In recent weeks there has been a proliferation of articles that have drawn connections between the COVID-19 and climate change. Many have been hasty to declare the ramifications of COVID-19 on climate change, as well as what this means for our goals and targets to minimise its impacts. The truth is that nobody really knows how this will unravel. But we can choose, to some extent, how we react.
Here at Acclimatise we have been analysing the outbreak and discussing what COVID-19 means in the context of a changing climate. Our understanding of the similarities and differences between climate change and COVID-19 is evolving as we understand more about the impact of the virus on critical systems. However, through our discussions, we found that there are learnings, even now, that we can take from COVID-19 – some honest truths.
Here then, is a summary of our initial thoughts. There is no ‘going back to normal’ – but for the ‘new and evolving normal’ that we will create, there is great potential and hope.
1. COVID-19 demonstrates the challenges and implications of failing to address systemic risks. Large scale dynamic risks characterised by non-linear changes and elements of surprise are likely to dominate the 21st century. Like climate change, COVID-19 is a systemic risk that requires the simultaneous application of complex conceptual and analytical models capable of appraising multiple hazards and systems’ interdependencies in order to be fully understood. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has demonstrated the limits to our current risk management practices, which are centred on a hazard-by-hazard and fragmented appraisal of risk. And yet, as with the financial crisis in 2008 (another example of a systemic risk), COVID-19 exposes the need to develop new institutional structures, grounded in a networked understanding of complex system dynamics. We need to get better at managing systemic risk if we are to prevent further outbreaks and have a robust response to climate change.
2. Science does not give a one-word or one-number solution. Governments and businesses place great value on making science-based decisions. Yet, science can only tell us ‘what is happening’ not what we ‘should’ do – this remains a decision for our policy makers. As the science progresses, our understanding of the drivers and mechanisms of complex issues, such as climate change and COVID-19, improves, and science can provide a better understanding of the impacts that different courses of action are likely to take. Complex issues, such as climate change and COVID-19 have numerous levels of interdependency and non-linearity in their interactions. Such an array of interactions means that any hard-and-fast projection of the global condition in a few months’ time is impossible; not because the science can’t work it out, but because there are just so many possibilities. And yet, many are already pontificating about how the crisis will unfold and what the world may look like in five or six months as a result of COVID-19. The honest, uncomfortable truth, however, is that we simply don’t know how things will unfold. Trying to make projections by assigning hard values to the crisis generates an unfounded sense of confidence based on unsubstantiated forecasting.
3. Uncertainty about the future does not mean we do not know what to do. Despite clear warning signs, scientific reports and past near-miss experiences, COVID-19 has caught the world off guard. Governments were unprepared to respond to the outbreak and, in many instances, delayed critical preventive actions in fear of the negative impacts they would have on the economy. Like climate change, the initial impacts generated by COVID-19 in one side of the world hardly resonated with people located in other regions, illustrating the challenges people face when trying to grasp the dynamics of a complex problem. Whilst the future may be uncertain, we can take action now to prevent future pandemics moving in the same way, and we can introduce methods and mechanisms to system design to guard against impacts from ‘unknown unknowns’. Whilst that in itself may sound impossible, by building more resilient systems that can respond well to a variety of shocks and stressors – be they a global pandemic or a changing climate – we can build a future that is resilient in the face of uncertainty.
4. Building flexibility and adaptiveness is needed in all aspects of our society. From how countries are run to how we go from place to place in our daily lives, COVID-19 and climate change impacts are great reminders of the need to develop more elastic and responsive systems. The key lies in developing contextual understandings of the potential systems at risk, in order that we can rapidly recognise – and even anticipate – how changes will affect single or multiple parts of a system, and then being able to adjust accordingly. Therefore, rich systems intelligence is needed to develop such contextualised knowledge. This can be hard to do, especially when we talk about systems operating at multiple scales. But we can now draw on “collective intelligence”, driven by the combination of human and artificial intelligence, which can collect a great amount of data on multiple variables, map their interdependencies, and monitor and model change over time. Even in the absence of sophisticated methods, businesses and governments can easily build flexibility too. For businesses this may come, for example, in the form of a diversified portfolio of activities, suppliers and customers. Similarly, countries may seek to diversify their trading partners, stimulate growth in underdeveloped industries and build flexibility within its institutions.
5. Climate change is still the greatest threat to our planet, and any recovery plan to COVID-19 must include a response to climate change. Whilst COVID-19 impacts will eventually lessen, climate change places an increasing pressure on socio-ecological systems, and will continue to do so even more in the years to come. We should not lose sight of other challenges that lie ahead and acknowledge that, given the current situation, the transition curve to a low carbon economy may become steeper, exposing our communities to greater transition and physical climate risks. Actors engaged on climate action should regard the current experience with COVID-19 as a warning for our climate reality: we know that failure to invest in the infrastructure and systems needed to respond to change costs lives.