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The tale of two Crises: COVID-19 and the Climate 

As the world swiftly innovates to find solutions to mitigate the pandemic's devastating impacts, Will Scott, Evergreen's Chief Advancement Officer, asks when it comes to the climate crisis, how can we do the same? 

Pixabay, climate crisis, forest, stump

Published on April 20, 2020

A time for transformative change and recovery 

The interconnectedness of our global ecosystem has never been more fully, and more dramatically, on display in the age of COVID-19. Choices made by leaders in China, Italy, and South Korea are affecting life outcomes in Canada, India, and South Africa. A virus born of trade in exotic wildlife in one corner of the world is reshaping our global economic and social order. 

Of course, COVID-19 is not the first issue to demonstrate how intertwined human systems are with our planet’s natural world. Just months ago, researchers confirmed that the previous decade was the hottest in recorded history, the young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement mobilized millions and dominated news cycles, and the City of Toronto joined other cities to declare a climate emergency. 

What are the connections between our current pandemic and climate? What can we learn from decades of innovation focused on climate mitigation and adaptation that can help us navigate the tragedy of this global pandemic? What lessons can we draw from the response to COVID-19 that might inform solutions to our global climate crisis?  

Invest in resilient communities 

There has been a lot of talk recently about the “new normal” that will emerge post-pandemic. But climate scientists have been warning for years that the future will be anything but normal, using the term “global weirding” to refer to coming weather patterns. We can expect ever-increasing floods, droughts, hurricanes, extreme heat events, and fires in coming years. 

Just as we are seeing with COVID-19, the impacts of these disasters will not be distributed evenly. Vulnerable populations will bear the brunt of trauma and dislocation. We need to invest in institutions that build our social fabric to ensure our communities are resilient. Evergreen is convening community hubs nationally to help ensure these building-blocks of community-cohesion thrive now and in years to come. 

Resilience also means investing in green infrastructure. Toronto’s ravine system helps mitigate heat and flooding risks posed by climate. It also provides equitable access to nature for urban dwellers, supporting mental and physical health during and after the pandemic. This important work extends into schools where Evergreen is helping make them climate-ready, transforming their schoolgrounds into natural oases within communities that are prepared to adapt to climate change

Future-thinking as 21st century skill 

We have made rapid and dramatic social and economic shifts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that a few months ago were inconceivable in the fight against climate change. Yet the threats to human health are certainly comparable. The virus poses an immediate and personal threat, rather than the perceived long-term and far-off effects of climate change. 

This disparity is what Mark Carney, the United Nations Special Envoy on Climate Change & Governor of the Bank of England, has called “the tragedy of the horizon.” Most of us are awful at managing risks that are too abstract or too distant. We need educational, economic, and social systems that train us to orient beyond the next quarter or year. Futurists were among the only people to highlight the risks of pandemics long-before COVID-19. It’s time to add foresight to the list of critical thinking skills students need to thrive in the 21st century. 

Evergreen, along with partners McConnell Foundation,  Maison de l’innovation sociale,  Community Foundations of Canada, and the TD Bank Group, founded Future Cities Canada to build collaborative, future orientation necessary to respond to the complex challenges in front of us. Under this platform, we are helping to integrate foresight techniques into municipal leadership. And our annual Future Cities Summit helps to seed visions for a positive urban future that is liveable, green, and prosperous. 

Innovation as recovery 

One of Evergreen’s core values is Innovation. The deep orientation to innovation is what explains our evolution: Evergreen began as a tree-planting organization 30 years ago. Now, we run national programs on such diverse issues as smart cities, schoolground greening, and housing affordability. 

The short-term and long-term challenges facing us nationally and globally will require of all of us to embrace this spirit of innovation. As we turn towards economic and social recovery from COVID-19, we should embrace the solutions that help solve our climate crisis. We do not want to rebuild in the same way, but invest in solutions that offer economic, environmental, and social returns. 

Our new reality in the age of COVID-19 can seed many of these solutions. Our embrace of video conferencing will help us to limit business travel. Challenges with international shipping are leading to a burgeoning of local sustainable foodways and product development. Social isolation is creating new advocates for urban natural areas. 

Across Canada and around the world, people are bringing new meaning to community and connection. There is no shortage of examples showing how people are adapting and finding solutions to their new reality, and, while COVID-19 is causing untold suffering around the world right now, a silver lining to a very dark cloud is that great tragedy can lead to long-term positive change. 

A major factory fire in New York City early in the 20th century led to fire codes that have saved millions of lives. The polio epidemic revolutionized the field of public health in Canada in the 1930s and beyond, as Canadian children receive free vaccines for polio and other childhood diseases nearly a century later. Let us all work to turn this tragedy into an engine of innovation that helps to address one of the other biggest threats facing humanity: climate change