HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: Harnessing science to tackle COVID-19 – and environmental problems, too

Director’s Almanac: Harnessing science to tackle COVID-19 – and environmental problems, too

The world is reeling. Stock prices have been falling. Schools and museums are closing. College seniors might have to graduate online. Yes, it’s the early days of COVID-19.

Between moments of preparing work-from-home plans for the Institute and implementing decisions coming from our University president, I’ve been thinking about what the spread of COVID-19 means for us environmental folks and vice versa. In short: a lot.

Now more than ever, we must recognize that the spread of infectious disease is tied to so many other challenges we face as a society, and there are lessons to learn from the right way to fight COVID-19 that can be expanded to other vexing problems.

Our success in slowing and stopping the spread of COVID-19 relies on our willingness to follow the science — actually using what we know about disease transmission — on a very large scale. Many environmental problems also share features with COVID-19: We have a lot of knowledge about what is needed; we need people who are in the position to make decisions to understand the problem and possible solutions; and we need the social and political will to implement those changes at a large scale, for the benefit of society at large. And we need to be able to do all of those things in the face of uncertainty and complexity. It’s a tall order, but not impossible. In truth, we have no choice: If we don’t do these things, the human, economic, and planetary consequences will be severe.

I acknowledge that disease is more immediate and personal than, say, tropical deforestation or climate change – and that immediacy helps people take action. It’s extraordinary to see the personal sacrifice and economic cost that society is currently bearing to tackle this disease. It’s harder to motivate around problems that feel less immediate. But they are not as different as you might think.

Here are a few critical linkages I see between the work of preventing the spread of disease and the work of making the world more sustainable. I share these with the goal of supporting smart decision-making in the face of COVID-19 – listen to the science! – and the hope of learning from this experience so that we can tackle other crises too, including those with an environmental connection.

Global problems require global cooperation

Viruses can cross international boundaries, but knowledge can too – if we let it. It’s not on the front page of many newspapers, but there is extraordinary international cooperation taking place on COVID-19. For example, a collection of Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of COVID-19 on January 10 and – before it appeared in published form – they posted it to a public database so that scientists around the world could start using that information. Independently, another group in the United States obtained the x-ray structure of the key virus coat protein. And less than one week later, a Canadian group published a study describing more than one billion possible drug leads that could inactivate the virus. This spectacular progress comes only from fully engaged international scientific cooperation.

Sadly, global trends toward nationalism put this kind of collaboration at risk. While it might be appropriate at times to restrict travel or distance ourselves from one another, we need more intellectual connectedness and collaboration than ever. COVID-19 first emerged in southern China, but so did the science that will eventually help take control of it. International collaboration is also critical in the environmental sciences, where sharing data and models leads to improved climate predictions, for example, and policy and technology experiments in one location can be shared and improved for application elsewhere.

Science should be not be in silos

No single expert or academic discipline knows what to do about COVID-19, but together they do. Geneticists know the bases that make up the virus. Physiologists and immunologists understand how the virus overtakes the cell of its hosts. Public health professionals and medical doctors interface with real patients. And there’s been a groundswell of mathematicians and population biologists who’ve turned their computer modeling expertise toward COVID-19. They are showing policy-makers how interventions today prevent infections tomorrow.

This is precisely the same for environmental problems. To prevent deforestation we rely on botanists and forest ecologists to tell us what level of harvesting is sustainable. We rely on global carbon scientists to tell us how much deforestation destabilizes the climate, and we rely on economists to study policy tools and incentives for decreasing deforestation rates in different social and market contexts. The more we stimulate discussion and share information among these fields, the more creatively, strategically, and efficiently we tackle the most important challenges of our day.

COVID-19 also reminds us that environmental and disease scientists must work together. COVID-19 jumped from an animal to a human because of increasing intrusion into natural ecosystems. Its effects might be exacerbated by environmental problems including air pollution. And whether or not the virus stays with us for years to come will be determined by the climate, our environment, economic practices, and human behavior. It’s all one big interrelated problem, and experts must work together.

Acting now is better than acting later

The school closings and event cancellations we are seeing today are not, primarily, about protecting individuals. They’re about slowing the spread of COVID-19 for the collective good, for lots of people you don’t even know. The goal of social distancing is avoiding a spike of infections that could overwhelm our health care system and reduce the quality of care for infected individuals. Every action we take on social distancing now – today, not tomorrow – reduces the size and immediacy of that spike, slowing the spread to a more manageable pace. In the case of disease transmission, interventions today pay off in higher survival rates tomorrow.

We have understood for years that a similar phenomenon happens with climate change. The impacts of climate change accumulate over time, with greater effects in the future than we see today, due both to continued emissions and the time it takes for the planetary processes to shift. But the costs of dealing with climate change accumulate over time too. That’s because the cost of taking corrective action in the future is high, higher than the cost of implementing greenhouse gas reductions today. It’s true that the cost of alternative energy technologies can – and does – decrease over time and as those technologies become more widespread, but only if we invest in discovering and testing those technologies today.

It’s all about systems

Many features of our daily lives are built around simple abstractions. For example: One producer sells to a distributor who sells to a retailer, forming a supply chain. But that’s not the way the world really works – that’s not even how real supply chains work. The real world is made up of complex, interconnected networks of people and processes. One input rarely leads to a single output because each entity in the network is tied to many others.

Perhaps more than anything else, COVID-19 reminds us that people are embedded in complex networks of relationships and interactions. If we want to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we need to understand the complexity of those interactions. We must recognize that pulling one lever, such as halting international flights or closing schools, has waves of cascading consequences.

People working on the frontlines of environmental issues understand systems. They are champions of systems thinking. They know that modern agriculture simplifies the ecosystem and that’s why increasing the diversity of crops and intermixing crops with natural habitat can decrease pollution and even increase yields. In natural landscapes, chemicals, materials, and energy are not created or destroyed, they simply move from one place to another within a connected system. All changes – and interventions – have consequences, intended and not.

The sooner we all grasp the interconnectedness of systems, the better we’ll steward our planet – and one another.

Elbow-bump a scientist

Before last week, I would have said “hug.” Yesterday, from my office at the University of Minnesota, I listened to Governor Walz describe new guidelines for social gatherings, and just about every other sentence of his remarks – and responses to questions – referenced guidance the state is receiving from scientists and public health experts. Virologists, immunologists, climate scientists, ecologists, and earth systems scientists have a lot to offer society. Thank goodness for them all.

My hope for overcoming the coronavirus pandemic is the same hope I have for climate change, for deforestation, for water pollution, and for other environmental challenges. I hope our elected and business leaders are ambitious, collaborative, and work across boundaries. I hope they have an inquisitive mind and an open ear to science. And I believe if they’re able to do these things, a healthy and sustainable future is possible.

In planetary prosperity,


P.S. Thanks to Larry Wackett for several of the points above and for the encouragement to make these thoughts in a public space. Thanks also to Peter Reich who has been working tirelessly in the last couple of days to sound the alarm in our state, helping our decision-makers understand what ecology and population has to say about the spread of disease and strategies for saving lives.

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