COVID-19, Climate Change and Sustainable Futures

Global challenges like climate change and the current coronavirus pandemic remind us that the world is one interconnected system.

Limiting global temperature rise to less than 1.5°C, effectively managing the symbiotic relationships among our human, animal and plant ecosystems and strengthening the resilience of Caribbean countries, will all require unprecedented levels of collective action. There is scientific evidence that changing weather patterns and human activity contribute to the spread of infectious diseases. The current global health crisis highlights, therefore, that SDG 13 (climate action) is not a distant goal but an urgent imperative.

The 2030 agenda for sustainable development, in which the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are enshrined, was intended as a blueprint for balancing people, planet and prosperity. The current crisis, however, has amplified the voices that have been calling for a recalibration of development approaches as well as accelerated action towards achieving the SDGs.

In the context of the SIDS of the Caribbean, this means coming together in solidarity to co-create a more sustainable future for our region. It is a time to:

  • boldly assert new indigenous narratives for development. These should promote social inclusion and environmental sustainability in tandem with more measured approaches to economic progress
  • re-visit outmoded positions on development assistance criteria, debt financing, unbridled economic growth and global trade practices
  • invest fully in research and scientific inquiry that will illuminate pathways for solving our complex, multi-dimensional development challenges.
Collectively, we will need to deconstruct our current existence and re-construct a more just and sustainable world; one that we will be proud to pass on to future generations.

Never before have universities been so central to the global development agenda. Never before have research, science and knowledge been so widely recognized for their direct contribution to policies and decisions that have an immediate impact on lives, jobs and well-being.

Public universities, like the Caribbean’s regional university, The University of the West Indies (UWI), as such will need to be deeply embedded in public and private sector efforts to revitalize Caribbean economies and to reshape Caribbean societies. This work is best done by inspiring new ways of thinking and doing. In spite of the challenges that may lie ahead, higher education will remain a developmental force in our region, helping to nurture knowledge creators, innovators and entrepreneurs, to harness regional and global knowledge networks and to uplift communities across the Caribbean.

The pathway to more sustainable futures will require a fervent commitment to science diplomacy, multilateralism and partnerships.

During this UN-declared Decade of Action, we are called upon to deepen our understanding of how human behaviour affects biodiversity, climate change and the spread of infectious diseases. We are summoned to advocate for climate justice in a region whose populations are most affected by, but least culpable for, catastrophic climatic events such as hurricanes Irma, Maria and Dorian.

Sustainability thinking and planetary economics must be mainstreamed into all that we do, as we take on the important task of imagining the future we want into existence.

The way in which countries emerge from the pandemic will depend on the leadership demonstrated across all sectors and all levels of society.

  • Will countries across the globe unite behind the science and act in concert for our shared global goals?
  • Will this be treated as a knee-jerk response to the pandemic or rather, embraced and sustained as a new approach to integrating science diplomacy and multilateralism?
  • Will developed countries be prepared to mobilize adequate development financing to tackle issues such as poverty, inequality and climate justice across different regions as quickly as they mobilized the trillions needed to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic within their own countries?
  • Will there be a better appreciation for the multiple vulnerabilities experienced by SIDS, particularly the High Middle Income SIDS of the Caribbean?
  • Can policy makers and behavioural economists successfully nudge millions of people across borders, cultures, genders, age groups and socio-economic backgrounds into making choices that benefit the collective over the individual?
  • Will countries move beyond the instrumental value typically ascribed to schooling and renew their focus on the intrinsic value and enlightenment potential of education, which influences human agency?
We have been forced to confront our mortality on a global scale, that will open our eyes to the frailty of our systems and to our shared vulnerability to immense, borderless existential threats like COVID 19 and climate change.

As the infection rate continues to rise, in some countries exponentially, and as we come to terms with the devastating repercussions of what Lloyd Best referred to as ‘unresponsibility’, we can only hope that the new dawn brings with it the political will to adopt new development approaches and the discipline to transform our world for the better.

About the Author

Dr. Stacy Richards-Kennedy heads the regional University Office of Global Partnerships and Sustainable Futures at The University of the West Indies (UWI). She is responsible for donor engagement, resource mobilization for strategic priorities and technical cooperation with multilateral agencies, development banks and other partners. She leads the coordination of the Global University Consortium on SDG 13, bringing together universities committed to climate action across five continents. Her research focuses on knowledge brokerage and development impact. She serves on various Boards and University Committees and also chairs the board of The University School, St. Augustine, the first school in Trinidad and Tobago to receive the international LEAF Award in recognition of its contribution to environmental protection.