When we look back on the pandemic, we may find that its biggest benefit is the way it has empowered scientists’ messages for politicians – a valuable lesson as we stare down the impending effects of climate change, writes Nicholas Agar

It is often noted that serious action on the climate is hampered by a political bias toward the short-term. The Glasgow COP26 conference called for serious cuts in emissions to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

But politicians focused on the electoral cycle are wary of asking too much of today’s voters. They understand that the effects of failing to seriously curb emissions will principally be felt long after they’ve exited the political scene. Hence the commitments of COP26 fell far short of its rhetoric.

When we look back on the pandemic, we may find that its biggest benefit is the way it has empowered scientists’ messages for politicians. Covid-19 placed scientists’ warnings on steroids.

Scientific consensus and climate change

A 2019 review of published scientific papers reported that consensus on human-caused climate change had reached 100 percent. This is good news. It means that politicians who reject the reality of climate change should understand they are taking a stand against science.

But there’s a depressing side to this good news. Climate change is time sensitive. The longer we delay, the more dire the problem. There has long been strong, though not universal, consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Had we acted earlier we would be much better able to achieve the 2050 net-zero emission goal set at COP26. Yet we have delayed well beyond the point at which science’s message about the climate was clear.

Politicians are human beings who respond to incentives. Leaders who choose to seriously cut emissions now impose economic costs on today’s voters. They don’t expect to be campaigning for office in 2050.

Politicians mostly care about how they are remembered. Who among them wants to be remembered like Nero, the Roman emperor fiddling while Rome burned? But they care more about the next election. Australian PM Scott Morrison took a collection of empty promises to COP26. He clearly doesn’t expect to be campaigning for office in 2050 when Australia has predictably failed to meet its net-zero target.

Scientists are human too. Some respond to the benefits that can come from politically palatable advice.

How Covid-19 punished politicians who ignore science

I hope we look back on the pandemic as strengthening the case for taking prompt action in response to confirmed science. It has sent a message about the danger of seeking out scientists whose message is politically convenient

Take the case of UK prime minister Boris Johnson. The pandemic came to a Britain fresh out of the European Union. Johnson, a Brexit champion, wanted Britain to “take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion.”

Leaving the European Union and abruptly going into an economically damaging lockdown was less supercharged Superman and more bespectacled Clark Kent.

The Sunday Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott describe how Johnson put out the call for scientists who would reject the strong advice of the UK’s scientific panels to go into lockdown. Conveniently for Johnson some scientists heeded his call. Two were distinguished professors with chairs at Oxford University. One was Anders Tegnell, the Swede behind his country’s “light touch” approach to the pandemic.

Over 150,000 British deaths later it’s clear this was a mistake. We saw that in the prompt banishment of the language of herd immunity from British political discourse.

Universities are ideologically diverse places. It would be a problem if all faculty were of the same mind on the big issues of the day. The problem comes when politicians exploit that diversity to shop around for experts with politically convenient views.

In early 2020, Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro derided the coronavirus as a “little ‘flu”. Over 600,000 dead Brazilians later the error of this assessment is manifest. There is no need to wait until 2050 for our climate error to become politically apparent. We wouldn’t absolve Bolsonaro if he’d managed to find a few professors to support him in his dismissal.

Perhaps this is the silver lining of the pandemic that most deserves celebration. Covid-19 has taught a lesson about the importance of prompt action when science’s message is clear. In the pandemic’s third year politicians have mostly got that. The weak commitments of COP26 came from political leaders who have only partially assimilated this message. We should be hopeful for the decisions of a next generation of leaders who will look back on the pandemic and understand how costly in lives dodging science’s warnings can be.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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