From COVID-19 to climate change: seeing the issues beyond the news cycle

While COVID-19 and climate change may appear to belong to different worlds, one can uncover direct causal links when looking through a Systems Thinking lens. In an age of uncertainty, how should journalists and science communicators approach and report about complex issues like climate change?

In 2019, climate change frequently appeared on the front page of the news; the Amazon rainforest fires caught international attention over the summer, and global climate protests led more than 6 million people to go on strike. Furthermore, the EU laid out the European Green Deal, an ambitious roadmap for Europe to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

The pandemic of 2020, however, has replaced the global headlines at once. Since strict lockdown measures have been put in place, the term ‘COVID-19’ has been dominating the news agenda. While the restrictions on travel and economic activities have led to a significant drop in CO2 emissions, there is a growing fear of emission rebound as countries start to lift the state of emergency.

As economic recovery will be a major concern for the public, the post-COVID-19 world will undeniably pose unprecedented challenges to journalists and science communicators to report about climate change without addressing economic implications. Amid uncertainty and voices that disparage science, what should journalists and science communicators do to address climate change? How can we move forward?

The undeniable link between COVID-19 and climate change

While COVID-19 and climate change seem to sit far apart from each other at first glance, experts agree that a lot of parallels and similarities between this crisis on one hand, and the climate crisis on the other can be drawn.

For instance, we can compare the effects of COVID-19 on human health on one hand, and the effects of climate change on trees on the other hand. A good example is ash dieback, a chronic fungal plague that is spreading in European forests due to climate change. While some ash trees have resisted to the disease thanks to their genetic makeup, others have not survived despite being the same tree species. Similarly, COVID-19 severely affects part of the population, while leaving others with almost no symptoms. But in reality, COVID-19 and climate change have more direct links than just being similar.

Leyla Acaroglu ESMH ScientistDr. Leyla Acaroglu, founder of Disrupt Design and the UNEP Champion of the Earth: Systems Thinking is the ability to see the parts as well as the whole. When looking at phenomena like COVID-19 and climate change, we start to see the clear cause and effect relationships between human activities and nature around us. For example, when expanding our cities and agricultural lands, we are replacing our natural environment which increases the risks of human exposure to the animals carrying diseases such as coronavirus. Our systems, whether it’s the human body or natural ecosystems, require balance in order to function fluidly.” – Read the full interview

Biologists like Dr. Thomas Lovejoy have also indicated that the threat to human health is caused by the destruction of nature and global transportation, emphasizing that the ban on wildlife markets.

Taking a step back to see the whole

Issues like COVID-19 and climate change, that appear to be unrelated to one another, are often directly linked. In order to see and decode our complex world, methods like Systems Thinking can help us see issues through new lenses.

A famous folk story from India is often used to illustrate what it is like to think in systems. A group of blind men was asked to touch different body parts of an elephant to explain ‘what it is like’. One man who touched the ear said it’s like a carpet, while another man who touched the tail said it’s like a snake. While these descriptions were correct, they were only explaining the ‘parts’, and not the ‘whole’. Systems Thinking requires us to step back and get a birds-eye point of view, instead of narrowing down to one specific element. When changing the perspective to see the big picture, we are able to understand how the entire system functions.

While Systems Thinking tools can help us dissect an issue like ‘plastic waste on the seabed’ and identify the cause of the problem, Dr. Acaroglu points out that it is crucial to have the right approach and attitude to inspect the system.

Dr Acaroglu: “We are often not knowledgeable enough about the systems that we don’t spend a lot of time within. In order to uncover systems structure, one needs to explore with curiosity, and suspend the need to solve the problem quickly. Being able to collaborate and cross-reference the information from different fields of studies and disciplines help one find the ways of synthesizing and emerging new ideas. (…) One also needs to accept that systems are often chaotic and dynamic, and they don’t always behave in the way humans are used to, as COVID-19 has demonstrated.”

Seeing beyond ‘news’

News is by nature short and immediate. The pace has become even faster in the digital age. Richard Fisher, a senior editor at the BBC, has been exploring the need to zoom out and see the interconnectedness between the past, present and future. Last summer, he took a sabbatical year to research short-termism as a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT. He calls ‘temporal stresses’ those cultural pressures of the 21st Century which nudge us towards short-termism, from the focus on short-term growth in capitalism to the rise of populist politics and policies.

In his piece on Deep Civilisation, Fisher points out the danger of not being able to see the long-term impacts when dealing with the issues that are right in front of us. “While we have the mental capacity to escape a short-term mindset, other cultural and psychological factors nudge us to short-sightedness”, says Fisher. Today’s newsrooms need to weigh up and look at their own structural issues to address topics like climate change.

Richard Fisher ESMH ScientistRichard Fisher, senior editor at the BBC: “We need to recognize that many parts of the media are often structurally unprepared when they are covering climate change. (…) Climate change moves more slowly, over longer-term time scales, so it requires much more leadership and transformation within a media organization than a day-to-day editorial decision can achieve – instead it requires organizations to reflect on their structural capabilities, and invest in different forms of journalism.” – Read the full interview

Moving forward

Looking at COVID-19 through a systemic perspective, our attention is drawn to how human behaviors have swiftly changed through political commitment. If we are to draw a lesson from COVID-19, it is that a top-down structural change can reinforce behavioral change much quicker than the other way around. Economists like Dr. Kate Raworth state that the current economic model undermines the planetary boundaries and should be replaced with a new economic model that focuses on sustainability over growth and makes the lifecycle of products circular. Circular economy is the concept that focuses on efficient and sustainable use of resources to eliminate waste. At company level, it reduces inefficiencies in supply chains when materials like plastics for packaging are reused, recycled or recaptured. Regional and national governments in Europe are also supporting the circular transition through, for instance, public procurement.

CICERONE is a Horizon 2020 project focused on providing a platform for the funders and investors of circular transition to connect and collaborate.

Cliona Howie ESMH ScientistCliona Howie del Rio, Head of Circular Economy at Climate-KIC and coordinator of CICERONE: While having a uniformed approach across Europe may be difficult, we need to break down the silos and make cross-boundary shifts. (…) To meet the climate target in the years to come, we need more public-private collaboration and innovative partnerships where business and government come together in the ways we have never seen before. From behavioral to policy change and everything in between, we need substantial and effective collaboration.” – Read the full interview

A recent Eurobarometer survey indicates that 91% of EU citizens are concerned about climate change, and 83% consider that legislation at the European level is needed for environmental protection. With the European Green Deal in place, actions at all levels of social and industrial systems are expected to be taken.

As Fisher points out, “It’s not enough anymore to say that a slow-moving story like climate change doesn’t fit the daily news agenda – that’s 20th century thinking, and an abdication of our responsibilities as journalists.”


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