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What the pandemic really taught us about climate change

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The NASA image of clear skies over China during their lockdown set the scene for the media to link the Covid-19 pandemic to our (lack of) response to climate change.  Perhaps, they told us, the most crucial “lesson” learned as spring gave way to summer was that the economic concerns used to caution against taking radical action had been overstated.  It was perfectly possible – it turned out – for governments to shut down entire sectors of the global economy, such as air transport and shipping, apparently without serious consequences.  Most of us, it seems, spend our days  employed to do things that are entirely unnecessary – we could just as easily spend our days at home binge-watching old TV series; thereby saving on the carbon that we routinely emit during the daily commute and while sitting in an over-heated and over-lit office all day.

Money turned out not to be a problem either.  All of that sucking of teeth and “what’s it going to cost though”-ing, which was routinely used to debunk responses to proposed action on climate change, went out of the window.  Not only could government borrow as much money as it liked at ridiculously low rates of interest, but the central bank could simply spirit new currency into existence and hand it to the Treasury.

The ghosts of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were finally buried too.  It turned out that “I’m from the government and I’m here to help were not, in fact, the most terrifying words in the English language.  Indeed, it was when governments sat back and left Covid-19 to market forces that things went downhill.  While countries like New Zealand heroically banished SARS-CoV-2, Britain and the USA complacently allowed the virus to spread exponentially; killing far more people than might otherwise have been the case.  Leaving tackling climate change to market forces is having the same effect.

It goes without saying that countries which failed to “follow the science” fared much worse than those which took it seriously from the start.  And yet, when it comes to climate change, despite the science being settled, governments – even those which cover themselves in greenwash – refuse to act.

In short, those demanding that we apply the lessons from the pandemic to tackling climate change have learned exactly the lessons that they wanted to learn from the beginning.  The question is, can we trust their conclusions?

The first point to make is that despite the NASA images, the various lockdowns will have little impact.  As an editorial in New Scientist explains:

“Global lockdowns to halt the spread of the coronavirus will have a negligible impact on rising temperatures due to climate change, researchers have found.

“Lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus caused huge falls in transport use, as well as reductions in industry and commercial operations, cutting the greenhouse gases and pollutants caused by vehicles and other activities.

“The impact is only short-lived, however, and analysis shows that even if some lockdown measures last until the end of 2021, global temperatures will only be 0.01°C lower than expected by 2030.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.  The atmosphere is massive.  It has taken the energy from three centuries of industry to warm it by less than a degree.  Believing that allowing the non-essential middle classes to work from home for a couple of months would change anything was fanciful from the start.  Indeed, we already knew that it takes a major economic collapse – such as the fall of the Soviet Union or the Great Depression – just to slow the increase in global warming:

It is entirely probable of course, that the lockdowns will cause a massive economic crash beginning in the autumn when governments withdraw the various stimulus packaged.  That being the case, then the pandemic may well result in a big drop in carbon emissions.  This though, is not the lesson climate activists want to draw.  Because if the only way of lowering our carbon emissions is to inflict economic misery upon billions of people worldwide, then the economic objections to climate action will have been proved correct.

The lockdowns themselves – partial and largely benefitting the metropolitan liberal class – were not widely accepted either.  From the beginning, libertarian and conservative-leaning people took exception to the draconian powers taken by government (not all of them used by the way) to enforce the lockdowns.  By the end of May, groups from both the far-left and the far-right were routinely breaching the lockdown provisions in order to take to the streets in protest.  And although the majority of people accepted the measures – largely because they did not want to unknowingly infect vulnerable family, friends or neighbours – the protests suggest a limit beyond which people will begin to break the law.

Given that the measures required to reverse climate change would be far more draconian, and would have to continue, year after year, for decades; the more appropriate lesson to draw is that people are not going to accept them… not least because the Covid-19 science has proved wildly inaccurate.

Going into the pandemic, doctors and public health scientists were among the few groups of officials not to have disgraced themselves in the eyes of the public.  In the aftermath, they will be lucky not to find themselves lumped in with bankers, journalists and politicians.  This is largely due to their habit of projecting certainty outward while entertaining doubt behind closed doors.  On the pandemic at least, the science was far from settled.  Indeed, most of the pandemic plans which had been developed were based around an outbreak of influenza.  As a result we were treated to a medical version of Maslow’s Hammer; since the only tool available was a response to flu, Covid-19 was treated as if it was an exotic strain of influenza.  This undoubtedly killed people because those features of Covid-19 – such as micro-clotting damaging multiple organs – which didn’t fit with the symptoms of flu were ignored, while symptoms which only apparently fitted – such as breathlessness caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood – were inappropriately treated by ramming steel ventilator tubes deep into patient’s lungs.  Even the incongruous loss of taste and smell, which is now accepted as a central symptom of Covid-19, was dismissed by clinicians to begin with.

