Covid and climate change – New Zealand’s leadership role

By Professor Sir Peter Gluckman |

The challenges and opportunities of global scientific approaches to Covid-19 and climate change, including a key role for New Zealand.

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Peter Gluckman

Both the Covid-19 pandemic and anthropogenic climate change highlight challenges that cannot be solved solely at the national level. Governments have responded variably to the viral threat; some were slow to take steps to protect their citizens and some were even in denial of the need to do so. Local action is important: citizens make essential contributions to the battle when they comply with such things as social distancing, mask-wearing, and acceptance of vaccines. And Covid requires international collaboration for pandemic management, vaccine delivery, debt relief and many other down-stream consequences. Indeed, the multilateral system has been shown to be deficient: the international health regulations were not adequate.

The International Science Council’s Covid scenarios project, which I chair, has been examining the evolution of the pandemic through multiple lenses ranging from epidemiology to political science. In thinking ahead, we must recognise the close entanglement of multiple domains of wellbeing. These include the likely outcome of the dispersed arms race between viral evolution and vaccine development; Covid’s secondary effects elsewhere on the health system, especially on psychological health, the plethora of indirect impacts on social welfare and education, and both micro and macroeconomic impacts. Further, the effects of Covid have changed our understanding of resilience in supply lines. The virus may have corrosive longer-term effects on social cohesion, including impacts of the level of trust between those governed and those governing. Within the geopolitical landscape the effects are yet to be fully understood. Many governments and societies have yet to fully appreciate both the interconnectedness between all the factors mentioned above and the lessons that need to be learnt in anticipation of the next crisis.

From my perspective, Covid provides many important lessons regarding the interface between science and policy, between science and diplomacy and between science and society. Importantly, when I use the term science, I do so holistically to include all the robust knowledge disciplines across natural, medical and data areas, as well as the as the social sciences and humanities. The German word Wissenschaft is perhaps a better term.

The debate over Covid vaccine distribution highlights some of the understandable dilemmas that all governments face when dealing with a crisis of the global commons - on one hand their mandate to govern incentivises them to first focus on the national interest by promoting vaccination of their own citizens. Yet on the other, they must recognise that the pandemic will not be subdued until effective vaccines are broadly accessible and used across the whole world.

While scientists had long predicted the high likelihood of a pandemic caused by a zoonotic virus such as Covid with its global consequences, with the few exceptions being those countries that had experienced SARS, such risk assessments have remained largely ignored. Elsewhere, we have discussed the reasons why policy makers may downplay risks. These relate to the very human characteristics of cognitive biases and political incentives that continue to exhibited most obviously in regard to climate change. Citizens in many countries, for a variety of reasons, have also chosen to downplay the associated risks or to ignore the pleas for masking and vaccination. Vested and political interests as well as pernicious misinformation have both played a role in influencing some of these responses.

The next ballooning crisis is already upon us. Anthropogenic climate change continues to move at a pace exceeding many of the more extreme of earlier predictions. When one examines the issues of why progress remains slow in facing up to this, it is easy to discern the same issues that have delayed a complete response to Covid. Firstly, the same types of bias and political considerations that deferred action on pandemic preparedness in the first place persist. There was and still is a broad diversity of values and world views and interests that influence whether to and how to respond both at societal and governmental levels. And the response requires multilateral, national governmental and local and individual responses extending across many aspects of the societal and economic condition. It is that complexity that creates particular challenges.

Community priorities must change. Food production is shifting and challenges abound to secure greener energy production – coal use at a global level is not declining and even we have been importing coal. There are many existing investments and prevailing interests that must evolve. Governments must shift their range of incentives and regulations to meet this rapidly changing situation. Technology offers much hope but there will be questions about which technologies will be acceptable (eg, plant-based food replacing ruminant products). Other technologies such as carbon capture remain somewhat elusive at scale and promissory. The challenges for any country in such a miasma of issues are enormous but governments and their citizens simply must find a way ahead.

For New Zealand such issues are compounded by the state of this country’s economy, which is heavily based towards the biological industries. This challenge is exacerbated by New Zealand’s geographical position, and its relatively low investment in the obvious shifts needed to move towards a more weightless economy. What New Zealand can achieve in its own efforts to reduce emissions relates to showing moral leadership in the multilateral space. Both in Covid and in climate change, as a respected, small, cohesive society, it could take a greater leadership role in both challenges.

One component of multilateral activity that responded well in Covid has been the international science system. The global effort in both public and private sector science and their integration has been extraordinary, as witnessed by the rapid production of effective vaccines. Similarly in the climate change arena, the science community has made a major contribution in putting anthropogenic global warming front and centre in the eyes of governments and the multilateral system. They’ve done this through multiple mechanisms such as the World Climate Research programme (sponsored by the International Science Council along with the World Meteorological Organization), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When there are complex systems demanding multilevel governance from local to global, as is the case with climate change and Covid, it is not sufficient to present evidence to only one part of a governance ecosystem. The science community and its evidence brokers need to play a role not just with governments but also with communities and multilateral systems. Bottom-up initiatives can do much to help shift the needle, as has been so well demonstrated in New Zealand’s predator-free programme. But while individual choices are critical to addressing climate change, without the global community using the available science wisely and urgently, humankind faces an ugly future.

The International Science Council and its partners have been exploring what they can do to shift the direction of travel. It recognises there are still major gaps in the science of climate change, but not in the areas where much of climate change science has been focused. Rather, they are in the issues of using the available knowledge on mitigation and adaptation to achieve societal shifts. This requires new understandings, new ways of undertaking research, new ways of communicating and acting - how do we break the barriers of attitude and bias that are impeding progress. The Council is working to create a new global mechanism to target those knowledge gaps so we can make faster progress on core issues of sustainability.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman is the Director Koi Tu; the Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland; President Elect of the International Science Council; and the inaugural Chief Science Advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister from 2009 - 2018.

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