From COVID-19 to Climate, What We Need Is a Just Transition

Ville Lähde | 04.27.2020

This article was originally published in Finnish and in English on the website of the BIOS Research unit (, titled “Quick, slow and intertwined crises – ecological reconstruction in an uncertain world”. It was written by Ville Lähde (, with the collaboration and contributions of the whole BIOS research community.

Although the extent and the speed of the current pandemic, not to mention the scope of the necessary containment measures, took us all by surprise, the outbreak itself was no surprise. Something like this was bound to happen, and repeated warnings had been given. Widespread upheavals of social systems are in fact subject to an epistemological asymmetry that may be confusing from an everyday perspective. On the one hand, people who work with these issues have been aware that a crisis – a pandemic, a food system shock, a financial crisis – is inevitable, with solid ideas about its general outlines. On the other hand, nobody could have anticipated the details of the present crisis or the place and time of its occurrence precisely. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between prediction and foresight. For every accurate prediction you have countless failures, but the general nature of a crisis may still have been foreseen very well. Foresight is not a form of gambling, but a way of trying to understand the state of the world.

The global food system, intricately interwoven, fell into crisis in 2006–2008 and again in 2010–2011. Those crises, like the international financial crisis of 2007–2009, were unique and hard to predict, yet still previously foreseen chains of events. Various studies and reports had warned about the inherent instability and crisis-prone nature of the food and financial systems. Although the concept of black swan that describes unforeseen events became fashionable during the financial crisis (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book was opportunely published in 2007), the crisis was not a wholly unforeseen event. Neither was the current pandemic by any means a thunderbolt out of the blue – as Taleb has himself reminded. The vulnerabilities had been recognized, admonitions offered… and taken as the proverbial boy crying wolf. The possibility of a global pandemic had been foreseen, and indeed its occurrence had been feared many times before, for instance, in connection to the SARS and MERS epidemics. But it was impossible to predict that this particular outbreak would result in a pandemic.

There is a host of historical examples of widespread and destructive pandemics, but the probability of a truly global pandemic has grown as the movement of people and goods ever more accelerates, as geographically distant areas are increasingly networked in various ways, as population concentrations swell, climate change proceeds and human activities spread to new areas of the planet. In similar fashion, the potential for food and financial crises has grown as the corresponding systems become more and more complicated and depend on the rapid functioning of global delivery, transport and communication. Thus these crises are a systemic feature of an increasingly globalized and accelerated world. They are not the whims of fate, not the eternal cycle of calamities, not “nature striking back”, but part and parcel of the world order that has been constructed during the recent two centuries.

Diminishing the systematic vulnerability would have required fundamental changes in food systems, economic systems and practices that destroy biodiversity and constantly drive human activity into new areas. In a nutshell, making societies and production systems less vulnerable would have required developing redundancy, backup systems and other such features that were deemed wasteful in the perspective of narrowly determined economic optimization and efficiency. Unfortunately, not enough socio-political will and power was  mobilized to effect such changes. Warnings were heard but they were effectively unheeded. The costs of fundamental changes were, explicitly or implicitly, calculated to be too steep, and societies acquiesced to pay the price of crises (or at least to place the burden on somebody else). This resignation to fate was often legitimized by stating that despite the design flaws, we are still living in the best of possible times. “It’s getting better all the time.”

Quick and slow crises

One reason for this reticence must be that despite dire warnings people have hoped such crises would be relatively quick in passing, over after a few months or a couple of years at best. It is hoped that the situation can be controlled with emergency measures, a state of exception can be proclaimed, and after it is all over we can return to the normal state of affairs. The attitude towards quick crises has resembled that towards wars, which are followed by peacetime. Of course the notion of “the normal state of affairs” is always somewhat illusionary: crises create traumatized generations, destroy lives, demolish and redistribute property and create the conditions for reorganization of power. They accelerate the disappearance of some ways of life and give rise to new ones. The decades of the World Wars were a conflagration that crushed the earlier phase of multipolar and imperial globalization and gave birth to a new bipolar and frenetic one. After the upheavals that ended the Cold War, the world went through an unforeseen rush of globalization, which in turn has reached a crisis point during the recent decades.

