Lessons from the Pandemic Can Inform Our Actions for Climate Change

(Written by Mariamme D. Jadloc, UP Diliman Information Office, edits by ProSPER.Net Secretariat)

Are there lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that can help us deal with global climate change? What is the role of higher education institutions (HEIs) in building sustainable and resilient economies and societies, and in environmental transformations toward a healthier planet?

These were some of the questions raised in the webinar ‘ProSPER.Net Webinar on Sustainability in Higher Education 2021’, held on 22 October, 2021 from 2pm-4pm Philippine Standard Time (3pm-5pm Japan Standard Time).

The webinar, with the theme ‘Planetary Health Perspectives: Lessons from COVID-19 towards Climate Action’, was held via Zoom and streamed live on YouTube. It was organised by the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) and the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD), in collaboration with the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS).

The webinar is one of a series of events held annually by ProsPER.Net, a network for the promotion of sustainability in postgraduate research and education.

In his keynote speech, ‘Parallels in Public and Planetary Health Protection’, Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin, S.J., Ph.D., executive director of the Manila Observatory, said efforts to protect the planet will also protect public health.

The former ADMU president said, “There are parallels that can be drawn between the two, and not exact parallels – there are also exceptions but they intersect. This is to say, of course, that we should not only protect ourselves from the pandemic now and maybe climate change later, but we can actually do both and we should do both at this time. The general statement is environmental protection is health protection. To
protect the environment is to protect human health and vice versa.”

Villarin, who is an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) climate scientist, then drew parallels between COVID-19 attacking the body and climate change wreaking havoc on the Earth.

He said COVID-19 is external to the human body, a foreign matter that suddenly enters the body. This makes it hard for the body to “muster the internal defenses, the so-called antibodies, to counter the threat.” On the climate front, carbon is internal, “and we find it difficult to extricate because it is embedded in our economy.”

Villarin explained further, “The second part in the diagnosis of the problem is really viral overload and the cytokine storms, the overreaction that we see when the virus replicates inside us. Well, analogously too, on the climate front, the problems are carbon overdose and climate shocks that come with this increasing level and that includes tipping point, the point beyond which you cannot go back. These are points of irreversibility, like a runaway greenhouse effect.”

Villarin underscored the importance of strengthening public health, since investments in pandemic defense of human health and public health will strengthen climate adaptation and vice versa.

He said institutions matter, and there should be strong social systems, counter institutions, and policies that reduce the risk of exposure and vulnerability.

“If these shocks start coming one after the other, it becomes more frequent, we have to prepare for social disconnection, not just physical disconnection. We need to secure our water and food, and energy supplies,” he said.

Villarin also pointed the importance of collective action in dealing with planetary issues. “I think that we will not be able to solve this problem just on the personal level. We really have to galvanize as a global community,” he said.

Villarin said HEIs should produce professionals and competent leaders who will not divide the nation, but build solidarity and interdependence.

“As a university, we have to generate the information, data, and knowledge that we need, and maybe a line here of communicating science better,” he said. “As universities, we can be a gathering place, and serve as a forum for transdisciplinary thinking and action. We need to think ahead for society,” he added.

Villarin concluded his address by stressing the need for climate action to be immediate, rapid, and concerted.

“You cannot delay. Delaying means lives lost,” he said. “We can no longer put climate action on the back burner just because of this pandemic,” he added.

Meanwhile, scholars that served as panelists for this year’s ProsPER.Net webinar were: Prof. Irfan Dwidya Prijambada, Director of Community Services at Universitas Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in place of Prof. Ika Dewi Ana, UGM Vice Rector of Research and Community Services; Prof. Rajib Shaw of the Graduate School of Media and Governance in Keio University’s Shonan Fujisawa Campus (SFC) and former Executive Director of the Integrated Research on Disaster Risk (IRDR); and Prof. Arun Kansal, Dean (academic) and Head, Department of Regional Water Studies, TERI School of Advanced Studies India and IPCC scientist. The panel was moderated by Prof. Deepak Sharma, Director of the Centre for Global Challenges, Asian Institute of Technology and ProSPER.Net Board Chair.

Prijambada discussed UGM’s role in raising awareness on COVID-19, their public service measures, and their contributions to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

“We have a disaster and emergency response unit. We have [also] been raising awareness about the corona virus and its spread using local languages, which are more understandable. We transformed our car into a mobile information unit, and we also distributed information [paraphernalia] about COVID-19 to the people in the market as well as to the kampoongs. We raised public awareness through direct, face-to-face meetings with local community leaders with, of course, physical distancing and showed them how to react properly to the pandemic,” he said.

Prijambada said the activities somehow allowed them to control the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve of infections in Indonesia. However, the success in 2020 made the public negligent and control efforts became loose beginning 2 March of this year. This resulted in a second wave of infection and spread in the beginning of May, peaking in July.

