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Can the pandemic serve as a model for tackling climate change?

Why we should value dissent and not just ‘follow the science'


Perhaps it is a very positive phenomenon that emerged at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic: All over the world, many people were willing to sacrifice much of their individual freedom to protect the elderly and vulnerable. In countries like the UK and Germany, it was initially a grassroots project of social distancing, self-isolation, and mask-wearing. Only subsequently, governments coordinated and enforced these measures. In many countries, people effectively demanded, and voluntarily participated in a collective action project for the common good.


This could well be a sign that many people are increasingly conscious about human interdependence and are willing to sacrifice their immediate self-interest for the common good to an extent that is unprecedented in Western liberal societies.


Seen from this perspective, a real boost in optimism that we might stop climate change after all doesn’t seem so naive then. Indeed, it took only a few days after lockdowns were imposed all over the world in March 2020 that my Facebook and Twitter timelines were full of articles with hopeful calls to grasp the opportunity. They were arguing that this massive manifestation of solidarity could be a turning point for humanity and that lockdowns should be seen as a precedent for what could be done to protect the climate. The world economy after all didn’t collapse after global air traffic was reduced by 60% in 2020 and for a few weeks, cities like London could breathe without any cars at all.


It is often argued that some kind of lockdown strategy to protect the climate would not work because of the different nature of the crises. SARS-CoV-2 was perceived as an immediate threat to our lives whereas climate change for many is still a distant abstract threat. However, while this was certainly the case for a very long time, the impact from climate change is now hitting home fast, with extreme weather patterns and destructions through floods, droughts and wildfires rising in frequency around the globe. The fear to lose one’s own livelihood might therefore increase the appetite for drastic governmental measures against climate change.


Pandemics do not steer societies in a totally new direction. Rather, they can accelerate trends that were already underway. Before the pandemic we were already spending ever more time in the online world. Covid-19 only accelerated this trend, thereby further enriching a few global corporates and their shareholders, foremost Amazon, and destroying many small brick and mortar shops and businesses. Moreover, people were already increasingly fearful of the negative effects of hyper-globalisation, from free trade (on wages) to terrorism (on security) to high immigration (on culture and wages). Closing the borders because of a hostile virus was a logical next step in a culture of ever more sense of insecurity.


A sense that the nation state would regain an important role and that the era of liberalism was in deep crisis and that something different would have to follow was the subject of many books and articles by the end of 2019. Some were already beginning to speak of post-liberalism, a term probably intended as a placeholder for an era yet to be born.

Now, some 18 months later, as we hopefully approach the end of the pandemic, the contours of the new era seem clearer. But is the emerging era one of cooperation and solidarity as so many hoped when all this started in March 2020? Well, this is the question.


At a recent debate about the way lockdown has changed our societies, the executive editor of UnHerd, Freddie Sayers, said: “If this was going to be the post liberal world, I want my money back. It felt planned, centralized and frightening.” He was referring to the severe restrictions on individual freedom imposed on people in many countries, which had certainly not been possible in Western societies before 2020 but had rather been the way an authoritarian state like China treats its citizens. To say that the measures were imposed is not entirely true, however, because a clear majority of people demanded them, accepted compliance and are even now happy to continue with this somehow reduced way of life.


But the strong support for lockdowns is only half of the story. The sentiments expressed by Freddie Sayers are only a moderate version of what many people feel about how the pandemic was dealt with by most Western governments. Although polls vary on the percentage of the population that fundamentally rejects the whole lockdown philosophy and epistemology that justifies the restrictions, it appears to be an important minority in Western societies that has grown larger as the pandemic has dragged on. If U.S. society was already highly polarized before Covid, many European societies have certainly become much more divided over the past year.


While historical accounts seem to show that past pandemics have often caused bitter divisions and hate between social groups, I believe it is fundamentally important to develop a clear picture of what led to this division during Covid-19. I think the conclusions are critical to how we address solutions to climate change, which is arguably a much bigger challenge than Covid-19.


As with any bitter division, the analysis about what happened will look very different depending on which side of the argument one finds him- or herself.


