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  • Einat Elazari

COVID-19 is just a rehearsal for the world’s biggest challenge – climate change

COVID-19 is the dress rehearsal for the world’s next big challenge: the implications of climate change. The current crisis already provides some valuable lessons for us to learn from.

March 23rd, 2020

[See the original publication on 'IR in the Age of Coronavirus']

The rapid worldwide spread of COVID-19 is one of the most prominent global events of the last decade, if not of the century. Times of outstanding crisis are often the best empirical experiments as there are no interruptions, limitations, or restrictions. The outbreak of COVID-19 tests the resilience and level of cooperation of different layers of authority and their mechanisms. In other words, large-scale crises (world wars or major regional conflicts, human-made disasters like that at Chernobyl, natural disasters like hurricane Katrina, or global financial crises like the one took place in 2008) are the best tests of this cooperation. And in this case, the COVID-19 is a dress rehearsal for the next crisis the world is about to face: the outcomes of climate change. Like COVID-19, some will be more privileged when dealing with the challenge, but some won’t. Eventually, though, like the coronavirus epidemic today, it will reach almost everywhere on the globe.

While the crisis is still unfolding and every day is fundamentally different from the previous ones, there are already some prominent observations and lessons to learn.

Stronger mechanisms of collaboration

In a very short time, COVID-19 led to the suspension of international disputes, trade wars, and political rivalries. Especially at a national level, different groups and authorities joined hands around the same goal: to moderate the impact of the virus’s outbreak, and eventually defeat it. We need to leverage this event to improve the state of readiness for climate change by shaping different sets of responses, both nationally and internationally. This means no less than shaping a new world order that puts global crisis response mechanisms on top in terms of budget, professionalism and, most importantly, cooperation/collaboration between all relevant authorities and players. It must adhere to the concept of collaboration – a network of authorities responding in a coordinated manner, showing flexibility, credibility, confidence, and professionalism. Internationally, this means setting up a mechanism of relevant data sharing and analysis. Nationally and regionally, it means that security forces like fire departments, police, and even the military, will have to be fully coordinated with hospitals, shelters, and other different governmental departments.

States responded in different times and with different tools to the spread of COVID-19. But, especially in the age of open borders and globalization, the behavior of one country can deeply impact its entire regional spheres. There is a need to adopt a set of agreed rules and measures that are meant to strengthen collaboration in addressing a crisis and its outcomes and reduce the risk of putting in danger other actors in case of different response measures or events (floods, fires, increased death toll due to high temperature, waves of migration as a result of a disaster).

Establishing “Lighthouses of Truth”

Fake news can be a critically strong force. It can impact election results, shift market speculation, and affect public behavior. Fake news can push the public to take wrong actions in the face of a crisis, especially in the lack of a credible, trusted alternative. Authorities at the community level, national level, regional level, and global level will have to optimize their relevant institutions to be Lighthouses of Truth. These will gain credibility by their neutrality, the professional work of their personnel, being fully backed by their government/s, and by thorough, persistent work that will gain the trust of the wider public. Public trust is fundamental. These institutions will have to be prepared for around-the-clock briefings and press work because when the crisis arrives, they will have to respond rapidly to a constantly changing reality in an unfolding crisis.

Mobilization, rapid response, and flexibility

COVID-19 showcases the need for mobilization in all levels of authority. Huge teams have to move rapidly to tackle the crisis: hospitals, doctors, laboratories, private firms providing tests, sanitation crews, governments, and heads of states needed to conduct around the clock consultations. In the global context, the entire financial market responded to the unfolding event: banks had to consider quickly their response regarding mortgages, loans, and credit lines. Private sector firms had to shift almost completely to enable staff to work from home and think fast about the best business strategies to endure the crisis. Remote communications platforms opened their channels for free to the crowd. These are just a few examples that showcase the importance of moving in very big steps, fast. Much like the virus, when climate change outcomes reveal themselves, things could happen fast… Very fast. The speed and quality of the response will play a key role in its effectiveness.

The time to act is now. It is already too late.

Much like with the COVID-19 case, until the climate change crisis arrives, we won’t be fully prepared to respond, to say the least. Yet, the scale of the crisis we are going through at the moment as a global community must be perceived as a case study to shape the future upcoming response to the next big crisis.

And just like the race to “flatten the curve”, which in other words, to buy more time in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, the current crisis should be a grave wake-up call to action without further delay. Because once it’s here, nobody can tell if we’ll have enough time to flatten any curve.

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