Sep 17, 2020


by Scott Brideau

What the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us about dealing with Climate Change

Five or ten years from now, 2020 may well be viewed as a critical tipping point in our collective struggles with climate change. When we look at the layers of impact that the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has imposed upon public health, the economy, resilience and other related systems, we should acknowledge the parallels this global pandemic has to what is expected as the impact curve of climate change steepens.

Pandemic issues such as scarcity of medical supplies, loss of jobs and too many deaths from a general level of unpreparedness aren’t too far removed from climate change issues like scarcity of food and water, more frequent and more intense weather events costing lives, jobs and property loss, and mass migrations from soon-to-be uninhabitable locations putting pressure on neighboring countries.

Looking Through a Different Lens

In the midst of today’s trying times there lies an opportunity to see our role in these systems through a different lens. What will we learn about all the systems the coronavirus has disrupted and how they respond? Will we learn about the things we need to survive, or better yet, eliminate the next round? This line of questioning can be applied across may facets of our current society—from healthcare to the economy, to our social customs and totems. When these questions are aimed at the workplace, you can find a convergence of many related factors and begin to extrapolate the necessary changes in our processes and behaviors that can help prevent history from repeating itself. It’s harder to imagine us reverting to the old “normal” than it is to imagine a vastly different workplace where 70% or more of our work is efficiently completed from home.

Extend that a bit further and there’s a parallel to the issues and threats that climate change presents us today. Medical experts saw the potential of this pandemic event years before it actually hit us. They urged governments to prepare for the worst and to develop contingency plans to minimize and mitigate the impact. Because of the complexities of planning and financing the unknown, only a few listened and the results have been nearly catastrophic in terms of lives and economic value lost. Simple efforts like stockpiling masks and ventilators or better consensus on quarantine guidelines might well have saved tens, or hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide, as well as softened the economic hardships so many now face.

What Looms Ahead

Now think about what looms in our future if we do little to curtail the human impacts of climate change. The vast majority of the scientific community reached consensus years ago and began making recommendations to avert the worst impacts. We see more frequent weather events, like super hurricanes, mass flooding and droughts, strain local, state and regional economies and cost far more to rebuild from than the initial costs for the preventative measures that might have preserved communities and saved lives. If things continue in the wrong direction, predictions of extreme weather events become extreme weather trends such that many of our most fertile and densely populated areas will be too harsh to sustain human life. Mass migration to escape these areas will highlight general inequity and test our capacity for humanitarian compassion.

Are we destined to repeat our mistakes? Not necessarily. But we do need to learn from this crisis and adapt our processes and behaviors to a more symbiotic relationship with nature and the world. Here are 5 potential takeaways from our current experience:

1. There is plenty to learn if we’re paying close attention

As the overall economy resets, we’ll have the chance to invest in the next round of recovery. We can simply repair the systems the pandemic broke or we can adapt those systems to be more resilient and equitable for the next big existential challenge. Retraining the unemployed in tech and renewable energy sectors can pay huge dividends and increase value by better protecting what we invest in from devastation.

2. Science doesn’t lie.

While we occasionally misinterpret outcomes, we should trust consensus within the scientific community. Iterative modeling showed us how to flatten the pandemic curve and those countries who took decisive action were able to stem the worst of it, relieving pressure on their healthcare systems and altering the steepness of economic downturn. Climate modeling is showing us how close to a precipice we are and what we specifically can do to keep from crossing a point of no return.

3. The development community is a potential center of influence

Real estate professionals, developers and corporations will be in the spotlight as we move forward. The old ways will have to give way to innovative thinking about what our built environment needs to be and how it can integrate with our environment, instead of trying to overpower it. In that equation, nature will always win out.

4. A penny saved isn’t always a penny earned

At a national or global scale, money spent in thoughtful preparation saves many times over in reactionary spending during a crisis. Collectively we have to plan for the future and understand how we fit into the bigger picture. This will surely lead to new definitions of value, resilience and sustainability.

5. In order to avoid the next catastrophe, we need to change our current processes and behaviors

Clearly, many of our current practices are the root of the problem, whether it’s poor design, poor performance or other needless waste, we must change our processes to help facilitate a larger change in our behaviors, and by extension, our values, so that we are able to put our collective survival ahead of our immediate desires.

As we rethink the live, work, play equation in a post-COVID world, we can leverage a deeper look at the connective web of systems and design a built environment that takes less toll on the natural one. The knowledge exists and a path laid out. We just need the will to follow it.

View our Beyond Workplace book on Issuu here.


Scott Brideau

Based in Little's DC office, Scott is a studio principal and director of the firm's Regen CoLab. An enthusiastic golfer, biker, hiker, and somewhat reluctant Masters Rower, he recently picked up his guitar after a 30-year hiatus, living his dream of getting the band back together.

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