People who spend their working hours devising disaster scenarios have of course also mulled over quick crises that would result in downright total devastation: a collision with a large comet, a supervolcano eruption, a nuclear war or a highly lethal and extremely virulent disease. In the end there is, however, little that can be done in the way of preparation for such calamities. An Extinction Level Event or one that results in total collapse of civilization arrives or it does not, despite all the best laid schemes of mice and men. This is a popular topic in movies, television series, computer games and books, but in everyday life the basic assumption is that after a crisis or a disaster we will return to a world which is largely recognizable. We can rely on the resources and possibilities of our known world when recuperating. “Let’s get back to work.”

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It is precisely here that quick crises differ radically from the ongoing environmental and resource crises which are essentially slow. Even the feared climate tipping points are crawling processes in comparison with a long-lasting pandemic or an enduring war. Slow crises cannot be overcome by declaring a martial law or a state of exception, after which things can return to normal. Permanent systemic transformations of societies are necessary. It is because of this difference that many researchers have been reluctant to use terms like climate emergency or to use wartime metaphors. They may convey a false sense of transience. This is why the BIOS Research Unit has introduced the notion of ecological reconstruction into Finnish public discussion. It harks metaphorically back to the period after the Second World War, when many European societies, ruined by war, began a process of not just physical reconstruction but also of creating modern welfare states and more egalitarian political systems after decades of belligerence. The big difference with the current situation is of course that the virtual ruins of the fossil fuel economies cannot be reconstructed by using cheap and abundant fossil fuels as happened in the context of the post-war global acceleration of production and consumption. It is not reconstruction to recapture what was lost but construction of something new that preserves and takes further the best parts, such as equality and democracy, of the legacy.

Slow environmental and resource crises necessitate an abiding, generational process of social transformation. If one looks, e.g., at climate change, it is not enough to set the target of carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. The transformation has to be realized with the long game in mind: net negative emissions are needed for decades and decades in order to bring the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to a level that avoids catastrophic long-term changes. Carbon neutrality is just the first step, after which another is needed, and another, and another. This is why it is vital to avoid troublesome path dependencies which make the later steps more difficult – for example to avoid investing in technological infrastructures that block further change and thus do not work well as transitional steps. This is necessarily a long process. Emergency measures, on the other hand, tend to lack the long view.

Perhaps some sectors can be transformed quickly though a wartime-like emergency mobilisation – transforming the energy system might be such a case, and it is one of the most urgent tasks at hand. This does not apply to many other required changes, however. Fundamental changes to ways of life and social organization are called for. How to effect social development that permanently diminishes the total consumption of natural resources? (When trade flows are taken into account, the level is exceptionally high and is still growing even in Finland, a supposedly environmentally aware society.) How to safeguard the many dimensions of biodiversity, not only the number of species but the functioning of ecosystems and the viable size and genetic diversity of populations? A wholesale sustainability transformation of societies is not an emergency project that ends in 2050 or in 2100. You have to play the long game. How can we grasp a social process of transformation that has its necessary waypoints (like carbon neutrality in 2050) but not a clearly-drawn finish line?

The crucial differences between climate and pandemic crises

For the same reason it is misleading to see a silver lining in the black clouds of the pandemia and rejoice over how “nature gets a breather”. Some news about rejuvenating ecosystems have been sheer misinformation, but it is clear that for example climate emissions will fall temporarily as production and consumption grind to a halt. However, they can also bounce back fast after the crisis, provided it does not last too long. But major environmental crises are incremental in nature, not saltatory. A temporary drop in climate emissions does not really amount to much, if emissions are still larger than sinks and thus the concentrations of greenhouse gases rise in the atmosphere. As the concentrations rise, it is getting worse all the time.

Furthermore, the history of wars and financial crises shows us that busts are followed by booms, and even after crippling devastation emissions and consumption can rise rapidly, much higher than before. Those who romanticize about societal collapse simply cannot fathom how gargantuan phenomena the major environmental and resource crises are. The phenomena have a massive inertia. Not to mention that looking for a silver lining amongst widespread human suffering is not the most fruitful way to facilitate sustainable social transformations.

