OPINION13 July 2020

What does Covid-19 teach us about the climate crisis?

Behavioural science Opinion Public Sector Trends

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of urgency and immediate accountability in addressing climate change, writes Lukas Hermann. 

Climate change environment activism protest_crop

Time became a critical currency in the fight against climate change in 2018, when the IPCC report gave us just little more than a decade to avoid climate disaster. Last year, a series of wildfires gave us a graphic image of how our world might look if we don’t act fast.

Halfway through 2020, it feels as if that momentum is all but gone as the pandemic has pushed climate change down the agenda of politicians, media and the public alike.

We must not despair. Covid-19 may be taking up our attention now, but it also serves to teach us some important lessons about the fight against the climate crisis.

Individual behaviour change mustn’t be the main focus
Initial hopes that the pandemic’s abrupt impact on economic activity would give us some time back in the race against global warming were quickly dashed. Rather than radically slashing carbon dioxide emissions, a recent study estimated that annual global emissions will only be 4-7% lower year-on-year by the end of 2020. This is about the same amount of reduction that climate experts say must be achieved every year over the next few decades to keep the overall temperature rise below 1.5 celsius.

In other words: even the most unprecedented sanctioning of individual behaviour and intervention in personal lives and liberties would barely be enough to keep global warming in check. This suggests that a fundamental structural transformation of our economy, rather than an attempt to change behaviour at an individual level, should be at the core of the climate debate as we move on from the pandemic.

We can change
Without any behaviour change, however, we’re never going to get there. In this sense, the widespread support for proportionate yet onerous lockdown measures gives reason for hope. Indeed, moments of seismic change are so rare in our history that we sometimes forget how quickly we are able to adapt to new realities which we would have rejected as fantasy a short while ago – a phenomenon the legal scholar Georg Jellinek describes as the ‘normative power of the factual’.

Are we seeing this ‘normative power of the factual’ at play during the pandemic, as our expectations of normality rapidly adapt to new circumstances? And if so, will people eventually also assign a new normative quality to radical climate policies that respond to unforeseen environmental and human challenges? That is probably too soon to predict, not least because the situations are somewhat different.

In the pandemic, the sacrifices feel temporary – probably more temporary than the long-term changes in our consumption habits that most climate experts say will be necessary to have the required mitigating effect on climate change. However, shifting our focus from individual behaviour towards collective opinions, we can certainly start to see the contours of a long-term paradigm shift.

For example, in a recent YouGov poll, only 6% of the UK population said that they want to return to a pre-pandemic economy. Earlier this year, even the generally (small-c) conservative Financial Times called for an end to the small state doctrine, while Conservative governments who have been advocating pro-cyclical ‘tight-purse policies’ for as long as they held power, most notably in the UK and in Germany, are now fully embracing Keynesian-style fiscal policy (In the UK, central government spending was £109.3bn in April this year, up 53.9% from last year, while Germany endorsed a €750bn pan-European recovery fund to deal with the looming crisis).

These are just some of the signs that the consensus around fiscal orthodoxy, often a barrier to bold state investments towards the environment, may finally come to an end.

Urgency and proximity must be the key pillars of communication
There is an obvious reason why people are more concerned about the virus than climate change, even though the latter poses a much greater threat to humanity: the virus could kill you and your loved ones, and it could kill you now. Climate change, on the other hand, disproportionately affects people in the global south while the expected dramatic consequences for the richer industrial nations feel abstract and indeterminate.

An increased sense of urgency about global warming would give elected officials the political capital and bravery required to bring about the radical policy interventions that most scientists say are needed. The pandemic reminds us of the type of policy options suddenly available when there is all-round acceptance of an emergency situation that requires a swift response and an entirely new policy toolkit. Urgency and proximity must therefore be at the core of communications on climate change.

Immediate accountability is key
The pandemic also demonstrates the importance of immediate accountability – in this case, a rising death toll. It essentially rules out non-action and puts immense pressure on leaders to be on top of the issue. Lacklustre climate policy, on the other hand, is a classic result of delayed accountability.

The question, then, is whether we can develop similar forms of immediate accountability for climate policy that go beyond abstract emission targets and committee recommendations, and which people in industrialised countries can connect with on a personal level.

Meaningful statistics about the already existing human cost of climate change do exist, but they mostly have a global focus and so don’t lend themselves to democratic accountability in domestic politics. There are some important steps that could be taken in that direction, for example, linking deaths to air pollution more directly.

The most powerful form of democratic accountability stems from people being aware of and clearly understanding the personal stake they have in government action or inaction. The pandemic is a painful reminder of this.

Lukas Hermann is a researcher at Jigsaw Research