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How the Pandemic Offers Lessons for Taking on Climate Change

By Jim Witkin
Climate Change

Can the lessons learned during the pandemic be used by governments and businesses to prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change? This was the question put to a panel of experts at the recent Sustainability Week, a virtual conference sponsored by The Economist. The discussion, moderated by Daniel Franklin, an executive editor at The Economist, was far ranging but focused on a few key messages.

Respect for science and scientists

Nicholas Stern, from The London School of Economics and author of the seminal Stern Review, suggested that the experience of the pandemic has helped increase the respect for science among the general public. “People now realize that there are things which are quite complicated [like climate change] where the science nevertheless has been clear and strong, and the pandemic has been another strong example of that,” he said.

Another positive outcome from the pandemic is that scientists and medical professionals have become much more media savvy. Asked to explain complex topics to the public through countless TV appearances, they have become much better communicators with some even becoming media personalities. This acceptance for the need to become more media savvy could bolster climate scientists’ arguments as they make the case for climate action to the general public.

Greater acceptance for government action and interventions

The pandemic may have also shifted the public’s willingness to accept government intervention in response to a crisis even when it means radical changes to lifestyles, according to Sinead Lynch, U.K. Country Chair for Royal Dutch Shell.

“The fundamental case for government intervening swiftly and engaging with business and communities to really drive urgent progress when it’s needed is clearer now to the general public,” she said. This could mean the public will accept a stronger role for government intervention when it comes to addressing climate change impacts.

Seeing risks and vulnerability within the supply chain

The pandemic has shined a light on the vulnerabilities of supply chains and pushed forward the importance of risk management for businesses, said Tanya Steele, Chief Executive at WWF-UK. She described the pandemic as “a horrible and painful dress rehearsal for what potentially could come” with the impacts of climate change.

“One of the big game changers from the pandemic has been for businesses to see the risks and vulnerabilities they couldn’t even have imagined that could be magnified many times over in tackling climate change,” she added.

Not all communities are affected equally by climate change

The reality that some communities have been hit harder than others on many different levels has been another key lesson learned from the pandemic. “The pandemic showed us that we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” said Sinead Lynch.

Kevin Petty, Director of Science for IBM's The Weather Company, added, “we need to pay attention to those most vulnerable populations. Again we’ve seen disproportionate impacts on different parts of the population and that’s something that we will also see as a result of climate change and we have to consider how we address that.”

As our response to climate change offers the opportunity to move us toward a net-zero society, there will also be an unequal impact on employment opportunities in various communities, added Ms. Lynch. “We know there will be jobs created but also jobs lost, so understanding early on how that will play out and get ahead of that with skills training and investment can make the difference for a just transition,” she said.

No return to business as usual

One thing is for certain and met with universal agreement from the panel: We will not return to business as usual. We’ve fundamentally changed the way we work, the way we travel, and the way we learn. Holding this conference virtually, rather than in-person, is a clear example of this shift.  

So, will the experience of one crisis encourage organizations to do more to prepare for the next one? For the most part, the panel was optimistic that the pandemic has accelerated many of the trends needed to get to net-zero.  

At the same time, the panel acknowledged some of the differences between the two crises. For example, climate change happens more slowly and gradually and is more subject to “crisis fatigue,” so it may be harder to get people’s attention. And probably more importantly, in the words of Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, “you can’t self-isolate from climate change.”

Still, Kevin Petty from IBM concluded his remarks on a positive note: “Through the pandemic we have demonstrated the world’s capacity to respond to a major problem quickly and efficiently, there shouldn’t be anything keeping us from responding to climate change the same way.”

Image credit: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Jim Witkin headshot

Jim Witkin is a writer based in Silicon Valley and London focused on business, technology and the environment. His work has been featured in the New York Times and Guardian newspapers. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School.

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