One irrefutable statement can be applied to today’s political, social, and economic choices, and that is: “It’s the Tomorrow, stupid.” Set into a mathematical formula form, this could be expressed as Humanity – Tomorrow = No Humanity. Environmental sustainability is what turns the equation positive. It comes from the commitment to assure future generations’ “ability to meet their own needs.” Hence, the “sustainability reporting must consist of statements about the extent to which corporations are reducing (or increasing) the options available to future generations,” as encouraged by professor Rob Gray.
The same statements must be part of any democratic election process. All political parties and electoral programs should be placed under the scrutiny of evaluating their environmental footprint by an independent institution or organization. This way, the GHG emissions and other anthropogenic causes of climate change would no longer be viewed as externalities and ‘smart-accounting’ time-space fixes whose consequences would impact generations to come. They would be made evident today and have a political, social, and economic price tag attached in the Here and Now.
If applied as a norm, this triple bottom line principle would shift the balance of power that spins around the ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ idea towards a systemic understanding of how our impact on often unexplored ecosystems and natural habitats causes (and will continue to cause) global crises. The Covid19 is a textbook example of a deep need for such understanding.
This pandemic has manifested how intertwined it is the relationship between environment, climate change, and public health. Research prior to Covid19 had already pointed out climate change as a potential factor for the emergence of pattern transitions in spatial epidemics (Wu, 2016). In other words, it alerted that climate change had big influences on biological systems, including epidemic virus and their host population structure (Sun et al., 2016).
It seems that in the world dominated by the praxis to follow science only when it is good for business, these conclusions had no practical value. The arguments that were provided contained elements of uncertainty that required practical demonstration. Et voilà! The demonstration has hit us in the face, pointing out that both climate change and Covid19 are examples of wicked problems. As such, they present challenges of high complexity where lineal solutions no longer work.
The main difference between these two wicked problems is the time frame. Covid19 is a short-term crisis whose mitigation will result from providing effective vaccines and medical treatments. On the other hand, climate change is a long-term crisis whose mitigation requires far broader engagement from all the stakeholders involved. Meaning, humanity will have to work simultaneously to find political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal solutions. That is why the Covid19 crises offer some incredibly valuable lessons regarding the dangers we face amid climate change and paths to walk while looking for solutions.
At least, from the perspective of second-order change, we now know better what not to do. We have had the real-time opportunity to witness how three basic problem-solving errors cause dysfunctional solution patterns: (a) unnecessary actions are taken to solve a problem; (b) actions are not taken that are necessary or (c) efforts to solve the problem occur at the wrong level (Fraser & Solovey, 2007).
The global 2008 financial crisis was a trial. (a) Private banks whose practices lead to crises were rescued by public funds, and the fossil fuel-based industry continued receiving massive state subsidies. (b) Root causes that underline the systemic nature of the dysfunctional relationships between economic and social structures were not addressed, which lead to increasing social inequality. (c) Most of the efforts were centered on the economic systems, while social and particularly environmental ones were left in the back.
The economy was kick-started, but the science kept providing irrefutable evidence of humanity heading into an inevitable disaster unless measures to fight climate change are taken. The 2008 economic crises gave us insights into the root causes that underline the systemic nature of the dysfunctional relationships between economic and social structures. It was a wake-up call for addressing the environment as a fundamental element of sustainable development. A call that resulted in the Paris Agreement and a glimpse of hope that humanity had finally put its priorities in order.
Ten years after the economic crises, came the second warning. But with this warning we are also given some valuable hints on ways to go. Worldwide carbon emissions have experienced the largest annual decline since the 2008 crisis. During lockdown, air quality improvement has been reported around the globe, while the death rate of COVID-19 has been found to be higher in more polluted cities. Clean energy alternatives have become more efficient, cheaper, and attractive to investors, and in some places, began to produce more power than fossil fuel-based ones. But perhaps the greatest learning experience was the demonstration that the way to sustainable global transition leads through collaborative solutions.
Covid19 pandemic is a severe manifestation of our fragility. But at the same time, it is a valuable lesson and an opportunity to avoid the third warning. We can achieve it by placing mindful consumption, eco-effective production, and active hope central to our collective goals and efforts. Ignoring it would be living as if there were no consequences. As if there was no tomorrow.