourselves some breathing space.

But it took a global pandemic to achieve this. And we are going to have to repeat these reductions year after year for the next decade to ameliorate rather than avoid the effects of climate change.

Weka analysed Greenpeace’s request for a Green Covid response in this earlier post. The proposals are all worthy contenders for inclusion.

Which is why the Government’s listing and fast tracking of “shovel ready” projects is so important. To create employment it is preparing to spend large amounts of money quickly getting a variety of construction projects under way.

From Radio New Zealand:

Cabinet has approved the fast tracking of large shovel ready projects, largely by-passing the Resource Management Act.

The announcement this morning, from Environment Minister David Parker, comes as the government continues to identify projects which could be begin sooner with a large injection of public money.

The aim is to boost the economy as it enters a sharp downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The new act, due to be passed in June, would take away the ability of the public and councils to have an input in to whether projects proceed and instead hand this power to small panels of experts, chaired by an Environment Court judge.

Parker said the sorts of projects that would benefit from quicker consenting included roading, walking and cycling, rail, housing, sediment removal, new wetland construction, flood management works, and projects to prevent landfill erosion.

Parker said projects that include transport, environmental benefits, and housing will be prioritised under the plan.

The Government is concentrating on job rich construction proposals in its list of projects it wishes to accelerate. There are plenty of job rich projects that are also creating climate resilient futures. The Waitakere Ranges Local Board’s Greenways plan is one.

Transport has not been an issue during the Covid-19 lockdown. Streets have been empty and congestion a thing of the past. The only demand has been for safer walking and cycling facilities and in getting ready for a post carbon world these should be prioritised.

I can imagine an intense battle in Cabinet right now between those with an environmental bent and those (looking at you Shane Jones) who love roads.

I hope the environmentalists win. If we a a country are going to do our bit in reducing our carbon output by 8% a year for the next decade then they have to succeed.

55 comments on “Covid-19 and climate change ”

  1. Adrian 1

    Is that fair on Shane Jones, all he seems to be after is equity for those areas like Northland and Gisborne to have the same access to roads and railways that are fit for purpose, safer and of the standard of more fortunate areas.

  2. Maurice 2

    Institute permanent lock down for all 'non-essential' persons

    Vigorously institute full euthanasia and abortion practices to reduce population

    The legislation is already there …….

    P.S. Only Green politicians are 'essential' …..

    [lprent: On this site people are to be regarded as being essential. Well apart from those whose behaviour marks them out as trolls, and euthanasia enthusiasts like you. They’re essentially both non-essential and deserve punishment that fits their crimes. It is going to be interesting what happens when you get past your small honeymoon. Please read the policy, and note the section on self-martyrdom offenses. This is your warning. ]

  3. I know Guy McPherson is persona non grata around here, but he said in an opinion piece that an economic downturn would accelerate climate change because:

    1) there are already several decades of Co2 up in the atmosphere still to have an effect and

    2) the masking effect of industrial pollution would be gone.

    Can't find the reference, sorry.
    Not sure if I agree with him (or what to think to be honest) but just putting this up to be shot down.

    • barry 3.1

      It is expected that there will be a short term warming from reduced pollution (especially jet contrails) and hysteresis in the weather systems, but over time (if emission reductions persist) the reduced level of CO2 should predominate and slow warming.

    • lprent 3.2

      https://www.skepticalscience.com/co2-residence-time.htmCan't be bothered looking it up. Who is Guy McPherson and why should I want or not want to listen to him?

      But his first point is just bullshit. The average residence time of a CO2 molecule in the atmosphere is about 4 to 5 years. Now admittedly, what you get is a swap from water – usually ocean. However it could be decades or even centuries since that went into the water system. And of course we've been adding extra fossil carbon into that for centuries.

      So in the short-term, CO2 levels in the atmosphere will fall if there is a permanent reduction, but then they'll start rising again to reflect the previous stupidity of adding CO2 to the oceans.

