– John Robinson

Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and the School of the Environment, at the University of Toronto.

15 April 2020

The plethora of articles about the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis makes me think of the Danish saying, (sometimes attributed to Niels Bohr) “it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. Many articles provide a mixture of highly plausible projections, mixed in with some wishful thinking. However, I think it is fair to say that such lists consist almost entirely of what might be called first-order predictions: expectations about the immediate consequences of COVID-19. Another saying I like is that the only law of sociology is the law of unanticipated consequences, and I think there will be lots of second and third-order effects that may take us in entirely different directions, even if many of the first order prognostications turn out to be correct. My own personal view is that the second order consequences of any major socio-technical system change are often in the opposite direction of the first order consequences, and bigger. Think of projections of IT leading to the paperless office or of highway building leading to less congestion. The first order effect indeed happened (for a given level of activity) but was overwhelmed by second order effects in the other direction.

In fact, I believe the COVID-19 crisis is a perfect illustration of the need to move beyond predictive forecasting approaches to thinking about the future of complex systems, to an approach based on scenario analysis and an effort to determine what strategies may be resilient against the huge degree of uncertainty that stems from the fact that complex systems are characterized by inherently unpredictable emergent properties. Attempts to predict the outcomes of this crisis have not succeeded, and we have a huge amount of uncertainty about how this will play out. This, of course, is not to say that we should not try to model outcomes, based on the best possible data and science, but simply that we need to plan for quite divergent possible outcomes.

I think this point applies in spades to the issue of how COVID-19 will affect our responses to climate change. I have seen many recent articles that put a positive spin on this, and one of the best of those, in my opinion, is a March 5 article by Thomas Homer-Dixon (“Coronavirus will change the world. It might also lead to a better future”) in the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail. Homer-Dixon makes the important point that it is not just massively greater connectivity that makes us vulnerable, but also much greater uniformity, in both biological and socio-political terms. Given the virtual inevitability of significant tipping points from COVID-19 (and also from climate change, as well as many other changes) the key question is how to create what he calls ‘virtuous cascades’ of positive normative change. I agree with this and made a similar argument, at more length, in the IST2019 conference in Ottawa last year. In summary my argument was in three parts:

Change                     We need to steer change, not create it, . . .

Pathways                  at the level of underlying development paths (not just policies and technologies) . . .

Interventions           in order to normalize sustainability (make it the default, not the change).

So, my answer to the question of how to think about the relationship of COVID-19 to sustainability is that we need to look for leverage points emerging out of the COVID-19 crisis that will allow us to foster and encourage more sustainable outcomes. The strong focus in many climate change strategies on identifying co-benefits, including health co-benefits, offers a starting point for such a search, I think. Perhaps we need to resurrect the idea of ‘no regrets’ or, ‘worth doing anyway’ strategies[i].

On a related point, one issue I see raised in the discussion of COVID-19 and climate change or sustainability focusses on the difference between the big changes in individual behaviour that COVID-19 is causing and the lack of such changes with regard to climate change. Of course, some of the reasons for the difference are obvious (climate change has been around, as an issue for decades, so has become normalized; and the consequences will take place over a much longer time frame) but to me the bigger issue is that we may be barking up the wrong tree in looking for individual behavioural responses to climate change. I have recently published a blog in the Business of Society blog of Copenhagen Business School which argues that information does not change behaviour but there are much better things to do in any case.

For sure we need to build climate change and sustainability responses into any attempt to “bounce-forward” from the COVID-19 crisis (I think it is critical to think in terms of bouncing forward, not bouncing back). A good example of this approach in the energy sector is proposed by Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, here. I also like this article by Sally Uren of Forum for the Future here. The key perhaps is to realize that we are surfing the waves of massive unpredictable change (COVID-19 will not be the only such event), and we need to develop adaptive, integrated and multi-issue response strategies that are resilient to huge uncertainty. In this connection I like looking at the UN Sustainable Development Goals because they outline the range and scale of issues we need to address.

All this suggests that we need to pay close attention to how we think about the resilience of systems. The point about ‘bounce-forward’ resilience vs ‘bounce-back’ resilience, is connected to the question of baselines. Bounce-back strategies assume there is a kind of current trends baseline (sometimes misleadingly called ‘business as usual’; misleading because all business as usual projections I have ever seen are so infeasible as to necessarily lead to massive non-business-as-usual change). The goal of bounce-back strategies is to return to this current trends scenario. But if we believe that substantial change from current trends is required to achieve sustainability, then we don’t want to bounce-back to current trends, but to bounce-forward to more sustainable trajectories. So, we need to pay explicit attention to the baseline scenarios we are talking about. Resilience strategies, for example, should not be tied to current conditions, or to current trends scenarios, but to future scenarios that are intended to move us in more sustainable directions.

This, in turn, has implications for how we think of the mitigation-adaptation relationship. Note that mitigation policies are intended to lead us to more sustainable futures. So, they are inextricably connected to resilience strategies intended to bounce-forward to precisely such futures. It is in that sense that we can think of mitigation as pro-active adaptation.

While these theoretical arguments are important (we need a coherent theoretical framework), the real power of thinking of sustainable futures, and the integration of adaptation and mitigation approaches, is how those approaches play out in practice. In essence I think these two ideas suggest the importance of creating integrated sustainability scenarios, based on participatory community engagement processes, that incorporate both adaptation and mitigation measures and their interactions in a particular jurisdiction[ii]. Such scenarios could be a powerful way to explore the kinds of leverage points I have described above, and the opportunity to tie our responses to COVID-19 to the societal project of creating a more sustainable world.

Of course, in a way, all this is just a long-winded academic way of saying, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. But I am an inveterate optimist.


[i] Robinson, J., Fraser, M., Haites, E., Harvey, D., Jaccard, M., Reinsch, A., & Torrie, R. (1993). Canadian options for greenhouse gas emission reduction (COGGER). Final Report of the COGGER Panel to the Canadian Global Change Program and the Canadian Climate Program Board; Royal Society of Canada.

[ii] See for example, Bizikova, L., Burch, S., Robinson, J., Shaw, A., Sheppard, S. (2011). Utilizing participatory scenario-based approaches to design proactive responses to climate change in the face of uncertainties. (Feichter, J., Gramelsberger, G., eds.) Climate Change and Policy: The Calculability of Climate Change and the Challenge of Uncertainty, Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag; Bizikova, L., Burch, S., Cohen, S., Robinson, J. (2010) A Participatory Integrated Assessment Approach to Local Climate Change Responses: Linking Sustainable Development with Climate Change Adaptation & Mitigation. (O’Brien, K., Kristoffersen, B. and St. Clair, A., eds.) Climate Change, Ethics and Human Security, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 157-179; Bizikova, L., Robinson, J., Cohen S. (2007) “Linking climate change and sustainable development at the local level”, Climate Policy, 7: 271-277; Burch, S., Shaw, A., Kristensen, F., Robinson, J., and Dale, A. (2015) Urban Climate Governance through a Sustainability Lens: Exploring the Integration of Adaptation and Mitigation in Four British Columbian Cities, in Johnson, C., Toly, N., and Schroeder, H. (eds.) The Urban Climate Challenge: Rethinking the Role of Cities in the Global Climate Regime, London: Routledge; Shaw, A., Burch, S., Kristensen, F., Robinson, J., Dale, A. (2014) “Accelerating the sustainability transition: Exploring synergies between adaptation and mitigation in British Columbian communities”, Global Environmental Change, 25: 41-51