How Do We Respond to Two Crises: COVID-19 and Climate Change?

Featuring Allison Ashcroft, Managing Director, CUSP Network; Elliott Cappell, Director, Climate Change and Resilience, WSP Canada; Laurian Farrell, Director, North America/Environment Risk Management, Global Resilient Cities Network; and Jeff Hebert, Partner, HR&A Advisors

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. You say sustainability, I say resilience

The term resilience has been baked into sustainability work since the beginning – as a way to underscore the added value of investing in climate change measures. But many of the early plans focused on hardscaping measures. Today, equity and social justice are at the forefront of sustainability plans and COVID-19 has further illustrated that social cohesion is the superglue of a resilient community. “Resiliency can be baked into all facets of life. When we live in a fundamentally unsustainable system, every aspect of life under that system will be unsustainable,” one panelist said.

2. Two emergencies, two different urgencies

The magnitude and urgency of the COVID-19 response is something climate activists “can only dream of,” noted one panelist. The climate change imperative has always bumped up against the idea that “our way of life is not negotiable.” COVID-19 seems to show that people are ready to make huge sacrifice when decision makers take an issue seriously and put it at the top of the agenda. It remains to be seen whether the lifestyle changes required to stave off the pandemic can be translated to the substantive changes required to save the planet. Or is the conversation finally ready to change?

3. Awareness on the rise?

Peoples’ understanding of the fundamental concepts behind resilience has grown exponentially as a result of this crises. Suddenly, the interconnectedness between energy, equity and affordability, for example, has been made abundantly clear. People are seeing that marginalized communities are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, by climate change and all the other shocks that are hitting cities more and more. Now, some of the big ideas that were previously intractable, are suddenly viable. “We don’t need to fight for universal basic income anymore. We just did it. And we did it in three days,” said one panelist.

4. Stimulus packages and cataclysmic money

Jane Jacobs famously identified the danger of the quickly dispatching big flows of money for ill-conceived actions. Resilience and sustainability practitioners use a co-benefit lens or “multi-solving” framework to maximize the effectiveness of any investment while tackling existing inequities and fostering social cohesion. The good news is that many cities have transformational “shovel-ready” projects and programs that have been thoroughly and thoughtfully vetted, but have been sitting on shelves, waiting to become a priority. Now is the time to release the stimulus package with parameters that will direct the funds to existing programs that will accelerate social, environmental and economic resiliency.

5. Where are the anthropologists?

Despite the horrific and catastrophic elements of this crisis, there have been some beautiful, dramatic and unexpected outcomes – such as improvements in air and water quality, and safer, quieter roads. This is potentially a watershed moment – where the benefits of a low-carbon, sustainable lifestyle, previously only understood in the abstract, is laid bare for all to see, feel and breathe. One panelist suggested that anthropologists and sociologists be dispatched to find ways to capture the understanding people have today, with the hope of extracting a long-term commitment to changing the way we live on the planet.

Additional Reading
& Resources

Planning for COVID and Climate, Clean Air Council

Growing Resilience Through Crisis: Building Community on the Run, Milton J. Friesen, Canadian Science Centre

Fear of China Made Taiwan a Coronavirus Success Story, Hilton Yip, Foreign Policy

Sustainability and resilience for transformation in the urban century, Elmqvist et al. (2019), Nature Sustainability