Actions have to correspond with the phenomena in question. This is where the oft-repeated question “Why don’t we tackle climate change with the same vigour as the current pandemic?” fails. These phenomena are not commensurable. You cannot create a vaccine against the climate change, and it will not fade away through time. Infectious diseases are being researched constantly, past struggles with epidemics and pandemics offer a trove of useful lessons, and emergency systems have been devised on that basis. The preparation was inadequate for the current pandemic, but there were at least initial successes in some countries. As the current scientific discussion around Covid-19 illustrates, there is always uncertainty about the behaviour of new pathogens and the dynamics of the diseases, so some scientific disagreement is inevitable. It takes time to reach a consensus and to test which countermeasures work best. Still, there are general unifying features between epidemics and pandemics. In rough outlines we know what should be done.

In the rhetoric of the environmental movements, and in the climate change debate especially, there is a recurring statement: “We already know what to do. We just have to get to work.” But do we really know? On the one hand yes, on the other no. All the most important dimensions of climate change are extremely well understood – much better than the nature of the current pandemic, in fact – and no significant uncertainty remains about them. The sources and amounts of the major greenhouse gases are accounted for, and the remaining uncertainties are down to the sheer complexity of the phenomenon but do not change the big picture. We know the ballpark we are in, and the timetable is well understood. This knowledge does not however offer clear guidelines as to how the social transformation could and should be realized. Climate research cannot offer a blueprint for social transformation. The task gets even harder when one looks at the multiplicity of other environmental and resource problems. What is needed are simultaneous and concerted changes in various fields of society, ones that support rather than hinder each other.

Combatting a global pandemic may require drastic measures, the legitimacy of which is gained with their promised transience. Some day the disease will pass, or even if it becomes a recurrent phenomenon, it will no longer be met without immunity, experience, medical cures and even vaccines, if we are lucky. The restaurants, the schools and the movie theatres will open. The expected temporariness makes it easier to stomach the loss of life and other sacrifices (in one’s own country, that is, and not just in faraway countries or the borderlands of Europe, where suffering seems to be an acceptable “normal state of affairs”). Emergency measures are not meant to transform the society permanently – albeit it is a realistic threat that some exceptional policies will become a regular feature of societies, and not just in already autocratic countries. Hungary is a most extreme example at the time we are writing this.

It is much harder to grasp a prolonged process of change that affects not only one’s own life but the lives of the posterity through generations. As such a change shakes the foundations of the established way of life, it can even seem more threatening than a martial law that goes on for months. Everyday life is transfigured not once but again and again. This is why the concept of a just transition has become so central in thinking about profound eco-social transformations, for example in notions of Green New Deal, or the Finnish discussion about ecological reconstruction. The basic idea is that fundamental and permanent social change will not be possible without it being acceptable to the populace, which is why questions regarding equality, welfare, employment, social security, care, public health and education are at the core. These are not just not something “extra” that would be nice to include in addition to environmental protection.

Intertwined Crises

But unfortunately quick and slow crises cannot really be differentiated so clearly. This is essentially what the concept of wicked problems is about. One of the key features of increasingly complex, accelerated and networked global social-ecological systems is that disturbances can spread rapidly and unpredictably. Crises tend not to stay limited to a certain sector of society and thus amenable to carefully tailored countermeasures. Successfully restricting disturbances to one system gets more and more improbable. In security studies, similar notions have been developed in the discussion about a wider conception of security.

Wickedness does not arise simply from the unlucky and unlikely coincidence of several calamities. This can happen, of course. Zagreb suffered an earthquake in the midst of the emergency measures aimed at containing the current pandemic. The suffering of migrants in the borderlands of Europe became suddenly both more terrible and invisible, as Covid-19 went global. The prospects of this in Syria, for example, are truly horrific. The essence of wickedness is however when one crisis can trigger others that were lurking under the surface. The international financial system had become extremely vulnerable before the outbreak of the current pandemic, so the resulting crash will most likely be much harder than could result only from the emergency measures. Tracking simple causal chains does not work in socio-ecological crises that spread through complex networks, amplifying each other. Societies have not devised contingency plans for them, and research on these issues is still marginal.