      The second one is more relevant but problematic. I'm assuming he is talking about particulate pollution rather than gases. But that is regional and an effect largely confined to low altitudes. Mostly if you're in some smallish areas in the northern hemisphere, where cloud formation is triggered by particulate pollution at low levels in the atmosphere – you'll get warmer at the surface because more sunlight is getting through. But overall the retained heat effect inside the whole atmosphere isn't any different because you were getting that heat anyway from reflections between the smog and the usual cloud layers.

      Remember that the only thing to look at there is the amount of energy escaping back to space. Munters use the 'common-sense' approach – but since they are terrestrial beings of the lower atmosphere – they have no common-sense for atmospheric nuances. So their usual analogy is looking at the albedo effects of ice surfaces with clear air above them – but outside of the poles and deserts this is rare. Most places have multiple layers of cloud of varying levels of opacity. Most of that higher level cloud doesn't appear to get formed by particulate pollution down in the bottom kilometres of the atmosphere..

      Offhand the only loss of heat from a particulate effect I can think of (outside of volcanoes) would be from having fewer aircraft flying. The cruising altitude of passenger jets is at about 10km or so above sealevel. More sunlight and heat created at that layer of the atmospheric column will cause less generated heat further down the atmospheric column. So if everything stops flying, then a few years (residence time up there is pretty long – look at volcanic effects) , there will more energy getting lower in the column.

  4. RedLogix 4


    While I totally understand the motives you're writing with here, and they're all good, the conclusion "I hope the environmentalists win" is insufficient at best.

    Given that our economies (from a global perspective, which is the only one that matters here) are still linked to fossil fuel use, then if the greenies do indeed win, you are arguing for reductions in economic activity in the order of 25 – 50% in order to achieve any meaningful or useful CO2 reductions.

    If you are going to vote against human development, then you need to acknowledge this also votes for unwinding all the social gains of the past 200 years. If we are going to unwind back to pre-industrial, photosynthesis only economies (which is what unwinding fossil fuel use implies) then I'd argue it's highly probably we'd also regress to the social mores and customs that prevailed in those eras. There is every reason to expect chattel slavery to return for instance.

    Imagine the environmentalists do win, and begin locking in the economic shutdown of the past few months permanently. In what world do you imagine the human development ramifications of this will go unchallenged?

    • Sacha 4.1

      reductions in economic activity in the order of 25 – 50% in order to achieve any meaningful or useful CO2 reductions

      Changing the type of activity does not mean killing the economy. Does require overturning current patterns of wealth accumulation and what counts as valuable, sure.

    • pat 4.2

      Some very emotive assumptions there.

      I doubt even you would argue that the purposes of much of that activity is useful in any way other than providing private profit and/or employment…..nor does an "environmentalist win" preclude human development, though hopefully it will reprioritise it.

      While fossil fuels may currently be the basis of our production that dosnt mean we cannot use that fuel to transition to a means of production that does not (certainly to any unsustainable degree) require it…indeed logic suggests we must do such for the alternative is to waste that energy on fripperies instead of your oft promoted progress.

      Not to mention its suicidal not to.

      • RedLogix 4.2.1

        I'm not disposed to argue against opportunities to better organise the economic life of the top golden 1b. We can indeed be more efficient and we could direct our energies to more socially valuable purposes.

        But our historically remarkable standard of living is nonetheless entwined with our industrial economies. Hand waving off this fundamental link is wishful thinking, sustained only because so many people really have little personal experience with the massive complex of materials and technologies that underpin it.

        For instance, next time you are at the dentist, look about with a thoughtful eye and contemplate just a few of the many objects that make this treatment safe, painless and effective. And then if you can think about extraordinary chain of human endeavour that made each one of these objects possible.

        And they all require energy.

        • pat

          indeed they do….and nobody ( effectively) is arguing for a return to the dark ages rather a much more efficient and effective use of those resources we have….something laissez faire (market economy) has proven itself incapable of.

