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OPINION: What a pandemic can teach us about climate resilience

Friday, 17 April 2020 09:34 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We need to mobilize knowledge and resources to act towards the collective good, utilizing the scientific community to combat both climate change and the pandemic

Stefanie M. Falconi is a Policy Entrepreneur at Instituto Limite.

Roshanak (Roshi) Nateghi is Assistant Professor in Industrial Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University

As coronavirus fills the news, we are beginning to grapple with the socioeconomic repercussions of this pandemic. Watching the virus spread across continents is like watching a superstorm make landfall; you know it's coming in your direction but question when or how severely you will be affected. A global threat of this magnitude, which requires mobilization from international institutions and governments to communities and individual citizens, exposes our vulnerability and our interconnectedness as a species. It also has potential to teach us about resilience. The response to the current situation has already been extrapolated to how resilience could play out in future crises like climate change. While our capacity to cooperate internationally is being tested, the jury is out on whether and how we choose to unite in the face of disasters. Herein lies the most significant challenge, in the face of enormous threats –whether pandemics or climate change– will we take collective efforts that create a global response and strengthen our ability to adapt?

Like climate change, the coronavirus pandemic highlights the crucial role of social cohesion in building resilient communities. We did not need to go far to find communities that turned the crisis into an opportunity to adapt by self-organizing and pooling resources. We offer three examples of resilience from the scientific community, as measured by the ability to sense, anticipate, adapt, and learn.  


Principal Investigators with expertise in machine learning, bioinformaticians, epidemiology, and statistics from around the globe opened a channel towards "a shared quest to defeat COVID-19." With their expertise, they can help analyze the data, "extract insights," answer questions, and develop models that may be inaccessible to non-specialists. Anyone can submit as there is no requirement or justification needed for a request.


A group focused on disease research, Folding@home, created a way to pool computing power for anyone to be part of the "fighting disease" mission. Based out of Stanford and, now into its third decade, a distributed network of computers. In the wake of COVID, they test therapeutic solutions faster and more effectively. Researchers, gamers, and later citizens can donate idle computing power (GPU or CPU) for running dynamic modeling related to COVID. The network effect created the combined computing power equal to the seven most powerful supercomputers in the world.


In Switzerland, the leading scientific arm of the confederation created a task force to tap into the country's scientists and experts to help in the frontlines. This is a central platform to pool resources from academic institutions to exchange expertise, material, and equipment; a website coordinating requests and offers from masks to PCR for testing; a way for researchers to contribute with modeling expertise and more. Noteworthy, politicians are taking scientists' advice in crucial areas to prioritize funding.

These are examples of mobilizing knowledge and resources to act towards the collective good. Resilience in this case is increasing adaptive capacity by strengthening Social Capital. Social capital is central to resilience. To be sure, social capital also means people tend to migrate to groups that think like them, possibly exacerbating existing prejudices that come from us-versus-them sentiment. The irony is that technology can amplify both the productive and counterproductive effects of communities and balancing these two forces is an ongoing battle. In a flipping-of-the-script moment, on March 30, the Brazilian president had a post taken down by Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, providing the ability of censoring misinformation that may cause public harm even if it came from political leaders.

Viruses, like storms, respect no borders. The enormity of the problem seems too big for any one individual to act, and yet, the power to overcome this challenge comes from our concerted individual and local efforts. Perhaps the most glaring lesson in these uncertain times is that pandemics and climate resilience demand our collective strength and ability to adapt to global-scale problems. At a time when anti-globalization and political polarization are on the rise, our willingness to cooperate is challenged. Movements of anti-expert and widespread dissemination of disinformation exacerbate the challenge. We can see this moment as a crisis or as a moment of reckoning to harness social capital within the scientific community, and beyond, to generate actionable and human-centered knowledge that mitigates existential threats posed by global crises.

The next superstorm to make landfall will look different, but it is up to us whether we will have built the resilience necessary to tackle it.