A word of caution is in order. Talking about networks, systems theory and complexity too easily becomes handwaving: butterflies, hurricanes, chaos theory, novelty on the edges, the works. This is not a shortcut to understanding. The fact that complex systems can reach a bifurcation point and change abruptly to a radically new state does not tell us what precisely is happening now. Systems theory, complexity studies, or whatever term one chooses to use for these kindred approaches, does not make things easier but harder. Diverse complex systems are not always and everywhere comparable and do not offer lessons about each other simply because they are complex and systems. In order to offer useful analogies, they have to be similar in a meaningful way.

In fact, this systemic perspective meets another epistemological asymmetry. In the real world, the borderlines between individual ecological and/or social systems are fuzzy, so there is always the possibility to widen the scope and to link systems that are distinct from one perspective into a more extensive perspective. Eventually it is possible to try to model the whole planet – this is the domain of the Earth System Studies. Widening the systemic scope loses details and local dynamics and gains knowledge about large-scale interactions. Global models are indispensable when truly global phenomena like the climate are studied. There are also good scientific grounds to look at the global flows of natural resources and the networks of production and consumption, because localities simply are less and less “insulated” from each other.

But the global view has limitations when one wants to consider interventions on local and regional scale. The grand systemic view cannot give the required details. Even though everything is connected to everything else, the scope has to be narrowed pragmatically, fitting to the questions at hand. This unresolvable interplay between global and local is part and parcel of the wicked problematique. When small and large, quick and slow are in constant interplay, one needs both the grand systemic view and the local framework.

Social transformation in the era of chronic exception

In a world of increasing vulnerability to systemic crises and the intertwinement of quick and slow crises the whole notion of “a normal state of affairs” becomes questionable. No longer is it viable to think that the quick crisis (like a pandemic) must first be handled, the normal state of affairs restored and only then societies can return to consider the slow crises like climate change and the fundamental transformations that they require. The next quick crisis is most likely around the corner, especially as the slow environmental and resource crises work as “threat amplifiers” in multiple ways. The long game of societal transformation has to be played constantly in the conditions of adaptation to changes. In climate policy it has become finally obvious that mitigation and adaptation should not be understood as polar opposites, but this is true in a more general sense also. The wickedness of intertwined problems will never afford us the steady and peaceful normal state of affairs where farsighted and incremental environmental policy can be pursued.

Thus in reacting to day-to-day crises we should avoid creating obstacles to the more general societal transformation, which is necessary to overcome the enduring crises. On the other hand, the long-term transformation of societies must not impair the capacity of societies to adjust and adapt in the face of changes, to recover from disturbances or transform when meeting them. (The term resilience is most commonly used to refer to this family of capacities.) Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of IEA, noted this in a remarkably stark comment recently: “Rather than compounding the tragedy by allowing it to hinder clean energy transitions, we need to seize the opportunity to help accelerate them.

This brings us to a third oft-repeated problematic statement about the relationship of the current pandemic and the environmental crises: perhaps the pandemic will be a wake-up call? It might launch the long-awaited change in attitudes and push societies to a new trajectory. This thought can be interpreted in two ways: as hopeful prognostication or as a call to action. The first one, the hope of awakening in the midst of a crisis, tends to be somewhat naive. An old truth in the study of environmental action and policy is that changes in attitudes do not necessarily lead to changes in practices. Several things can obstruct the path from attitudes to actions. Individuals are largely subject to the inherited situation, the existing infrastructures, institutions and ingrained habits of societies. The symbolic and rhetorical power of “economic realities” is strong, and conversely in modern democracies the notion of citizenship has mostly narrowed down to the acts of voting and consuming, generating passivity in the face of such rhetorical/propagandist claims of political and economic “realism”. In general, without collective goal-setting, support and direction, the possibilities of individual action seem pitifully small. Such obstacles to action are not removed simply by changes in values.

