What the Covid response tells us about dealing with a changing climate

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A warning

“Speech is what makes man a political being.” Arendt believed that the philosopher-kings of the nuclear age, the physicists who had mastered reality to the point of reproducing processes that nature had confined to the stars, spoke a mathematical language that was inaccessible to most, untranslatable into everyone’s story. If there is no common language that can subject choices to political debate, to story-telling, then political institutions are unlikely to create spaces in which all individuals live their full life. They are even less likely to produce politically legitimate solutions to real-life problems.

In her 1958 The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt’s concern with the technocratic state was extreme, the product of her life experience and the times she lived in. Technical institutions can be part of the architecture of a healthy democracy, not just the instruments of an overbearing leviathan. They can operate legitimately, if political processes constrain their authority to their advisory function. But she nonetheless was pointing to a fundamental challenge: how do we confront problems that are defined scientifically, and therefore fully understood only by specialists, yet solve them through political systems that are designed to offer a space in which everyone can author their life and contribute to collective action?

The legitimacy of a democratic process stems from creating a space in which individuals can tell the story of themselves, of their hopes, fears, and dreams, and be heard. Political institutions are there to intermediate these individual stories into some form of collective action. The legitimacy of that intermediation over time comes from the fact that enough of the individual story is preserved, at least enough of the time, so that all feel enfranchised. To be truly democratic, a political process must accommodate second-best solutions, allow for choices that, in retrospect, can be wrong: democracies must be able to make mistakes.

Because it is the space of action, of human realization, by its very nature politics cannot be reduced to the implementation of a science-driven recipe alone. That does not mean that it should not be informed by science. But while the pessimistic view Arendt had of a state governed by technocrats may have been extreme, it should not blind us to the underlying concern: how to preserve the integrity of a political process of human fulfillment, while ensuring scientific evidence informs political debate enough for its value to be recognized.

Science-led response

At first glance, the problem of confronting the Covid pandemic appeared to be one of technical preparedness. Some countries have fared relatively well because of their experience. South Korea, for example, went through a similar trauma with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2015, and had put legislation in place to use data from cell phones and credit cards to trace contacts of infected individuals. By March, Korea’s track and trace system was up, running, and highly functional, in a way unparalleled in western countries. Similarly, China has arguably pursued the most successful response of any country, despite being the origin of the pandemic, by adopting even more stringent approaches to lock-downs, tracking and tracing.

The problem is that, while a track and trace system comparable to that adopted in South Korea or the localized draconian lockdowns enacted in China enable a surgical tracing of the epidemic, thus containing infections, by most western standards they require a significant breach of individual privacy and freedom, rights that have deep roots in the political history of most countries (for good reason). Further, most western countries have not had the experience of a similarly severe public health scare in the recent past, so their politics has not had a chance to metabolize the types of trade-offs they would have to face.

Given that, and if one looks across most western governments, their response has been impressive in both scale and scope. There have been problems and outliers for sure: the responses in Brazil and the United States, for example, have all but collapsed under the weight of partisan politics. But, in general, it is remarkable that, without any previous experience, most western countries have chosen to shut down their economies at unprecedented cost in order to protect the most vulnerable in society.

Of course, this has led to heart wrenching situations, a powerful reminder that in large national crises the challenge is fundamentally one of trade-offs between vastly different individual experiences: the restaurant owner, whose family’s only source of income is jeopardized by a lockdown, for example, as opposed to the vulnerable individual whose life is at risk from the virus spreading through the community. These are the types of stories that turn a public health crisis into a political Gordian knot, revealing the inherent tension between technocratic instruction, which aims to maximize a public good, and the political processes necessary to motivate collective action, which represent individual experience.

And yet, the fact that countries have been willing to engage in such extreme measures despite the high social and political costs, and that the public has accepted willingly these measures — at least up to now — is a testament to the trust citizens have placed in their public health institutions. The pandemic response has provided a crucial dress-rehearsal for how political institutions might fare in sustaining a transition guided by science to a different economic model in the face of potentially significant, unexpected costs. Those concerned with climate change and the transition society will have to endure because of it would do well to examine what institutional architecture has enabled this remarkable response.

A useful model

Calls for evidence-based collective action in the face of climate change are everywhere. And it is clear at this point that such a transition will far exceed the energy sector, which has historically attracted the most attention. Of course, energy production will have to wean itself off of fossil fuels. But a sustainable transition in a changing climate is going to be a total phenomenon: it will touch every aspect of people’s lives, from where the live, to what happens on the landscape, to — indeed — what technology powers their home and car.