Closing off dissent


In March 2020 lockdowns quickly became a received wisdom, as if they were a proven and established instrument. Governments left no doubt, most mainstream media across the Western world agreed and most of the people did. The impression was created that the scientific consensus was solid, and that only some right-wing scientists or conspiracy theorists disagreed. However, this was a false impression promoted by the media who apparently saw it as their duty to close ranks with governments in a situation of emergency. Since the very beginning, many scientists fundamentally disagreed with the main policy instruments applied during the pandemic, which were closure of businesses like shops and restaurants, school closures, stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.


For example, one of the most influential scientists alive, Prof. John Ioannidis of Stanford University, questioned the efficacy of lockdown instruments from the outset and warned about the significant harm caused by the measures themselves. He was only one of many high-profile heretic scientists who have almost never appeared in the media and even experienced bullying from scientific journals that delayed and rejected the publication of their research findings, most likely because of fear to disturb the appearance of an established consensus.


Moreover, the widely held view that face masks are a vitally important instrument to save lives during the pandemic, is in fact based on weak evidence. The only randomised control trial on face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic concluded that there was only weak and statistically insignificant evidence of protection from face masks. At the same time, people not wearing masks were often treated and persecuted by the police like criminals.


According to surveys, while most Europeans have supported their governments throughout the pandemic, a minority believe that the restrictions have curtailed many fundamental rights and individual freedoms for far too long. They believe that the media has largely silenced debate on the more fundamental issues, particularly the appropriateness of the closures, and pigeonholes anyone who disagrees with official doctrines into a clear-cut category of conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremists.


For many, the pandemic has been a time of unprecedented solidarity and doing the right thing to save lives; for many others, it has felt like Western democracies have begun to resemble China in many ways, with tight control over citizens’ lives and, to some extent, a suppression of free debate, as well as a long period when freedom of assembly has been very difficult, if not impossible.


What made matters worse, was that despite all the official rhetoric that there was no alternative to lockdowns, one country showed that there was indeed an alternative to getting through the pandemic without coercing people with drastic measures and state control. Sweden’s approach was primarily to appeal to people‘s personal responsibility and to their sense of civic duty. Despite the mistakes made by the Swedish government at the beginning of the pandemic, the country now, 18 months later, seems to be in much better shape than most other European countries, with an overall covid death rate well below the European average, but most importantly, without the psychological damage caused by constant fear-mongering and without all the collateral damage that the severe restrictions have caused and continue to cause in people’s lives in so many countries.


All this has led to many people largely losing further trust in key institutions such as the media, government and science.


Weaponising science


'Follow the science' is a mantra popularised in 2019 by Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement as a wakeup call to accuse the world leaders of acting too late to prevent catastrophic climate change. When the pandemic began, the same activists and many others joining the cause used the same catchphrase to defend a strict lockdown regime.


In hindsight, it looks like this phrase has always been problematic because it taught a whole generation of young people the wrong idea of what science is and what makes science such a great tool to enhance our understanding of the world and to solve our problems. A scientific consensus, no matter how strong, should never become a dogma, but should always be seen as an interim state of affairs. Science is a process that depends on the continuous attempts to falsify the conventional wisdom as famously argued by Karl Popper. Scientific knowledge is provisional — the best we can do at the moment.


In that sense to point towards the decades of research and the high scientific consensus on the origins of global warming is legitimate and of critical importance. However, we should not forget that this consensus remains the best we can do at the moment. Even if 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is the result of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, there is still a — albeit very small — chance that they’re all wrong. We should always keep in mind the many instances of scientific revolutions in the history of science.


In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, it became clear that the use of the phrase 'follow the science' was not about promoting the real philosophy of science, but rather about cherry-picking the evidence and theories that happened to confirm one’s own belief system. Of course, science has always been weaponized for people’s political ends, but during the pandemic it was remarkable how widely the media, governments, and scientific institutions promoted a false narrative of an apparent scientific consensus about lockdowns and masks.


The credibility of science as a whole suffers from this form of weaponisation. A layperson who has discovered over the past year how the media gives a distorted picture of how science works may also have become much more suspicious of the science of climate change.


