Maxime Rischard, Lead Scientist, Cervest
Today marks UNESCO’s World Science Day for Peace and Development. Celebrated annually on November 10th, it highlights the importance of science in society, and encourages wider public debates on key scientific issues.
Perhaps more than any other year, 2020 has been a time in which science and our daily lives have been incontrovertibly linked. Twelve months ago, notions of social distancing, epidemiology, R numbers and nuances of aerosol dispersion were specialist topics. Today, they are important parts of our everyday reality.
In keeping with this shift, this year World Science Day is focusing on “Science for and With Society”. This speaks to our mission here at Cervest, to empower all people and organisations to make informed decisions when it comes to their climate security. This day underscores the crucial role that science plays in understanding the planet we call home, and a key ongoing focus, naturally, is on climate and sustainability.
In recognition of World Science Day, we want to delve into the intersection between the two urgent global matters we’re facing today, COVID-19 and climate security, and what those links tell us about the urgent need for widespread scientific innovation and action.
Where climate and COVID-19 intersect
The parallels between the climate crisis and the pandemic have been clear from the start. Each is a complex worldwide emergency, unfolding across international boundaries, in turn posing a threat to both human life and our economic systems. Both, too, are reliant on science to overcome them.
From mounting infection rates and nationwide lockdowns, to wildfires and plagues of locust—we have seen and experienced the distressing impacts of these crises over the last few months. The importance of timing has also been made clear—the power of swift action to curb an exponential rise with hugely damaging effects.
However, it’s not only the scale and speed of humanitarian consequences that draw COVID-19 and climate together.
The consequences of the pandemic and growing climate volatility impact and exacerbate one another. High-levels of pollution worsen the effects of the virus. Deforestation makes it easier for future pandemics to spread. Likewise, a warming planet is more susceptible to future spread of disease as viruses like Zika and their carriers can survive across a broader geographical spread. The list goes on.
While this paints a challenging picture, there is cause to be hopeful. COVID-19 has revealed that not only is global action required to tackle the biggest scientific challenges, but that there is widespread public support and appetite for such action within private and public sectors worldwide.
The climate and diseases like COVID-19 are chaotic systems — both require the need to make decisions under uncertainty but we can not afford to wait until we have all the answers.
So, we look to models. While these may not provide the absolute answer, they do help to guide our choices. It is essential to have models that allow us to operate under this uncertainty, so we can make the best decisions based on what we do and do not know today.
However, conflicting data and models – with differences in resolution, timescales and quality – make understanding both climate security and the pandemic confusing.
Everyone seems to have their own epidemiological model, and contradictory headlines are available for everyone to confirm their beliefs. In turn, questions are raised about different testing regimes, different definitions, and the plain absence of data in many poorer countries.
Going forward there is a crucial need for curation, filtering and the harmonising of data. So where can scientific action be focused to both overcome the pandemic and protect the planet against climate risk?
Using science to tackle the world’s two biggest crises
From billions of pounds in support for the economy, to mammoth efforts to build hospitals and scientists globally all searching for the same cure, the pandemic has been a public project like no other. In one country after another, supposedly politically, economically or bureaucratically impossible measures became possible overnight.
It’s now critical that the government’s commitment to being “science led” continues. As the economic support packages continue, now is the chance for ministers to spread the science-first method into wider areas of policy making. Most critically on combating the risks of climate change and bringing climate security to everyone.
Just as investment into vaccine trials and testing technology is crucial to conquering the pandemic in the long-term, investing in innovations that can build climate resilience and predict climate impacts is paramount to future societies. It’s equally important that we boost skills across the workforce in areas of environmental and climate sciences, reinforcing these in school curriculums and speaking out publicly on climatic issues.
Beyond the public sector, the scientific community can work to maximise the value of information. Transparent sharing of data has been crucial in effectively curbing the spread of COVID-19. We currently gather gargantuan amounts of data on climate globally, but it’s not necessarily being used to its potential. This year has undoubtedly inspired scientific cooperation. We must utilise this further and reinvigorate global collaboration of the access to, as well as the analysis of climate data across international boundaries.
We must also embrace the role of machine learning and AI to enhance our capabilities in analysing these vast data pools. A recent paper in The Lancet discusses the importance of AI in identifying how currently available drugs can be used to treat COVID-19. Those seeking solutions to climate issues should take note.
Finally, the pandemic has shown the need to build resilience into business. Organisations cannot afford to wait for the impact of future crises to act. It’s imperative—in order to protect the economy, people, and the planet—that businesses proactively become climate-literate in the way they have swiftly got to grips with the science of the pandemic. Regulations on climate related financial disclosure are helping here, encouraging closer inspection of links between climate and economy.
In many ways 2020’s World Science Day holds more significance than ever before. It’s important to reflect on the critical role science has played over the past year in our daily lives. Looking ahead, with the right investment, collaboration, and technology, science will pave the way for fighting back against COVID-19 and the changing climate, building the restoration and resilience of people, organisations, and the planet.
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