Since January 2020, COVID-19 has dramatically changed everyday life for people all across the world. Now we face multiple challenges to fight against a virus and recover from an economic crash. Both of these challenges are set against the backdrop of a climate emergency and systemic social inequities.
In the face of rising COVID-19 fatalities, record-high unemployment, and public demonstrations, we urgently need a way to recover our physical, social, and economic well-being. As we search for answers, we also need to ask: “Can the world afford to pay attention to climate change and the broader sustainability agenda at this time?
According to the McKinsey Quarterly, “we simply cannot afford to do otherwise.” In its April 2020 report, McKinsey authors make the case that post-pandemic recovery depends on a key climate strategy — strengthening our economic and environmental resiliency.
Now is the time
The pandemic is a window into the scale of disruption we can expect from unchecked climate change. The risks of the pandemic and climate change are “physical shocks” to human society that require “understanding and addressing the underlying physical causes.” Both risks create wide-spread impacts across communities; multiplying weaknesses in existing financial, healthcare, and economic systems that disproportionately affect vulnerable communities.
Where COVID-19 contagion risk plays out over weeks and months, climate change risks emerge gradually over a much longer period. Climate change risks also have cumulative effects that multiply a range of economic, social, and environmental risks — including conditions for more pandemics.
Yet the answer to both risks is the same: Prioritize long-term resilience in addition to short-term action; and mobilize large-scale solutions with new levels of cooperation.
Can the pandemic lead to opportunities for climate action? In three short months, it has shown big change can happen quickly as communities, workplaces, markets, and supply chains adapt to new conditions. This rapid change has demonstrated the value of scientific expertise in responding to systemic challenges. It has also renewed awareness of the government’s role as protector of public health. These factors combined with historically low interest rates, and community goals to invest in sustainable resilient infrastructure, lay the groundwork for local job creation.
The next ten years are critical. Individuals, governments, businesses, and civil society all have essential roles to play in creating systemic change.
What can we do?
When it comes to the public sector, the McKinsey report cites four levers governments can use to ensure the recovery is strong and resilient in the long term:
- Establish protocols to assess climate risk and its economic impacts.
- Invest economic recovery funds in climate solutions such as clean energy infrastructure, power grid resiliency, building and transportation electrification, and technologies to decarbonize heavy industry.
- Revisit fossil-fuel subsidy programs.
- Create alignment and collaboration capable of producing systemic and global solutions.
We recommend adding a fifth lever to the list: Integrating equity into all recovery and climate initiatives. By making sure everyone benefits from a resilient recovery, we can start to address the systemic social inequities which have become more visible during the pandemic and recent public demonstrations.
So how can we use these levers to start a recovery locally that leads to a more equitable and resilient economy? The RCPA was founded on local work that pushes us toward the future, with clean energy, efficient buildings, and green transportation options. Sonoma County already benefits from local clean power and speeding this transition toward an equitable and resilient economy will only play to our strengths. Now is the time to build on resilience and sustainability policies established by the forward-thinking local governments in Sonoma County. Out of this crisis, we may yet take a big step towards an equitable and low-carbon future.