As with climate change, the COVID-19 health crisis will not affect everyone equally. The pandemic will likely intensify threats posed by extreme weather events. People with ill health and comorbidities, the homeless or underhoused, as well as those from a gradient of socioeconomic groups with difficulty coping financially, mentally, or physically, will become even more vulnerable. Yet, even with global economies in disarray and healthcare systems being overburdened – a new call to action, one involving transformative changes in the interest of public good, is starting to reverberate.
As with extreme climate, the current health crisis will expose the dangers of ignoring experts and data. For decades, scientists have cautioned that the climate crisis would act as “a threat amplifier” – exacerbating other risks, such as terrorism, forced migration, and ailing infrastructure. And yet there’s been little serious planning or deliberation of what these amplifications might look like and how to successfully mitigate their effects. Although the resilience of cities in response to natural disasters and long-term climate change has been a focus of academic and policy attention – it has a long way to go in instituting the interconnectedness of urban and natural systems.
Both the coronavirus and the climate crisis are urgent global health emergencies. COVID-19 is a public health emergency caused by a new virus, SARS-CoV-2, which is already prevalent and spreading rapidly. Whereas climate change is a slow onset public health emergency, worsened by sudden events such as extreme weather, seismic events, or wildfires. Despite alternative beliefs in the origins or causes of either the coronavirus or climate change, scientific evidence is pointing toward an environmental origin and the interconnectedness of environmental health and human well-being. Across the globe, we have caused irreparable harm to the natural world. Severe biodiversity loss, disruptive human-animal interactions, and the instrumental valuation of nature’s contribution to people – have destroyed the ecosystem services that we so heavily depend on.
Thus, when looking beyond surviving the current crisis, we need to acknowledge the need for a new normal. Addressing climate change and justly recovering from COVID-19 depend on new approaches that build on and enhance nature and the benefits we derive from nature, instead of eroding it. Our systems need to strive for sustainability, resiliency, and, more importantly – inclusivity. The challenge will be to formally put in place and to scale up the positive changes that are already occurring (e.g., flexible global supply chains, increased compensation for essential workers, and changes in how productivity is perceived). Achieving any sort of radical transformation will depend largely on:
1) Collective action – not only a stronger sense of community but also the ability to jointly conceive of, prepare for, and carry out change within and across multiple systems.
2) Transformative leadership – that is embedded within communities, and that builds on social capital that enables networking across governance settings while being well-rooted in place (see how Amsterdam plans to use the “doughnut” model).
3) Shared visions – having positive visions of sustainability, resilience, and equity in place can allow for “windows of opportunities” – opportunities to improve human well-being and environmental conditions. “Windows of opportunities” can arise when a positive vision of a sustainability transition has been developed prior to a disaster, and its uptake is enabled by the disaster (see co-produced visions for nine US and Latin American cities).
Above all, radical transformation will require forward-leaning thinking, planning not only for the amplifying nature of slow and fast disasters, but also for the intricate links between societal well-being and the well-being of the natural systems on which it depends.