Risks and opportunities in responding to the coronavirus crisis – by Prof. Dr. Dirk Messner

“The only thing missing right now is an invasion by extra-terrestrials,” is what a friend who works as a journalist said to me at the weekend. Her words seemed to sum up the strange situation in which our society currently finds itself. Over the months to come, decisions will be taken that determine our lives in the 2020s.

This blog is from the Corona Sustainability Compass initiative.

We are currently in a situation that experts have described as the perfect storm – a multidimensional crisis in which reciprocal dynamics of varying magnitude can cause considerable damage. Three forces must be tamed, which is possible, but in no way certain.

The first is the coronavirus crisis: if we fail to bring the virus under control and prevent it from spreading, and healthcare systems collapse, considerable economic and social damage occurs. If apparent and actual social injustices increase, then by the end of the year, the authoritarian nationalists from whom nobody wants to hear at present (at least in most countries) might have a comeback. If the fight against the coronavirus is unsuccessful, the economy will weaken, and with it, social cohesion and democracy. Decisive action to resolve the corona crisis is therefore necessary at the political level. This not only requires an effective strategy, it also requires “composure”. This may have been best expressed by Bill Gates: “Believe me. We can rebuild the economy. But we can’t bring the dead back to life.”

The second threat is climate change: if the coronavirus crisis absorbs all our strength and we neglect the issue of climate change, we will face an exceptionally difficult 21st century. The consequences of the ever increasing global warming have been described several times. The geosystems could reach a tipping point: the ice sheet of Greenland, the melting of which implies a seven-metre rise in sea levels, would be irreversibly destroyed. Considerable damage would also be caused to the monsoon system in Asia and the Amazon rainforest, with huge consequences for the availability of water and the ability to feed the local population. Climate change (like the coronavirus crisis) can only be curbed with rapid, ambitious action.

Thirdly, the situation in the poorer countries is of decisive importance: one can only imagine the kind of humanitarian disaster that the coronavirus could cause in Africa, for instance, should it spread that far. In poorer countries, healthcare systems are frequently weak and many people live crammed together in slums. The situation in refugee camps looks even worse; in Idlib, for example. We are aware that socioeconomic turmoil leads to violence, as a result of which entire countries can collapse. Humanitarian disasters therefore become issues of international security. At this point, it is also worth mentioning that the way in which the USA and other western states overcome the coronavirus crisis in comparison with China is not irrelevant for the international order.

Playing these three crises off against each other cannot and must not determine our actions. The challenge is to achieve success on all three fronts in order to prosper in the 2020s and to gain or even expand the opportunities surrounding sustainability.

What we know about crises – and what we can learn from them

On the one hand, people and organisations in situations characterised by great insecurity, fear and existential worries place their trust in tried-and-tested routines. This is a protective mechanism to regain security and control. This reflex often makes it difficult to embark on important, forward-looking innovations – which focus on sustainability, for instance. Crises can trigger “cognitive lock-ins”, or becoming stuck in the structures of the past. Strong voices are therefore needed which show how future investments can be configured properly and which address the fears and uncertainties of the here and the now.

On the other hand, however, crises are frequently moments at which changes become possible that would be otherwise inconceivable under normal circumstances. The radical measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading are examples of such changes. We went through a similar experience in the global financial crisis of 2008, when banks were suddenly nationalised.

As long as everything appears to be working, decision-makers have few incentives to embark on radical change. In a crisis, however, hand-wringing efforts are made to find new solutions. Michael Cohen, James March and Johan Olson described this phenomenon in 1972 in their “garbage can model”. Whether the current situation of crisis has a dampening impact on our ambitions, or possibilities for ambitious investments in sustainability and socio-ecological change prevail, depends on the discussions that take place at a public level. At present, in the depths of the crisis, a struggle is underway over how to interpret the future. The question of how and with which concepts the research into sustainability and the environment and the world of politics become involved to transform uncertainty into hope for the future, is therefore of great importance.

Let us create a positive future now

Future prospects and creative solutions usually arise from a combination of existing possibilities. Put differently: most of the innovations we now need are already in the pipeline. They must be adapted to the current situation and reassessed from the perspective of the three forces of the perfect storm.

For the moment, three things are important: firstly, the fight against the coronavirus must be linked up with the fight against climate change and environmental crises. Due to the damage caused by the virus, the economy must be revitalised with packages to boost growth and public investments in infrastructure so that employment levels are stabilised and the protection of the climate and fairness are advanced. The development of the infrastructure for electric mobility can be accelerated, the energy-saving renovation quota for buildings can be doubled, and basic structures for green hydrogen can be established. The German Environment Agency and other institutions that focus their work on sustainability should now cooperate with the key economic research and innovation institutions in order to reconcile economic and socio-ecological rationality. This would allow us to create sustainable economic structures more quickly than would have been possible under normal conditions. The crisis would then become an opportunity.

Secondly, the medium-term perspective on the lessons of the corona crisis is important for future concepts of social welfare: the discussions on sustainability will change due to the coronavirus crisis. An additional focus will be made on the resilience, i.e. the durability and robustness of the economic and social structures. The huge importance of public services will also become clearer due to the crisis – such as access to efficiently functioning healthcare and educational systems. The coronavirus crisis will also give additional credence to lifestyles that support sustainability in the areas of mobility, consumption, food and our interaction with nature. We should take this opportunity. Digitalisation will also advance due to the coronavirus crisis. Finally bringing together a transformation in sustainability and digitalisation is therefore all the more important.

Thirdly, we will fail without global cooperation: in view of financial market crises, climate change, international migration and cross-border diseases such Ebola and Corona, this lesson is correct in principle, but it is easier formulated than it is realised. It is also a fact that multilateralism has been weakened in recent years by the rise of nationalist movements all over the world. Moreover, the first response to the coronavirus has also been one of isolation.

The EU should now do two things to foster the development of cooperation in the current crisis: It should provide a clear commitment to the implementation of the EU Green Deal and link this with the coronavirus packages to boost economic growth. Secondly, the nations of the EU and the countries of the G20 should offer effective support to the countries in Africa that are threatened by the coronavirus, and include other poor nations in their packages to boost economic growth both on humanitarian grounds and to support international solidarity and self-interest.

If everything goes well, the years 2020/2021 could see a shift towards sustainable economies and societies. In a perfect storm scenario, however, things could turn out very differently.


Prof. Dr. Dirk Messner is the President of the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt, UBA) and the  internationally renowned sustainability scientist.


Corona Sustainability Compass – manage today, master tomorrow

The Corona Sustainability Compass is a new initiative lead by UBS (Umweltbundesamt) in partnership with the ISC, Future Earth and Stiftung 2° (Foundation 2°). Click here for more information.

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