          • RedLogix

            rather a much more efficient and effective use of those resources we have

            If you pre-suppose a fixed amount of resource, then whether it's consumed fast or slowly, merely changes the date at which you consume them all.

            At that point you are back to the photosynthesis Dark Ages anyway.

            • pat

              Of course it changes the date at which they are consumed….thats the point.

              Does humanity wish to have a short term or a long term future? (even if you wish to ignore the environmental impacts)

              • RedLogix

                Whether we crawl slowly to the precipice of energy extinction, or madly rush over it, the terminal fall is the same.

                In my view humanity has no worthwhile, meaningful future of any kind, if go through all of this, merely to arrive back at the Dark Ages.

                • pat

                  "Whether we crawl slowly to the precipice of energy extinction, or madly rush over it, the terminal fall is the same"

                  That is where your logic deserts you….we dont know what we dont know.

                  We currently are incapable of solving this crisis but who knows what we may discover in the future (if we have one)….maximum efficiency provides one thing we cannot manufacture nor buy…time.

                  Or we can rush headlong over the cliff…our choice.

                  • RedLogix

                    Nowhere have I advocated bau ‘rushing over the cliff’. Scaling back our excesses may well buy useful time.

                    But for what?

                    In terms of energy there are only three options we know of. The immediate one is extending solar and wind renewables, but with a clear eyed sense of their limitations. The medium term is next generation nuclear fission; highly achievable and well understood, but faces almost insurmountable and irrational political hurdles. And longer term we should continue to work to crack the nuclear fusion puzzle, but while everyone loves the principle, it's by no means a certain bet we can make it work in global, real world settings.

                    And yes you're entitled to hope for another altogether different energy option, but while a positive constructive outlook is one thing, pure hopium is quite another.

                    • pat

                      there is one thing we do know for certain….what we are doing is suicidal on many levels….everything else can be as you describe "hopium"

                      What do you prefer?

                    • RedLogix

                      I've outlined the constructive options open to us above. It's not a case of what I prefer, it's what can be achieved.

                    • pat

                      What you have outlined are political choices….as we live in a democracy it is indeed a case of what you prefer

            • Poission

              At that point you are back to the photosynthesis Dark Ages anyway.

              Since life both simple cells and photosynthesis has been operating on earth,the sun (independently) has increased its output by around 30%,the increase in photosynthetic radiation,has resulted in a decrease in the earth surface temperature.

              Not all climate fixes are mechanical engineering,we also need to look at land use changes,and sink efficiencies (the later being a fast rectifier)

              • Andre

                Gee, I wonder what else changed during that time the sun's output increased and temperatures decreased? Could it possibly be that thing that has suddenly recently started massively increasing again that is very closely correlated with recently rising temperatures again?

                • Poission

                  Missed the point again,you cannot look at emissions only,without looking at potentials in the sink capacity ie the ability to remove co2,without the use of FF,and LUC.

                  The role of chance (and opportunity ) are also often looked,for example when we look back in time,the obvious analogous state was the Pliocene.

                  Here we see a divergent branching in the tree of life with two near related species of Australopithecus ,One suffered from a biological invasion,causing arthritis and had to become a ground dweller,the other became extinct.

                  The emergent ground dweller also needed to be able to adapt to climate change,where Co2,and temperatures (along with spreading of savanna and decrease in forests) were similar to today.In addition nearby supernovas and reduced the ozone layer,so they (lucy and here daughters) had to adapt to increased UV.One adaption was to stand upright (reducing exposure and decreasing water loss,)

          • Drowsy M. Kram

            RedLogix advocates the hyper-energisation of human society – he envisions a future where available clean energy is a modest ten times current global generation, opening the current paradise of the ‘golden billion‘ to all.

            There's no denying it's a seductive dream of transformation, not the least because it requires no sacrifice, sharing or other (behavioural) changes on the part of the golden billion. I'm just not sure that 'more' is the answer; maybe it really is possible to have too much of a good thing?

