Responding to crises with 17 dimensions

We currently face an all-encompassing crisis of pandemic coronavirus. Links are increasingly being made between this and multiple other crises. In this blog, Ian Townsend and James Longhurst draw on their experience of Bristol’s climate emergency response to suggest how the Sustainable Development Goals can help us address them all.

If you work or are interested in environmental issues, your social media feeds are probably currently busy with people making links between Covid-19 and climate change. To successfully address the climate crisis, we will need to address all the other crises we face. Recognising, understanding, communicating, and acting on the complexity of the links between these crises will be a major challenge. And the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can help.

We have been privileged to be closely involved with the response to Bristol’s climate emergency declaration, the first in the UK, prompted by the findings of global experts about the grave risks of even a 1.5C rise in temperatures globally. The initial response to the declaration focused on gaining a shared understanding of the nature of the climate crisis (known as ‘situational awareness’) and creating the structures and the strategies needed to respond to it.

Bristol’s holistic climate response

As soon as you start to consider how to take action on the climate emergency, you immediately start to make connections with other issue areas – with health and wellbeing, with housing, with transport, with the economy, with education and skills, and so on. It quickly becomes clear that climate is not just a single issue, a pillar on its own, but one that cuts across others. So, the response becomes all about understanding the co-benefits of climate action for other policy areas, while also acknowledging that the tensions that inevitably exist and seeking to address these. Bristol’s One City approach provides a way to do just that.

Following experts' similarly grave warnings about ongoing and accelerating global species loss, nature needs to be seen not only for its links with climate but for its own vital importance and interconnections with a host of other issues, such as our mental health. Bristol also declared an ecological emergency, the first UK city to do so, a first and vital step to responding to the nature crisis.

Then the pandemic struck

The coronavirus is a new and sudden crisis, one that is urgent and immediately life-threatening. The response has suddenly changed almost every part of our lives and will lead to the tragic loss of so many people.

The initial challenge was to gain a shared situational awareness of this crisis too, to understand the nature of the virus and how the tide could be turned against it. While a complex issue, simple and clear messages – wash your hands, stay at home – have cut through. Only in time will we know with any certainty whether the messages and actions taken will achieve the intended results, and the nature and scale of the unintended outcomes.

Understanding complexity will be key

We have seen many interesting think-pieces emerge about what the coronavirus experience might ultimately mean for the climate emergency, for the crisis facing nature, for society, for the economy: for our future.

People tend to prefer and respond to simple messages they can understand, relate to, and act on. It is generally easier to engage with a single issue, or perhaps two closely related issues.

But, as experts often say, it is ‘a bit more complicated than that’. Even with three issues – like the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainability – it gets much more complex. And as the level of complexity increases further, things can very quickly become mind-boggling.

Step forward the SDGs

But fortunately we already have a global framework to recognise, understand, and start to respond to this complexity - the SDGs.

Also known as the Global Goals, the SDGs could be the most important thing most people have never heard of. They outline the challenge of achieving a fairer, sustainable, and prosperous world by 2030, and acknowledge the complexity involved in meeting that challenge. A challenge of crises across (at least) 17 dimensions, with the response driven by leaving no-one behind and helping those that are the furthest behind, the most deprived and most vulnerable, first.

As we gradually begin to consider a post-pandemic world, the SDGs offer us a ready-made framework and a common language to begin to address all of these crises at once. While they are not perfect, the SDGs recognise that these crises are not all the same and so need different, yet coherent, responses. And they highlight the positive – and sometimes less positive – interlinkages that we will all need to address to do this.

This complexity demands systemic thinking and collaborative approaches, ways of working that embrace complexity. This will mean we each need to be comfortable with not knowing everything and drawing on the expertise and enthusiasm of others.

If we can succeed in this, we will have a much better chance of achieving e a fair, sustainable, and prosperous post-pandemic world.

Ian Townsend was CEO of Bristol Green Capital Partnership from 2016 to 2019 where he helped to create the Bristol SDG Alliance, the Environmental Sustainability Board, and the Bristol Advisory Committee on Climate Change and now works as a sustainable cities consultant.

Professor James Longhurst is Assistant Vice Chancellor Environment and Sustainability at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and co-chairs the Bristol Advisory Committee on Climate Change.