As people and governments around the world continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, concerns abound that international efforts to stem climate change have waned and, in some cases, ground to a halt. With 2020 marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, scientists and scholars continue to see disturbing indicators of how quickly our environment and planet are being impacted by climate change.

In a livestream event hosted by the Yale International Alliance (YIA), a shared interest group that connects alumni worldwide and supports efforts by alumni and affiliates to be more engaged global citizens, a panel of alumni leaders and Yale World Fellows discussed the global impact of climate change and offered their insights on how the pandemic yields valuable lessons for addressing the threats of climate change.

The panel consisted of five speakers from private industry, academia, the United Nations, and the non-governmental sector:

  • Devrim Celal ’96 MPPM (moderator) – CEO, Upside Energy; member, Yale Alumni Association Board of Governors
  • Marc DuBois ’81 – independent humanitarian analyst/consultant; senior fellow, SOAS University of London; former executive director at Médecins Sans Frontières (UK and Ireland)
  • Gernot Laganda – 2016 World Fellow; director, Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction, U.N. World Food Programme
  • Susan Tambi Matambo ’04 MEM – senior environmental specialist, World Bank
  • Adrien Couton – 2011 World Fellow; vice president, Americas Sustainability Services, ENGIE Impact; and principal, Firefly

Opening the discussion, Celal, who heads a green energy software platform based in London, emphasized that a topic as complex as climate change necessitates having experts from different fields, disciplines, and perspectives engaged in the conversation if the world is to “move forward to a better place.”

DuBois, a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer who has spent more than 20 years working in international aid and refugee assistance, noted the strong connection between environmental threats and the estimated 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons around the world.

“The humanitarian crisis is very, very much intertwined with the climate crisis,” said DuBois.

Laganda said that the World Food Programme, known primarily for delivering food aid in humanitarian disasters, was compelled to establish an in-house climate risk management branch to deal with the real and growing threats of climate change and help countries respond more effectively to climate disasters. He added that this task has become increasingly less manageable in recent years.

“This is becoming more and more difficult,” he said, “because these disasters are happening more often and they are becoming stronger.”

According to Laganda, the primary causes of the estimated 821 million people worldwide who are suffering from hunger are conflicts, climate, and economic crises – and climate is becoming more prominent as a driver, in addition to serving as a catalyst for conflicts.

Besides the physical impact on people’s lives, climate change imposes an enormous economic cost on individuals, institutions, communities, and nations.

Matambo, whose role at the World Bank includes advising the organization on ways to integrate sustainability goals and objectives into its work, indicated that climate change has become a key factor in shaping its programs and collaborations with partner countries “due to the impact that climate change can have on investments that counties make, their own investments and also investments from organizations.”

According to Couton, who as an executive with a global sustainability and energy management firm works with corporations, cities, and governments around the world, businesses and commercial enterprises must adjust their operations to accommodate for the real effects of climate change if they are to survive and prosper. He warned that companies that ignore increasing calls by the public and their consumers to adopt more environmentally friendly policies and practices in their business models, product lines, and services do so at their financial peril.

“This shift in consumer mindset is here to stay,” said Couton.

Pivoting from Coronavirus to Climate Change

Mindful of the tremendous toll the coronavirus has wreaked upon the world, the speakers noted that the global experience and response to the pandemic can be leveraged to address climate change.

According to Laganda, coronavirus is an important wake-up call for the international community, with more people coming to the realization that pandemics, like climate change, do not confine themselves to particular areas of the world – they transcend physical domains and oceans and can spread quickly.

“Just like no one is geographically immune to coronavirus, no one is immune to the impacts of climate change,” he said. “We all are forced to internalize that the biggest global challenges have no national borders.”

He noted that efforts to address coronavirus are highly applicable to climate-related disasters.

“The things governments need to manage public health risks are very often quite similar to the things they need to manage climate risks,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that governments must scale up their efforts and response mechanisms if they are to successfully address global challenges, whether they are pandemics or climate change.

“Our societies are not as prepared or as resilient as we think,” said Laganda. “So, in times like this, countries have a very unique opportunity and unique incentive to strengthen those national systems for risk management and make a bit of a pivot from managing crises to managing risks.”

According to DuBois, who has experienced other pandemics, including the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, mounting a successful campaign against climate change would require three prerequisites, without which efforts become inconsistent and less effective: (1) trust in government and public institutions; (2) response mechanisms to structural inequalities; and (3) the primacy of science, credible data, and verifiable facts.

If the global response to coronavirus is an indication, however, DuBois expressed concerns that sufficient traction may be lacking. He also warned that science alone won’t solve climate change – it requires a confluence of different factors, including vigorous public pressure, decisive political action, and robust economic and social incentives.

“To talk about climate change as if it was just a scientific event ignores the lessons of coronavirus,” he said.

Couton concurred and shared his perspective on the common responses needed to address both coronavirus and climate change.

“Both require bold collective action, investment, [and] rapid innovation driven by data and science,” he said.

Matambo, who professionally and personally has witnessed how climate change has affected farmers and local people in different countries and the developing world, agreed that while climate change is a global issue necessitating the cooperation and coordination of the entire international community, she also believed that each country will make its own decisions on how best to take action based on individual needs, priorities, and circumstances.

“The similarities between COVID and climate change is that different countries will respond differently and not equally to this crisis,” she said.

Recognizing that while climate change is an immensely complex and complicated issue to tackle under the best of circumstances, the speakers were unanimous in their belief that it was not an insurmountable challenge. However, it would require a much more dynamic effort and multi-layered approach encompassing a critical mass of the world’s populace demanding change.

“It’s going to have to be a groundswell,” said DuBois. “And it’s going to have to be an international groundswell, and a very national groundswell, and a very local groundswell.”