“All of Indonesia’s provinces became red, which means that confirmation cases were more than 1,000 a day… people were having difficulty in getting coffins,” Prijambada said. “They [families] had to wait for 24 to 36 hours before they can get a coffin,” he said. In response, UGM students and alumni worked hand in hand to provide the community with coffins.

Prijambada said foremost in UGM’s experiences in the fight against COVID-19 that can be applied toward climate action is the use of simple language that people can understand, so that people can themselves ask, ‘What is the problem?’

In his presentation, Shaw pointed out that the pandemic is more than a health-related problem, is also a deep socio-economic problem that made a technological divide.

He said that the major issue “is the digital power concentration and digital divide. We have this North/South divide of this digital power concentration and that possibly is creating also some additional risk in terms of this infectious disease and also other environmental risks including climate change.”

Shaw said there is a need not only to focus on technological solutions but to address some of the social solutions that are also “psychological solutions [to] this pandemic and climate change.”

Speaking of a ‘vaccine’ for climate change, he said, “There are lots of mitigation measures, there are lots of adaptation measures which can be considered vaccines for climate change. The problem is we address the pandemic in the sense of urgency, starting from the government to the community, applying the new vaccines or applying the protective measures. When it comes to the climate change issue, we have the mindset that it is for those 30 years down the line, 50 years down the line,
100 years down the line. That sense of urgency is very much missing when you talk about the climate response as against that particular pandemic response… I think that sense of urgency is one of the major critical factors for [arresting] climate change,” he said.

The pandemic also underscores the primacy of science in dealing with the world’s crises. “Science has already given enough evidence over the last 30 years or so that yes, climate change is happening and we need to act now. How we actually again bring that science policy interface more strongly into climate change from [the] national to local level, [is] I think, that is again a very important lesson that we’d like to take from this pandemic response,” he continued.

Because of the urgency of COVID, 12 years’ worth of innovation was produced in just 12 months, Shaw noted. Aside from material innovations, we can adopt a shift, from a ‘last-mile’ to a ‘first-mile’ orientation toward the crisis.

“The ‘last mile can’ activity is, to me, from the provider side, like we make a solution and we try to connect it to the community and ask them to use that solution. I think the pandemic had shown us that we have to change that ‘last mile’ to ‘first mile’ so that we put our research perspective, the higher education perspective, in that mile zero which is from the community, and try to co-design, co-deliver [with the community],” he said.

Kansal pointed out that before the pandemic, the progress on sustainable
development goals and climate change action was actually slow.

“So it was not the pandemic that has further slowed down these agenda. In fact, the progress had been slow. Science-based evidences and science-based warnings should not be avoided,” Kansal said. A public discourse that privileges science can push an agenda for dealing with climate change as well as it did that for the pandemic. One of
the possible “adaptation strategies for climate change mitigation,” he noted, is the “behavioural change” in a public that has become more oriented towards science-based solutions.

Kansal said public health infrastructure and good health have changed public behaviour during the pandemic and made concerns such as access to clean water and sanitation more pronounced. As there are still many people who do not have access to safe and clean drinking water, the crisis exposes social inequity. “The kind of mortality we have seen in developing countries including India is actually because of lack of health infrastructure,” he said.

He explained the pandemic has further shown how congested and unsustainable community can adversely impact adaptive strategies for climate change. “When I was working on the assessment report, [I found that] it was the urban slums which is a congested community, which is very much vulnerable to the consequences of the climate change,” Kansal said.

Kansal suggested that educators and researchers should learn and improve the language of policy makers, politicians, and government agencies when dealing with the emergencies of climate change and the pandemic. Lastly, he urged that HEIs must invest through their alumni and outreach in creating green jobs. “The more green jobs are created, then the interest of the students who want to be professionals in this area will further improve,” Kansal said.

In reflecting on the role of HEIs, Prof. Fidel R. Nemenzo, chancellor of UPD said, “Our universities need to do research in advancing our understanding of environmental issues and informing public policy, and introduce the values of sustainability in our curricula to promote awareness of our world and the consequences of our decisions, and our ways of doing.”

Nemenzo further said it is crucial to understand that sustainability is an urgent and a necessary response to a planetary emergency which poses a direct challenge for all educators and HEIs.

“We need to train a new generation of graduates who understand the connections between economics and ecology, social science and environment, urban development and planetary health, the kind of people who know that the comforts of living should not be at the expense of the planet. We must take action to protect our environment,
to create a sustainable future for our children, and the generations to come,” Nemenzo concluded.

Also present at this year’s ProsPER.Net webinar were Fr. Robert C. Yap, SJ, president of ADMU, who delivered the welcome remarks, and Dr. Akio Takemoto, Head of Programme and Administration of UNU-IAS, who gave the congratulatory remarks. Prof. Charlotte Kendra Gotangco Gonzales, Ph.D., director of Ateneo Institute of Sustainability was the webinar’s emcee.