Is a climate of change ahead?

Amid geopolitical and research power shifts, the world will be watching to see whether leaders can learn from the mistakes and triumphs of 2020

January 7, 2021
Woman holding climate justice protest banner
Source: Getty

Covid-19 dominated 2020 so entirely that I was interested to revisit my first editorial of last year to recall what my preoccupations were in those pre-pandemic days.

If I was hoping for a fillip I was, inevitably, disappointed – the answer is climate change.

At the start of a new decade, I wrote, the world faces two huge challenges: global warming, and gathering storm clouds over international cooperation (the latter being crucial to address the former).

The context for these cheerful musings was an interview with Rachel Kyte, dean of the The Fletcher School at Tufts University, who told me that, with a chill wind blowing through geopolitics, “having an academy that is able to collaborate will be essential – these issues [facing humanity] are resolvable only at a global level”.

She was right then, and she is right now. The question is, has the extraordinary year we had in 2020 changed any of the underlying dynamics?

On one level, the answer is yes. For a start, in a little over a week’s time, the leader of the free world will, once again, be an internationalist, someone who is actually interested in making deals (rather than just how many books he can sell about his supposed ability to do so).

The Covid crisis also showed that there are new ways of doing things, many of which do not demand air travel as a first option, and what can be achieved when the world accepts it is on a burning platform.

The development of the vaccines in less than a year was not a miracle, it was a triumph of scientific collaboration and of investment in finding a solution (we hope) to a problem that affected us all.

It would be wonderful to be able to predict that this experience will be used to galvanise the world around other global challenges. However, the fragmented political approach to the Covid crisis does not instil a lot of confidence.

In a discussion with the Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson late last year, the former UK prime minister Tony Blair was scathing about the failure of global political leadership.

“This has been an unprecedented crisis, and it’s been completely global – all facing essentially the same problem – and yet the global leadership you might expect has not been present,” he said.

As for the future, Blair forecast that “everything that was there before the crisis is there afterwards, but accelerated and intensified”, and that this would demand a much more strategic, and rapid, response from policymakers. “All of the things we were doing in a slow and incoherent way before the crisis, we need to do in a rapid and cohesive way afterwards,” he said.

Is this understood in a way that will provoke real change at a political level, unharnessed from short-term political concerns and electoral cycles? Unfortunately, there are plenty of reasons to doubt it.

Consider, for example, the risible comments made by the UK education secretary Gavin Williamson last month when he hailed the rapid authorisation of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as evidence that the UK was “a much better country” than the rest of Europe in particular.

It was a ham-fisted political point, made in the context of deteriorating Brexit negotiations, which prompted Kate Bingham, the government’s own vaccine tsar, to respond in an interview in The Times: “It’s not true. The reason we’re in a good position is because of global collaboration and a massive co-operation between companies, countries and scientists and clinicians.”

Again, she is right – and the global scientific effort was one of the saving graces of a terrible year.

Which brings us to 2021, and – from a UK perspective – the break from the European Union, a schism that, despite the continued participation in Horizon Europe (which is to be greatly celebrated), has damaged the reputation of the country as a global nexus of higher education and research.

This rupture is taking place in the wider context of a rapidly changing world – and in our cover story this week, we consider the future path of universities and science in China, a superpower that will to a large extent shape our collective future in the decades ahead.

The part it plays in tackling the climate crisis will certainly be pivotal – and the world will watch how US-China relations shift as Joe Biden takes office.

To quote the (probably apocryphal) Chinese curse, we live in interesting times.

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