COVID-19 has rapidly changed the world we live in, as governments rightly prioritize our safety and wellbeing and ask us all to stay home. One of the upshots, for those of us lucky enough to be well, is that we now have plenty of time to reflect. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has spent time in lockdown thinking about what the new, but hopefully temporary, world order means for the climate and environmental crisis.
I’ve been noticing, in particular, many analogies between the two crises. Here are three of the biggest:
Coronavirus has cut emissions faster than years of climate negotiations. Does the outbreak reveal what life might be like if we were to act seriously on climate change? Or what it might be like if we don’t?
China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluter, has no plans to cut its emissions anytime soon. Under its Paris Agreement pledges, Beijing has promised to hit peak emissions by 2030. So for the next decade, they’re only going to go up.
Yet suddenly, this colossal, coal-powered economy has slashed emissions by 25%, according to numbers crunched by Lauri Myllyvirta at the University of Helsinki’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Not because of the climate crisis, but the COVID-19 public health emergency.
COVID-19 is the latest example of how human impact on biodiverse areas and wildlife habitats is linked to the spread of infectious diseases.
The scientific consensus, on the other hand, is that the virus — SARS-CoV-2 — is a zoonotic disease that jumped from animal to human. It most likely originated in a bat, possibly before passing through another mammal.
While the virus was certainly not engineered in a laboratory, this doesn’t mean we haven’t played a role in the current pandemic. Human impingement on natural habitats, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are making virus spillover events much more likely, a major new study from scientists in Australia and the US has found.
Why should nature be preserved and protected? This question is often answered from an instrumental or an intrinsic position (Tallis and Lubchenco, 2014). The fundamental postulate of the intrinsic perspective is that biological diversity has a value of its own, regardless of the potential use or benefit for humans. Species have value because of their pure existence, and this value is seen as inviolable (Soulé, 1985; Sandler, 2012). In terms of the instrumental point of view, the focus is on ecosystem services for the protection of nature. Instrumentalists argue that this beneficial approach is more effective than an intrinsic value of nature (Reid et al., 2006). Furthermore, the protection of nature for its own good is considered as outdated and impractical (Soulé, 2013). A weakness of the instrumental view is the existence of natural things that have little or no value to humans. For this reason, intrinsic values should not be disregarded. However, instrumental arguments are more often effective for the general public and should, therefore, be used in contexts where conservation is crucial (Tallis and Lubchenco, 2014).
It’s a rare day when the news doesn’t cover something related to climate change, whether biodiversity loss, climate refugees, retreating glaciers, or an extreme weather event. Though it’s broadly accepted that climate change is caused by “us,” at some level, we often assume the solutions are covered and controlled by experts, especially natural scientists, engineers, national governments, and international organizations. In that sense, climate change is not in our hands, even as it lies at our feet. Another tendency of the daily climate change reminders is to suggest that we are all in this together. That this is a global challenge, and that we stand shoulder to shoulder in a global lifeboat, collectively imperiled by climate change.
These are oversimplifications.
And they boil down to five problematic “reductionisms.” In academese, we term these disciplinary, participatory, experiential, teleological, and species reductionisms.
In the climate change debate, we often hear the argument that the climate has been changing since time immemorial. This is true, but if modern climate change differs from pre-historic climate cycles, the statement by itself is empty. We need to know how modern climate change compares with that of the past.
Geological observations and computer climate-models have revealed the basic controls and responses involved in past climate variability. This is how we know that the climate has always varied. We also know that this happened because of small changes in the forcing of climate that resulted from long-term changes in Earth’s orbital position around the Sun, small changes in the actual solar output, and occasional injection of volcanic dust veils into the atmosphere. These small triggers could result in large climate responses because of feedback processes.
Global efforts to prepare young developing minds for solving current and future challenges of climate change have advocated interdisciplinary, issues-based instructional approaches in order to transform traditional models of science education as delivering conceptual facts (UNESCO, 2014). This study is an exploration of the online interactions in an international social network of high school students residing in Norway, China, New Zealand and the United States (N=141). Students participated in classroom-based and asynchronous online discussions about adapted versions of seminal scientific studies with facilitative support from seven scientists across various fields. Grounded in a language-in-use frame for investigating facilitation and demonstrations of problem-based and evidence-based reasoning (Kelly & Chen, 1999), we traced the varied questions, assertions, and evidentiary sources within student-led online discussions. We found that questions from scientific experts in the form of unconstrained, open-ended invitations for exploration were followed by students’ acknowledgment and consideration of complex and, at times, conflicting sociopolitical and economic positions about climate change issues. These findings suggest that broadening science classroom discussions to include socially relevant, unsolved issues like climate change could open potential entry points for a dialogic approach that fosters a scientific community in the classroom.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate are the key international agreements to deliver a sustainable future. They are a compromise between the scientifically necessary and politically possible to achieve global sustainability. Agreed in 2015, they constitute a radical departure for the international policy with no precedents and are beginning to shape national policy, civil society, and business decisions. We argue that these new frameworks represent the most important institutional innovation to emerge in recent years. They mark a shift away from international rule-making towards a system based on goal setting. This reflects a theory of societal steering or what we commonly think of as governance that differs sharply from mainstream regulatory systems by Pauwelyn et al. (Eur J Int Law 24:733–763, 2014). Given that achieving the Paris Agreement and the SDGs will require the transformation of societies at all levels, it remains unclear how existing instruments, policies, and even institutions will adapt to this new global governance strategy. The key to success, we argue, will be “action coherence”, whereby actions initiated to fulfill individual SDGs are coherent across efforts to achieve the full set of SDGs over the long run.
Climate change can threaten species and extinctions can impact ecosystem health. It is therefore of vital importance to assess to which degree animals can respond to changing environmental conditions – for example by shifting the timing of breeding – and whether these shifts enable the persistence of populations in the long run. To answer these questions an international team of 64 researchers led by Viktoriia Radchuk, Alexandre Courtiol and Stephanie Kramer-Schadt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) evaluated more than 10,000 published scientific studies. The results of their analysis are worrisome: Although animals do commonly respond to climate change, such responses are in general insufficient to cope with the rapid pace of rising temperatures and sometimes go in wrong directions. The results are published in the scientific journal “Nature Communications”.
Read also: Adaptive responses of animals to climate
change are most likely insufficient