            Policy design for the Anthropocene
            Today, more than ever, ‘Spaceship Earth’ is an apt metaphor as we chart the boundaries for a safe planet. Social scientists both analyse why society courts disaster by approaching or even overstepping these boundaries and try to design suitable policies to avoid these perils. Because the threats of transgressing planetary boundaries are global, long-run, uncertain and interconnected, they must be analysed together to avoid conflicts and take advantage of synergies. To obtain policies that are effective at both international and local levels requires careful analysis of the underlying mechanisms across scientific disciplines and approaches, and must take politics into account. In this Perspective, we examine the complexities of designing policies that can keep Earth within the biophysical limits favourable to human life.

            • pat

              Too much of a good thing?…perhaps.

              I have my views on what is likely and/or desirable in the future as does everyone (including RL) but I reiterate any future vision requires us first getting there….we can then look back and say 'told you so' or 'didnt expect that' then.

              If we're lucky.

            • RedLogix

              I like that word 'hyper-energisation'. I'm just so going to have to steal it. wink

              There's no denying it's a seductive vision of transformation, not the least because it requires no sacrifice, sharing or other (behavioural) changes on the part of the golden billion.

              I'm happy to engage with that theme at length if you wish, and the observant will have noted I've been quietly doing that here for years. With probably only limited success, but hell you have to start somewhere.

              The short answer is yes, you are absolutely right on that point. The medium sized version explores the relationship between technological change and social change and how the two are interdependent both driving each other in positive feedback loops.

              The much longer version explores themes of universality, trustworthiness, and the nature of the sanctified society. But please not on this thread … smiley

        • Robert Guyton

          The next time you're at the dentist, think about sugar…

          • Incognito

            Sugar in itself does not cause tooth decay. Many healthy foods contains sugar (carbohydrates), which can cause plague build up and acid attacks on your enamel, which is mainly responsible for tooth decay.

    • mickysavage 4.3

      Thanks RL but I am more afraid about what happens if the Environmentalists lose …

      This feels like jumping off a cliff and hoping to glide down and landing on a 20c piece. Missing it is not an option …

  5. Ad 5

    I am really disappointed by this government getting ready to circumvent the existing Resource Management Act.

    I am particularly disappointed that it is Minister Parker leading the charge.

    I get that people want to get the diggers going, and we need to employ thousands more people within months, not a year or two. That is big.

    But fact is, if a major project gets appealed these days from the 95% of proposals that don't, well they probably should kill it right there. And they know it.

    It is wrong to relegate the role of the judiciary, wrong to minimise scrutiny from the public, and wrong to break decades of precedent that the RMA has produced. The RMA is in many ways the closest citizens get to a second chamber of parliamentary scrutiny.

    There are plenty of ways to really speed up these processes that don't require changing the law. These include:
    – when a large project sets up an ongoing committee dialogue with a Council consenting team to closely rehearse every element,
    – setting up a Kaitiaki Engagement group well before hearings and
    – a stakeholder group before the court requires you to so you know exactly what they want before it's evidence,
    – involving likely opponents in the concept design,
    – call-in procedures,
    – doing the optioneering in parallel with the consent hearings,
    – other actual smart stuff that eliminates the threat of appeals from locals putting the guilts on you so you chuck a few mil their way in mitigation responses.

    This RMA reform move looks like precisely the crap Labour criticised National for when the reformed the RMA themselves. Hypocritical and dumb.

    This infrastructure spend from government is getting closer and closer to the kind of Ministerial thumb-suck command-and-control government you see in much weaker sates like Papua New Guinea or Fiji.

    • Sacha 5.1

      Labour were quite ready to change the RMA when they came into office – see Twyford's public statements agreeing with Act that land usage regulations were a major barrier to affordable housing (ignoring financial factors etc). At least unlike the Nats they are not proposing to throw away the Act's principles or all the case law.

