The CIC recently sent Queen’s University PhD chemistry student Bailey Smith to the virtual 2020 Canadian Science Policy Conference. Smith sampled panels on topics ranging from a green recovery to parallels between COVID-19 and climate change. Below, she offers her take on what she heard.

By Bailey Smith

One of the conference’s major themes was the twin issue of sustainability and climate change, and how we can spearhead a movement against these worldwide crises, just as we have in our fight against COVID-19.

Panelists and participants discussed the green recovery in the context of sustainably rebuilding the economy post-COVID-19, while ensuring that we address climate change. There was broad agreement that the biggest challenge would involve systematic change to alter people’s behaviours and that policy-makers would need to make unpopular, but necessary, decisions.

The COVID-19 lockdown was seen as an unprecedented science experiment. The result, conference attendees seemed to agree, shows the world is capable of coming together to accomplish shared goals, giving us hope for solving our shared climate change crisis. The consensus was that we cannot, however, rely on a lockdown to solve climate change. Rather, we need to work together in other ways to make change happen.

Lessons learned from our collective response to COVID-19 include a deeper understanding that people will react to urgency and will listen to the science. It also includes the fact that whether we live in big cities or small communities, we are resilient.

But if we want to move forward, we must foster trust and understanding of different perspectives among scientists, politicians and the general public. To do this, we will need to communicate in ways that minimize polarization around climate change.

Panelists recommended policy-makers use values, facts, emotions and empathy to engage the general population and to present scientific information in ways everyone can understand. If we want to find commonality and foster trust, we must create a narrative that brings people and their ideas, feelings and motivations together, they said.

Such a narrative comes in many forms, including something called the ‘positive prototype.’ This involves true stories and images of the general population engaging in healthy or socially helpful behaviours. Research shows positive prototypes can be powerful cognitive drivers for behavioural change. A great example of this was a campaign called #MaskUpPhilly, which encouraged Philadelphians to wear masks and help keep their community safe during the pandemic.

Positive change can also result from pressuring consumers, industry, investors and politicians to make more environmentally conscious decisions. For example, panelists suggested the future of renewable energy will require the public to put pressure on government to take action, the government to provide incentives for industry and scientists to advance research that optimizes renewable energy output.

Our primary goal then must be to improve communication and collaboration between research disciplines, between scientists and government, and between countries. In addition, large corporations in particular must be encouraged to take action. These large companies and the developed countries where they are headquartered, need to better understand how their actions affect less developed areas of the world, so that they can change.

Climate change, panelists agreed, is a global effort, and there is much we can learn from how governments, businesses, scientists and policy makers have come together to fight the pandemic.