Associate Professor Simon Hales
Living in 21st century New Zealand, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that human societies are embedded in a planetary ecosystem, upon which all life on Earth ultimately depends.
Human cleverness beguiles us into believing that technology will always provide the answers to human needs. But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought home the fundamental fragility of human societies. Globalization has made us more interconnected and interdependent than ever before. In recent decades, increases in economic activity, in human population, and inequality have pushed global life support systems beyond their design limits.
A wicked pair
Global climate change and pandemics share some important characteristics. Both are “wicked” problems with potentially severe consequences and high policy uncertainty. Both involve delayed effects and the risk of positive feedbacks which demand anticipatory action. In the case of Covid-19, the consequences of a delayed policy response are becoming tragically clear. Once the virus is sufficiently established in the community, it is difficult or impossible to prevent exponential growth of the infection which can overwhelm health systems and cause thousands of premature deaths.
Responding in unity
The policy responses to the threat have varied in their timeliness and success, but have been remarkable in their extent. In New Zealand and elsewhere, the degree of public unity in the face of unprecedented restrictions on personal freedoms has been inspiring.
We need a similar degree of unity within and between countries if we are to avoid the worst effects of global climate change. This threat has a different timescale, over decades and centuries rather than days and weeks. But as with Covid, our scientific models tell us that a grim future is inevitable if we do not act. Covid was already an emergency in December 2019 – it’s just that we didn’t recognize it until much later. In the same way, climate change is already an emergency. The effects of our greenhouse gas emissions are already being felt, but the full effects will be delayed over century timescales.
Addressing threats on time
As Covid-19 forces us to rethink the fundamentals of human societies, we need to turn disaster into opportunity. What do we value? What is essential to our wellbeing as a species, and for all life? Everyone is entitled to food, clean air and water, shelter and human compassion. These are the true necessities, which cannot be denied to any without risking stability for all.
Existential global threats – poverty, food and water insecurity, pandemics, climate change, biodiversity loss – share underlying drivers. These problems can be addressed simultaneously, but first need to be widely recognized and acted upon. There is hope for a sustainable and just future, but as Covid-19 has painfully reminded us, there is such a thing as being too late.
Associate Professor Simon Hales is an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Otago, Wellington.
Photo by Li-An Lim/Unsplash