      • Sacha 5.1.1

        Though Winston First do love them some 1970s pork-barrelling free of pesky regulations.

    • Dennis Frank 5.2

      Yeah but, Ad, it ain't just rightists who have been chafing at the bureaucratic stranglehold. Plenty of folk have seen that problem for years. Latest example: masks etc. Govt ministers telling us on the headline news how many thousand are available, already in our system, followed by clinic staff & public testifying that they can't get them. Distribution by bureaucrats. Checkmate.

      • Incognito 5.2.1

        I can’t see anything in Ad’s comment about bureaucracy and I have tried. In any case, it think it is lazy and simplistic labelling. Unless you mean by “bureaucratic stranglehold” issues with efficient and effective logistics and communication within and across a distributed network in which power, control, and responsibility are part-delegated. The pandemic response has highlighted issues with coordination between the 20 DHBs; PPE and flu shots are symptoms (outcomes) thereof.

        • Dennis Frank

          It was a reference to the perennial complaint of business about the RMA, as featured in media/headlines regularly for more years than I care to remember. I did agree with Palmer's original rationale, but there have been sufficient intstances of bureaucratic over-reach (little hitler syndrome) in the intervening years to open my mind to the possibility of sensible reform.

          The surgical strike through bureaucracy's red-tape gordian knot seems an heroic use of the govt scalpel, but time will tell how wise it is. I still rate Parker quite highly so I have interim faith in the intelligence of his design…

          • Incognito

            Parker is just one person and the State is a machinery with many cogs, as we have seen with MoH over the past month or so. He could be just one mountain-bike ride away from losing his portfolio, all we know. For example, Shane Jones may hold it in the next Government, who knows. I’m quite concerned about the possible implications this may have for (re-)zoning of land and urban boundaries, etc. Imagine if National leads the next Government; they will have a field day. It would also mean we would have a different ‘gatekeeper’. Who appoints the panel of expert? I also wonder about capacity issues. I believe these were also plaguing KiwiBuild. It looks like concentrating power closer to central government and the big end of town. It may have a ‘good’ rationale but it may also have many (?) unintended consequences.

            AFAIK, your example of PPE has got nothing to do with the RMA or businesses constantly complaining about it and is a false equivalence at more than one level IMO.

            • Dennis Frank

              AFAIK, your example of PPE has got nothing to do with the RMA or businesses constantly complaining about it and is a false equivalence at more than one level IMO.

              So you have yet to encounter analogic thinking?? There's a wikipedia page you could peruse…

              Or reflect on the fact that bureaucracy frustrates the intent of legislators at many levels of governance, and plenty of folks see the general pattern. And I agree with you about that other stuff.

    • RedBaronCV 5.3

      Disappointed that's very moderate of you- I'm closer to furious. Looks like we can see that Labour's changes are all going to skew towards the big business end of town. We've all done the hard yards willingly because it's in our own interests. Looks like only the few interests get to design the next step.

      The public frequently make some pretty decent suggestions but apart from that some shovel ready projects could do with some basic reassessment or being put on hold because the underlying game that made them useful has changed. Roads to airports would be high on the list.

      There are projects around Wellington ( & some major changes being sort by the council to make some areas developer heaven) that have been successfully fought off over decades because they are basically useless or there are better options not favoured by the local property developers.

    • RedBaronCV 5.4

      And is this likely to deal with one of the housing constraints in that land that has been rezoned as residential has been hoarded by the few with the profits from the rezoning being privatised rather than used to install the infrastructure that the area needs?

      That's likely to be a "no".

  6. Sacha 6

    The Government is concentrating on job rich construction proposals in its list of projects it wishes to accelerate.

    Big roading projects are far from 'job rich'. Expensive machinery replaces human labour. One reason financiers love that sort of project.