Now that we are bombarded daily with catastrophic news and forecasts about the effects of global warming, the question of credibility is fundamental. For example, on 5 August, the media around the world reported that scientists believe the Gulf Stream could soon collapse, which in turn could lead to extreme living conditions in Europe and beyond. Mathematician and public intellectual Eric Weinstein tweeted about this news: “Many of us have two separate reactions: A) Catastrophic climate collapse is entirely plausible. B) Media, Government & Scientific bodies have all been coercive in this area (e.g. “Settled Science”)…”


No layperson can fully understand the science of climate change. To understand what is really going on, we need to be able to trust that the scientific process is working properly and that the media is reporting it truthfully.


Submitting to a climate regime?


While a small minority of people still have doubts about the science of climate change and whether its effects should make us worry, the vast majority (especially in Europe) understand that humanity must reduce greenhouse gas emissions rather fast to avoid the worst catastrophic effects. As the sense of urgency has grown, the political conflict across the Western world has clearly shifted from ‘if to do something about climate change’ to ‘what to do about it’.


Clearly, there is no scientific truth that can tell us how to tackle climate change. We can’t simply follow the science and arrive at a solution. In many ways, climate change is a similar problem to a pandemic. In both cases, we’re dealing with a complex global system that cannot be controlled and for which no solutions can be engineered. Instead, we must learn how to deal with uncertainty and learn as we go along. A typical mistake is to treat complex problems as if they can be tackled in a linear fashion, and this is exactly what happened with the pandemic. For over a year, the whole world focused on a single goal: reducing the number of SARS-CoV-2 infections, while largely ignoring the many knock-on effects and collateral damages over time and space.


The moralisation of public discourse during the pandemic where lockdowns and masks became the morally right thing to do and anyone who disagreed was considered morally wrong, effectively closed off any dissent and made us lose the opportunity to find adequate solutions to a complex problem and minimise losses to human welfare.


If we do not get better at finding solutions to complex problems, we run the risk of dramatically reducing our welfare through climate policy. Suboptimal solutions to the pandemic, such as locking everyone in their homes instead of focusing on how to protect the most vulnerable, could have an analogy in climate policy by moralising about certain consumption patterns that activists and opinion leaders see as bad, when in fact there could be technical solutions that involve less welfare loss.


Above all, however, the moralising of these issues loses sight of the fact that we can only get a grip on climate change if we find cooperative solutions worldwide or if enough large countries actually reduce their emissions adequately. If one country rushes ahead too much, it could lose out in economic competition while having no impact at all on the climate.


For many it might be obvious what needs to be done to tackle climate change, but often these views are not the result of careful consideration of different options and the trade-offs involved, but are ideologically driven dogmas that can be challenged with careful analysis.


Climate change is a collective action problem that requires global cooperation and coordination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, we need to create effective institutions — rules, agreements and incentives — that restrict certain aspects of our individual freedom for the sake of the common good and ultimately the survival of our species. But which aspects of our personal lives will be affected and who will bear what part of the burden is still up for debate and will also depend on human ingenuity to find creative solutions with as many win-win situations as possible.


However, if we stick to the mindset that prevailed during the pandemic and demanded submission from citizens instead of creative participation and collaboration, it is unlikely that we will unleash the necessary creativity and innovation. On the contrary, it will further deepen societal divisions and polarisation.


Learning the lessons of the pandemic


All this answers the question posed at the beginning of this essay: No, the pandemic doesn’t serve as a model for how to address climate change. If the pandemic has been the trial phase of the post liberal era, we should consider it as an instructive failure.


While the emerging higher consciousness about human interdependence should not be dismissed and should be cultivated, this alone is no guarantee that adequate solutions to humanity’s collective action problems will be found.


Anyone serious about tackling climate change should learn the lessons of the pandemic: we need to become more honest about what science is and how it can bring us closer to the truth and be useful in solving our problems. We need to cultivate a culture where dissent is encouraged as a means of finding better solutions and where dissenters are respected.


We also need to stop moralising, because that only leads to further division and polarisation. Solving complex problems that are full of moral dilemmas must be a collective task. Moral judgements are too often based on a very incomplete understanding of the situation and of who is ultimately affected by what.


Climate change cannot be solved at the levels at which humans have achieved successful cooperation to date. We need to design social systems that have the welfare of the whole system in mind. It requires a level of cooperation at the planetary level that we are unfortunately still far from reaching.


The challenge before us is to do this without falling into the kind of authoritarian tendencies we have seen over the last 18 months.