The impacts and costs of such change will not be distributed uniformly. The most vulnerable will be the most exposed, a disproportionate cost born by those who cannot afford to adapt. New jobs will be created, as new industries and new forms of land-use emerge, but it would be a mistake to assume that the only ones to pay will be the incumbent polluting companies. Some workers will retrain, but many will struggle, as has been the case in every industrial transition of the twentieth century. And while the state can play an important role in mutualizing some of those costs, not all states have the underwriting capacity to absorb them entirely.

The nature of this transition is mostly described in technical terms. Countless reports describe technologies that might help avoid the worst, or offer options to adapt. Solar power, sea walls, wind farms, drought resistant crops, forest restoration, these are all part of a growing list of ingredients in the most sophisticated transition plan ever conceived. They are often written as if technocratic policy makers will implement a grand process with their free hand, while the other rocks the cradle. But this technocratic point of view masks the challenging reality political institutions will face.

This is why Arendt’s warning is so prescient and why the experience of Covid is so instructive. For politics to guide a technically sophisticated transition — rather than the other way around — one must prepare for what this pandemic has shown us: individuals will experience incidents and events in very different ways, with different material consequences. Those material consequences may or may not be economically significant, but they will be politically salient. Individuals will need trustworthy institutions to help them, if they are to bear some of these costs.

Public health institutions have earned that trust in many countries. The privileged role of medical science in contemporary politics is the result of their work over decades. Health is the largest expenditure in most country’s national accounts amounting to close to 10 percent of GDP in OECD countries. Much of that expenditure is public, part of the post-war welfare promises that have led the state to become the biggest economic actor in the modern economy, and coordinates a myriad of services that individuals experience over the course of their lifetime.

Health is highly bureaucratized: all countries have a ministry of health, which coordinates the expenditures of the state, scientific advisory structures, institutions staffed by medical and health experts, and, crucially, vast delivery organizations — hospitals, clinics — with capillary territorial reach, all united by a common body of knowledge and epistemological framework.

It is that complex institutional architecture that plays both an advisory function to the branches of government, and the public outreach that individualizes the experience of medicine. It is the fact that the family doctor belongs to the same institutional architecture as the government advisors that ensures medical language is not entirely lost to the public, and that individual health can be part of the story of individual political agency. That is the architecture that has built the trust health officials enjoy to legitimately influence policy.

As a dress rehearsal for disruptive change, the response to the Covid crisis is therefore instructive. The most frequent mental model for the response to climate change reflects a situation in which the problem is to find the ‘best’ solution for implementation by a technocratic government and a host of economic actors — companies and institutions — and cascaded through the layers of their bureaucracies. But that is an inadequate mental model because it is unlikely to be politically robust.

Sufficiently radical changes to the nature of our built and natural environment will pose a fundamental challenge to how we govern the landscape, to who does what where, and for the benefit of whom. For those challenges to be resolved in service of a commonwealth, politics and political principles matter even more than detailed technical recipes. And the quality of the institutions that are supposed to both advise the state and give voice to the experience of the individual will matter a great deal.

The political animal

But while there is ample international architecture for dealing with climate change, a common theory for national institutions is absent. What is the equivalent of the 20th century public health institutions, which will help societies and individuals cope with the challenges posed by the largest economic and landscape transition in human history?

It is unlikely that the answer will depend on creating entirely new institutions — there is not enough time for that. But existing institutions offer building blocks that may need to be rearranged to face what is to come. Educational institutions, for example, are important delivery vehicles for general literacy, and may have to play a far more consistent role in helping individuals understand their experience in a changing world. Universities are the training grounds for the generation of professionals who will guide the transition, and who must share a basic language and epistemology.

Public institutions that deal with the landscape — agricultural ministries, environment ministries, energy ministries, water ministries — are currently organized to reflect economic categories, but will need to coordinate across their domains to deliver a national landscape that is resilient to a different planetary environment. And consistent advice on the state of the environment and the effectiveness of policy interventions will need a disciplinary approach akin to what epidemiology does for public health.

In the end, the lesson of the Covid response for the climate transition is this: if the problem is framed in technical terms — what solutions are needed to deliver a sustainable world — the answer is likely to be a technocratic plan. But if the problem is framed in political terms — how to ensure the state serves its citizens by delivering a free, secure, and just society under conditions of climate change — then institutions are likely to be the answer.

Hannah Arendt warned of the political perils of framing problems in purely technocratic terms. If we are to avoid the sirens of a New Atlantis and the slightly sinister, sage scientists that occupy its House of Salomon, efforts to bring about the transition to a climate secure world need to graduate from technical discussions about what ought to happen, to conceiving of the institutional architecture that will place the individual citizen and their political agency at the heart of a science-based transition.

Author, physicist, climate scientist. Expert on natural resource security issues. Environment executive. Legendary ocarina player - www.giulioboccaletti.com

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