  7. Andre 7

    Well, we've dropped the easy discretionary activities down to a small fraction of what they were and achieved an emissions reduction of … drumroll…5% to 8%. That takes us back to where emissions were in what – 2010? 2005? The remaining emissions come from maintaining even a fairly minimal pared-back lifestyle – it's from food, shelter, electricity, water etc and the infrastructure that makes it possible.

    So, are we all going to go with the anarcho-primitivist ideal and keep paring back further and further and keep progressively giving up things and activities that make life enjoyable? Most people would be utterly shocked at how much paring back would have to be done, coupled with a dramatic population reduction, in order to turn around climate change.

    Or do we recognise the enormity of the task in front of us and hop to it to decarbonise our technological – industrial infrastructure? There's easy ones to fully achieve first, such as de-emissioning our electricity supply and land transport sectors, but that shouldn't slow us down from cracking on with more difficult sectors like industrial process heat, food production, shipping, what little might remain of long-haul air travel.


    • pat 7.1

      It is worth recognising that those projections (and that is all they are) are annual, on the back of approximately 6-8 weeks effect….what would the reduction be if that effect was for the full 52 weeks?

      • Andre 7.1.1

        Go ahead and look at it that it's really a 30% plus (pick a number) reduction if we all stayed at our currently reduced level.

        It's still a diversion from the point that all the excess lifestyle choices that have currently been pared back are only a small part of the problem.

        • pat

          depends upon your definition of small…and not all excesses (or their underlying supply) has been removed…indeed the lag effect will be pronounced….airlines are a good examples to examine, yes they are largely grounded but many flights continue for say repatriation etc and a number of those flights are near empty….once the repatriations have been completed will air miles raise or lower?…have super yachts stopped sailing?…are factories still producing millions of 'happy meal' toys?…I'd suggest much 'inefficient' energy use continues unabated, especially given the short period to date (it may feel like forever but it is a blip so far in production terms)….and then there is vehicle use, reduced, yes but still highly carbon emitting….and we've seen what happens as the restrictions relax….all variables that make drawing conclusions from a projection problematic.

    • RedLogix 7.2

      Most people would be utterly shocked at how much paring back would have to be done, coupled with a dramatic population reduction, in order to turn around climate change.

      Thank you; that needs saying over and over.

      And that only applies to the top golden 1b people on earth; how do we face the other 7b or so and tell them they have to remain poor?

      I've not been hammering this point here for months, just to make myself unpopular. My love of the natural world started as a young man, was born as I tramped and climbed about the NZ wilderness. Those experiences have only become sharper and more meaningful to me as I get older.

      I've looked at current pictures of the Godley Glacier, contemplated how I travelled over this terrain in my own lifetime, and then compared the modern view with despair.

      I first read about climate science in the late 70's while sitting in a Physics Dept tearoom reading New Scientist. And then asking a real geo-physicist what it might mean. Not a lot has fundamentally changed in the intervening years from his brief and blunt summation.

      Then I've watched this profoundly deep science story alternatively hijacked and tainted by political extremists of all types. I've seen the question of overpopulation used as a thin veil covering up for some deeply anti-human, nihilistic sentiments. I've seen people reducing this most global of all stories to dull nationalistic boundaries, in the hope that the full implications of what this means for humanity can be conveniently ignored. Yet I remain hopeful because all other alternatives have been tried and proven worse.

      Put bluntly, we must both de-carbonise AND accelerate human development at the same time. Both are necessary, neither is sufficient without the other.

  8. barry 8

    Given that the RMA forbids consideration of climate change effects it needs amendment anyway. If the new act includes a statement about initiatives being aligned with the government climate goals (and clean water etc) it could be an improvement. Need to see the details.

  9. This year's largest ever annual fall of 8% in CO2 emissions would get offset by the largest ever increase in CO2 emissions in 2021 or even in the 2nd half of 2020. The government would not budge until a COVID-19 like pandemic happen with the environment.

  10. Hope this crisis never comes again.

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