Viewpoint: Learning from the pandemic to tackle climate change

Four elements of nature, fire, water, earth, and air

The pandemic has brought research and innovation out of the lab and the library and into society.

Building a greener future

If we can capture this more open relationship between science and society, we can emerge in a better place and build a greener, more sustainable and more equitable future.

Over the past 18 months, we have all witnessed the process of research and innovation in real time, live on television. We did not have ready-made answers to this new and deadly virus, but we had an excellent research and innovation base, covering a wide range of disciplines and expertise, with diverse infrastructures and decades of discovery on which to build, so we could mobilise and respond fast.

Everyone could watch as we gathered data and designed studies to find out about:

  • how the virus spreads
  • how our immune systems respond
  • who is most at risk of serious disease, and why
  • what we can all do to help combat its effects
  • what can be done to combat the many effects of the lockdowns needed to tackle the virus.

Everyone was directly impacted. Everyone could directly help tackle the pandemic.

Responding to the pandemic

For me an emblematic moment was walking from my flat in Cambridge to a local GPs surgery, being signed in by cheerful volunteers, chatting with a GP who was still smiling despite no doubt having vaccinated 100s of people all day every day for weeks, and getting my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which I knew was the product of the full diversity of talents working across the research and innovation system, which I care so much about.

This small volume of liquid entering my arm was the product of a massive network of people:

  • from the researchers with bold and high risk ideas about how a new generation of vaccines could be made
  • through to the trials managers and volunteers, and talented regulators ensuring it could be safely used
  • to the manufacturers producing this new vaccine at scale and at speed
  • to the NHS galvanising a massive effort across the UK to get the vaccine to people
  • and of course, the people themselves taking time to go and get the jab to protect those around them.

This has been a collaboration at a truly national scale. By everyone for everyone.

Solutions to climate change

And now, as we begin to build back, another global crisis looms large. Today, leaders from across the world will gather in Glasgow for the United Nations’ climate change summit, COP26. Climate change, like the pandemic, affects everyone, can be deadly, and will amplify inequalities in our society. And like the pandemic, everyone will need to contribute to mitigating its many effects.

As with the pandemic, we can follow the science and listen to the scientists, and it will take much more than that. The science will help us to navigate an uncertain world. It will not tell us what to do, that is a choice we all have to make. Science will provide vital evidence to understand the challenge and to develop the best solutions. Innovation will make those solutions a reality and all of us can adopt those solutions, changing how we live and work in profound ways. This has to be a truly global effort, by everyone for everyone.

Through the pandemic, we have seen:

  • what can be done
  • what works well
  • what the pitfalls might be.

There is nothing good about a pandemic and nothing good about climate change, but we can learn from the pandemic to tackle climate change in the most effective way possible, rebuilding an inclusive, greener, innovation economy to which everyone can contribute and from which everyone benefits.

A version of this blog was published in the Independent newspaper.

Top image:  Credit: fermate/GettyImages

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