How environmental policy stakeholders could respond to social changes caused by the pandemic

Anne Klatt

The crisis has created situations and images that seemed utopian in "normal" times, in addition to the manifold, sometimes serious, negative social and socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: Inner cities with less traffic, wild animals reclaiming their habitats, a reduction to the essentials. Some of the consequences will fade away, others will have a longer-term impact on the future and change the social context of environmental policy action. It is against this background that we (Anne Klatt, Laura Spengler, Kathrin Schwirn and Christian Löwe) have addressed two questions in a discussion paper:

What social impacts of the pandemic are environmentally relevant?
How could and should environmental policy stakeholders respond, both to help cushion adverse social developments and to take advantage of the window of opportunity that the pandemic opens for environmental progress?

We have compiled our findings in a total of ten wide-ranging subject areas in order to find some answers. The range of topics extends from the role of the state to conspiracy myths and experience of contemporary well-being and lack of time to online commerce. As a result of these findings, we propose four "immediate" strategic approaches for environmental policy stakeholders as a consequence of the pandemic:

1) Orientate environmental policy in such a fashion that it also promotes social justice to a greater extent
2) Make social welfare resilient to fluctuations in growth
3) Strengthen environmental and climate protection aspects in the one-health approach

4) Use new momentum and attention in individual fields of action

The discussion paper concludes with more extensive considerations on the further development of the environmental policy understanding of society and environmental communication.

At this point I would like to pick out three ideas or initiatives for action from the range of observations and strategic considerations in the paper. The first is that environmental policy stakeholders should take a thorough look at the noticeable development of trust in politics, the media and also science in different parts of society and draw conclusions for the further development of their working methods, especially for the communication of scientific results. Although the confidence noted in the April Science Barometer was significantly higher than in previous years, the repeat in May already showed a downward trend towards the lower values of the previous year and public criticism increased, including that aimed at the scientific basis of political decisions and individual scientists. At the same time, various conspiracy myths fell on fertile ground surprisingly often, and in many countries, so that the WHO even spoke of an "infodemic". Two surveys undertaken in Germany in the spring showed that 20 and 27% respectively of those questioned thought that politicians and the media deliberately mislead the public about the dangers of COVID-19 and the measures taken against it. This kind of excessive lack of trust makes it harder for environmental policy. Environmental policy stakeholders should therefore examine the causes and look for ways to replace general unease with "informed trust" (see interview with psychologist Rainer Bromme).

The second conclusion cannot be achieved only by environmental policy stakeholders, but they can and should be the driving force behind its implementation: the pandemic has once again shown how unstable economic growth is and what drastic consequences this has indirectly on the well-being of society, as for example social systems depend on it for their financial resources. This dependency is at odds with the value of resilience which the pandemic has highlighted. We therefore believe that one of the big questions of our time is how social welfare systems can be made less dependent on growth. This issue requires a wide range of knowledge and ideas to be brought together, i.e. a productive debate between a wide variety of stakeholders. Initial proposals were presented in the project "Approaches to the conservation of resources as part of new post growth concepts", funded by the Federal Environment Agency.
Once such resilience of social welfare systems to economic fluctuations has been achieved, unpopular but, in view of planetary boundaries, urgently needed measures to restrict or stop certain economic activities, such as air travel, will most likely become easier.

A third stimulus for action is targeted use of windows of opportunity with regard to environmental policy issues, where environmental policy stakeholders can contribute new meaning to the ongoing dialogue on the pandemic. The best example of this is perhaps the type and extent of livestock farming and the corresponding consumption of animal products. Several starting points are obvious: the role of livestock farming causing an increased risk of zoonoses (a scientific finding that has so far been little known to the public). Their contribution to the development of resistance to antibiotics, which can cause complications when treating secondary bacterial infections of viruses. Finally, media attention to the shortcomings in work and housing conditions offers the opportunity to form alliances with social stakeholders in order to absorb the social and ecological costs of meat production.

The reduction of livestock farming and the consumption of animal food in rich countries is important for the achievement of key sustainability goals, especially as a result of their enormous requirements for land and high greenhouse gas emissions. Politically, however, this topic has been addressed very hesitantly so far - COVID-19 could change that and pave the way for tackling this and other environmental problems.

Anne Klatt

German Environment Agency
Anne Klatt works as a research assistant at the German Environment Agency in the department "Fundamental Aspects, Sustainability Strategies and...

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