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Coronavirus and climate crises must be seen in tandem

By NNA staff

The resilience researcher Prof Johan Rockström sees important learning processes in the coronavirus pandemic. The health crisis could be attributed to the destruction of ecosystems, made worse through climate change.

BERLIN (NNA) – The director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Johan Rockström, has spoken about the connection between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. The virus could not be looked at in isolation, he emphasised in an interview with the German newspaper Berliner Tagesspiegel.

“We have a health crisis but the background to that is that the virus appeared in the first place because of the destruction of ecosystems – made worse through climate change,” says Rockström.

The Swedish resilience researcher has led the Institute together with the economist Ottmar Edenhofer since 2018. Clarivate Analytics counts him among the most quoted researchers in the world.

The destruction of ecosystems, non-sustainable agriculture and non-sustainable food markets, associated with a hyper-connected global trade and travel world, had led to the virus jumping from the animal world to humanity.

Non-sustainable management of the climate and ecosystems also lay behind the pandemic, Rockström continues in the interview. We had seen “how suddenly things can change at a global level. The earth is very small, everything is interconnected. Something that develops in a market in China can spread worldwide in a few weeks – and trigger a global crisis.”

Mobilise and act

But the pandemic had also documented the ability of humans to mobilise and act: “We learnt from the coronavirus crisis to act quickly and appropriately. If we take the coronavirus crisis seriously, then we have to tackle the climate problem with equal seriousness,” the scientist demanded. Five-hundred million euros of investment in Europe in the fight against COVID-19 was “unique”.

Rockström hopes against this background that “we will never again have to have a debate about financing climate protection”. Why should we argue about stabilising the climate to give humanity a future, he asks, when worldwide eleven trillion euros are made available to protect against a virus that “ultimately is not as damaging for humanity as the climate crisis.“

We could also learn from the coronavirus pandemic “the importance of data, science and monitoring”. The task was to understand “what the real crises actually are” which humanity had to tackle today. Rockström underlined that this was not just a task for politicians but for everyone. We had to recognise that systems can be destroyed if they are put under too much pressure.

Climate protection could not just focus on “efficiency and optimisation, we also have to protect the different systems so that ice sheets or the rain forest are not irrevocably destroyed”. Here, too, Rockström sees learning opportunities through the pandemic. It illustrated for people just as the climate crisis did “that once the genie has been let out of the bottle it is difficult to put it back”. The earth’s systems had to be preserved and protected before “the tipping points are crossed”.

Intergenerational contract

Rockström together with other scientists compared the studies of various research groups worldwide on health and climate research to work out differences and commonalities between the coronavirus and climate crises. There were several studies that showed the connection between COVID-19 and diversity, he emphasised.

One result from the research group is also a kind of intergenerational contract: “When we compare the coronavirus and climate crises, we quickly reach the conclusion that the younger and older generations can only win if they involve themselves together. Younger people have to protect the elderly in the coronavirus crisis and older people have to leave a planet for young people worth living on by avoiding irrevocable climate changes,” Rockström argues in the interview.


Item: 201106-04EN Date: 6 November 2020

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