The epidemiologists fared little better.  After catastrophizing that millions of people were going to die within weeks as the virus spread exponentially, they were forced to admit that their modelling was wrong.  Far fewer people were falling ill, still less dying.  Nevertheless, one of the key responses to this early modelling – returning infected patients to care homes in order to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed – unnecessarily doubled the number of deaths.  The later objection that many of those people would have died anyway later in the year, does nothing to change the fact that these unfortunate souls died in the worst way possible; gasping for air, lacking any human contact and separated from loved ones.

Having witnessed epidemiologists apparently exaggerating a threat in order to drive a draconian response, there is a real risk that climate scientists will be cast in the same light.  How do we know, for example, that the models suggesting anywhere from 5-8 degrees of warming are any different to disease models suggesting millions of deaths?  Might it be that 2-3 degrees of warming – within the bounds of IPCC modelling – might be the upper limit of climate change? 

In any case, it is far from clear that climate science is offering solutions any more relevant than doctors initially treating Covid-19 as if it was flu.  Deploying non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies has failed; they account for less than five percent of the world’s primary energy consumption, despite decades of government and public support.  Nuclear is far too expensive to take the place of coal and gas in electricity generation.  And while its proponents point to just-over-the-horizon technologies, these might take decades to deploy at scale, even if they can be shown to be viable.  Only cuts in energy use – cuts far deeper than would occur in the deepest of economic depressions – will save the day… and nobody is voting for those.  And so, geoengineering and going nuclear is the most likely course that governments – and the godzillionaires who pull their strings – will pursue in the longer-term, since these are the only options that allow business as usual to continue.

This is not the only reason why claiming that the pandemic demonstrates the central role of government, might be mistaken.  Different governments responded differently for both economic and cultural reasons.  And while those who cheer the red and blue political teams have been quick to point to the apparent failings of countries run by what approximates to the opposite team, we must wait until the end to draw conclusions.  In the end – whenever that turns out to be – lockdowns and aggressive track, trace and isolate systems may only slow the rate of infection rather than prevent people from being infected.  If this is so, then the economic impact of shutting down economies and causing millions of job losses may yet prove worse than the virus itself.

The point is that after four decades of neoliberal insistence that governments should leave almost everything to the supposedly free market, we have governments comprised of Peter Principle, 3-d printed politicians; each as ineffective and incompetent as their predecessor.  It is vacuous to claim that the blue team would have done anything different to the red team because both, in the end, will follow the advice of their experts.  In politics it is always better to follow the advice and be wrong (even if this results in the deaths of thousands of citizens) than to risk going against the advice; even if you believe you are right.

The idea that these politicians – who have become specialists in nothing else but conning people into voting for them – are the best people to lead our response against climate change is an article of faith which detracts from the evidence so far.  Long before governments will be fit to lead the response to climate change, we will need to create a radically different system of government to the current neoliberal version.  But that opens up an even deeper level of conflict and distrust, because I don’t want to live in your version of an ideal governing system any more than you want to live in mine.

What, then, might the real lesson from Covid-19 be?

I would argue that Covid-19 has changed nothing.  As Basil Liddell Hart once put it: “if we learn anything from history it is that we learn nothing from history.”  Governments will continue to pay lip service to climate change; but the economy will always come first.  Activists will continue to protest but will continue to fail to offer a viable alternative policy programme.  The majority of people will continue to go about their daily lives, comforted by the erroneous belief that “clever people somewhere else” are dealing with it.  As eight billion of us grow to become ten billion we will continue burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests and despoiling what remains of the Earth’s resources; because this is the only way so large a population can hope to feed itself.  Meanwhile, states and entrepreneurs will reach for any hi-tech alternative to reversing course in the vain hope of maintaining infinite growth on a finite planet.  Because when all is said and done, what the end of the lockdown demonstrated was that all of us – young and old, left and right, blue and red – can only tolerate a change in our lifestyles for a short time.  There is simply no way that more than an inconsequential minority will ever put up with the level of disruption needed even to slow climate change; still less reverse it.

As you made it to the end…

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