Lately there seems to have been a veritable fashion of referring to studies according to which a change in the attitudes or values of only a small percentage of the populace can generate a radical change in complex social systems. This idea is highly problematic. First of all, the social upheavals that are the empirical basis of such studies are not comparable to, say, the needed socio-ecological transitions in modern democracies. Secondly, as we said, drawing analogies between changes in complex systems requires meaningful similarities. State shifts or regime changes in complex systems happen, but their course runs according to the nature of the system in question. With humans, as opposed to, say, pathogens, it takes agency as social and political animals that engage in collective action. Social change does not simply spread like an epidemic once you have enough “carriers”. (Simplistic applications of complexity studies or systems theory to social and political action are one reason some people consider those approaches inherently apolitical or politically naive.)

Thus, the call to action. No crisis in and of itself lays the ground for a specific kind of change: the potential for radically different bifurcations is always there. During the current state of exception, many economic and ideological restraints that stood in the way of an ecological transformation have been tossed aside. Huge public investments that aim towards a certain developmental path are suddenly possible. States can have a major role in steering the economy and coordinating economic activities, innovations and missions  that solve concrete problems and accomplish concrete tasks. But if political discussion and struggle about this direction is not begun now, if it is postponed until “the normal state of affairs” is reached, the emergency measures easily end up supporting the business-as-usual model, locking in accustomed developmental paths and propping up the fossil fuel economy and the growing use of natural resources.

It is also clear that exceptional measures can erode basic rights and freedoms beyond the current state of exception. In the midst of a deadly pandemic it is hard to keep watching the watchers, but here is the catch: when climate change and other slow crises proceed and amplify the force and the frequency of quick crises, we end up in a state of chronic exception. In such a situation it is vital that the agency and the energy of the civil societies is not relinquished. The constant negotiation between the necessity of emergency measures and the judicial and political safeguards against cementing them is of the highest importance.

In a nutshell: if we wish to see the current crucible as a beginning of something better, we need lots of people who work towards such goals. The perspective of complexity studies adds a crucial reminder that it is very hard or even impossible to precisely plan and to direct changes of complex socio-ecological systems. Surprises are always on their way. There are simply too many moving parts. This is why strong path dependencies are risky: for example committing to technological infrastructures that work in only certain predictable conditions. Keeping the options for development open is a vital ingredient of resilience. Politically this requires a kind of imagination where visions of the future are not predetermined recipes of new societies. This change in thinking has proven to be so far very difficult.

The temptation of isolation and xenophobia

Political mobilization around the current crisis can also take a darker course, and it seems sadly rather likely. The current global system resonates with tight intertwinings, rapid mobility, diminished storage and quick delivery, frenetic speculation with futures and overall an extremely streamlined “efficiency” from a narrow economic viewpoint. When that system grinds to a halt, it is tempting to call for isolation, demolition of all globalization and self-sufficiency of regions. Here the political imaginary tends to retreat into simplistic opposition: either global or local, either self-sufficiency or dependency, either isolation or commerce. In the real world such “pure” alternatives have never existed, but dualistic thought is never that fussy about empirical evidence.

It is clear that regional self-sufficiency becomes more important in crisis conditions. And when the difference between the normal state of affairs and crisis conditions gets ever more blurred, self-sufficiency becomes a constant concern. This questions the inherited practices. The global food system has developed to function in fairly predictable conditions and with smooth deliveries. With the emergence of chronic crisis conditions, it will no longer operate reliably. Food crises have already become increasingly frequent, and things will get a lot more difficult as the major environmental crises get worse – and they will, even in the best of possible worlds.

This does not mean that the goal should be wholesale self-sufficiency, or course, since global commerce has clear merits, especially in safeguarding against local disasters and harvest variability. But the trend has been away from autarchy, to the point that desolation of countrysides is even seen as a mark of social progress. Now a change of direction is necessary. Another example of resurgent locality are the decentralised renewable energy systems that will eventually succeed the fossil fuel economy, if mitigating climate change is taken seriously.

We have however inherited the globalized world with its existing institutions and infrastructures that will not change overnight, and with its truly global problems that transcend all borders. Rebuilding this legacy and solving these problems will be impossible with regional isolation. Mitigating climate change and adapting to it necessitates global cooperation in addition to local measures. In order to make the global flows of natural resources more equitable and sustainable, global trade agreements must be reformed. Singular countries cannot realize such goals by acting from a narrow national perspective.

