The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that the world can act with urgency to tackle a global crisis. We have seen significant changes in day-to-day behaviour and global mobility as well as the rapid development of entirely new vaccines, among many other examples. But how can we gather the lessons learned during the pandemic to help us address an arguably even bigger challenge – climate change?
A new whitepaper released today summarises the findings of a series of expert roundtables organized by Springer Nature and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) that addressed this question exactly – here we take a look at some of the highlights.
Vast global crises, such as pandemics and climate change, require new and more integrated approaches across the globe. They have consequences across all aspects of our lives, whether they affect our food security, supply chains, or public health. So in order to identify transformational solutions, we must incorporate perspectives across geographies, disciplines, and expertise. A global crisis cannot be tackled by each discipline of knowledge working in isolation, because the real world isn’t divided into siloed areas of knowledge.
“It's only interdisciplinarity that can really trace out the systemic problem of a crisis like the climate crisis and offer a real systemic resolution,” said Dr Genevieve Guenther, an expert in climate communication and fossil fuel disinformation, who took part in the roundtables and contributed to the whitepaper. “I think interdisciplinarity has the potential to really help transform our systems in the way they need to be transformed.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a massive wave of false and misleading information, breeding on the fertile ground of people’s most basic anxieties and the rapidly changing news cycle.
There are clear parallels to be drawn between the misinformation and disinformation spread about both COVID-19 and the climate crisis, but also similar solutions. The roundtables and whitepaper acknowledged this and pulled together existing literature to identify numerous solutions such as the role of scientific consensus and solution-oriented communication that avoids polarizing moral messages and focuses on the individual.
“Knowing does not replace doing”, said Dr Koko Warner, “and solutions must target and be unique to audiences as their motives to spread misinformation and the outlets they use to finance, produce, and amplify those campaigns differ.”
Addressing almost any major crisis will involve persuading the public to make significant changes to their day-to-day lives – in the case of COVID-19, this included actions such as wearing face masks and social distancing. However, while helpful, lessons learned from the pandemic do not necessarily translate directly to the climate crisis.
“It’s important to be aware of the difference in the temporality of these two threats, COVID-19 and climate,” said Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral researcher at Concordia University and roundtable participant. “So many of the behavioural changes that we could push or request for COVID-19 were only palatable because they were short term – and that doesn't really apply to climate.”
However, the roundtable discussion, summarized in the whitepaper, did pick out ideas such as identifying trendsetters and early adopters to mobilize behaviour change.
Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic highlight and exacerbate existing inequalities. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and people from racial and cultural minorities have been disproportionately impacted. We have also seen structural inequalities lead to uneven global vaccination rates.
“Often it’s those who are most vulnerable and with the least resources that are going to be impacted first and have the least capacity to adapt,” said Dr Stephen Flood, postdoctoral researcher at Maynooth University, Ireland, and roundtable contributor. “This is a big topic when considering the impacts of the climate crisis, but has proven the case with COVID-19 too.”
Our whitepaper finds that to combat entrenched inequality, solutions that engage culture and communities – especially those that lack a voice – are important. These solutions include using human rights-based approaches for data collection and analysis, using interdisciplinary teams for solution creation, and implementing disaster preparedness and education.
In drawing these lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital we listen to a diverse range of voices and bring together the expertise of multiple disciplines. We hope that this work will serve as a basis on which SDSN and Springer Nature can continue to explore the parallels and differences between COVID-19 and the climate crisis, together with our roundtable participants and global networks.
As responsible stewards of knowledge, it is our duty to find new ways to work together and identify novel and innovative solutions to the challenges already before us and to those that lie ahead.