Only the dream of national “free riding” while others carry the load or the fatalistic notion of fortifying one’s borders and enduring in the midst of crisis (until the literal or proverbial waves break the levees) can rationalize – so to speak – isolationist policies in this situation. Ethno-nationalist, xenophobic and racist groups take advantage of such sentiments in their own quest for “a world of regions”. They can easily exploit the current feelings of insecurity and the distrust and confusion fomented by crises. In fact, in many countries (like Finland) such groups have begun shifting from downright climate scepticism towards climate fatalism where safeguarding one’s own security and prosperity replaces all notions of global solidarity. This kind of “selfish realism” in the face of crises appeals to many people, unfortunately.

That is why the passive hopeful notion of awakening through crisis is not only naive but also dangerous. The direction that societies take has to be actively, collectively influenced. Others are already doing it, with a dim view of the future.

Communities of Knowledge

The current pandemic illustrates also how wicked problems require the kind of knowledge production that is not possible without international cooperation. Global scientific communities are one example of global communication and mobility that has increased resilience rather than amplified propensity to crises. Infectious diseases that have the potential for global pandemics can cross even the most tightly guarded borders, and then experience gained and knowledge developed in other regions is precious. The state of the climate simply cannot be studied without the coordination of thousands of researchers and a global instrumentation network.

Thus appreciation of science, furthering scientific literacy and the active participation of researchers in society are crucial things in an increasingly crisis-prone world. “Follow the science” is the familiar clarion call not only regarding climate change but also in the midst of the current pandemic. It is, however, not a straightforward matter. Recent months have illustrated how well-meaning public discussion can go awry and end up fostering suspicion towards research. Hordes of “science activists” have delved deep into epidemiological studies and scenarios about the spread of the pandemic and criticised practicing researchers fiercely. This can unfortunately erode trust in research and end up reinforcing just the kind of sentiments of insecurity and suspicion mentioned above.

In this matter too, it is easy to slip into a naive simplification: if we should not criticize the researchers, should we then follow the experts blindly? The question is what to criticize and how. Most of us understand how deeply problematic it is when “lone wolves” draft their own scenarios about climate change. Without the support and the critical feedback of scientific communities they cannot produce meaningful criticism. Studying such phenomena is not the work of heroic individuals. This basic fact about the nature of the scientific endeavour has been much harder to grasp in the case of the current pandemic. For some reason many people who would balk at climate science denial are not bothered by amateur epidemiologists. It has been chilling to hear the same careless throwaway criticism “that is based only on models” that has been used to confuse and muddle the climate change discussion for years.

Science is not an enterprise of lone heroes and the search for magical grains of knowledge. It is a fundamentally collective activity built in the form of scientific communities. Many things can of course hinder the workings of these communities: look at how China has restricted the activity of journalists, or how the Trump administration dreams of hoarding key medical developments. Scientific communities work only as well as they work as communities. They require the support and the supervision of the rest of the society. But “science activists” should not assume that they possess the ability for detailed scientific critique about some of the most complex issues of the contemporary world.

Climate change and pandemics are phenomena which require the collective expertise of scientific communities. Again, disagreements and uncertainty are unavoidable when people are studying a complex novel phenomenon like the spread of and the medical solutions to Covid-19, and it will take time to reach a consensus. (Climate science reached that point ages ago.) This is why also the people who want to “follow the science” have to endure uncertainty and avoid hubristic belief in one’s own capabilities to understand the intricacies of ongoing studies. Calling for instant clarity and unequivocal policy advice misrepresents how the sciences work.

But on the other hand, neither are the epidemiologists or the climate researchers experts on economics, social sciences, psychology or care. That is why we need a multidisciplinary approach to the wicked problems of our time. Here too, it is important to keep watching the watchers, to avoid narrow technocratic responses to the crisis. This is the crucial role of activism: to make sure that the responses to crises at hand are not colonized by perspectives that bypass important questions regarding the environment, equality, human rights and democracy. We need an active citizenry that is willing to struggle over the direction of the coming social transformation and to support the kind of knowledge production that is needed.

Cover image by Peg Hunter.