What does the coronavirus experience tell us about climate change?
Last week I started posting on connections between these two enormous challenges. There I touched on the ways climate change can change the spread of diseases, the possibility that COVID lockdowns give us a glimpse into how we can throttle back carbon emissions, and the ways that coping with the pandemic could accelerate, or blot out, climate crisis thinking and planning.
Today I wanted to explore a different approach, one where we think of our response to COVID-19 as a dress rehearsal for how humanity can handle the climate crisis. Reflect on the pandemic as a dry run for what comes next.*
Philosopher of science Bruno Latour raised this point way back in March. (French original) “I am advancing the hypothesis, as have many others, that the health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change. This hypothesis still needs to be tested.”
Latour actually comes to argue that his hypothesis doesn’t work, at least in France. We’ll address that below. For now, though, I’d like to test it out a bit on the rest of the world and explore just how we can explore our future engagement with the climate crisis based on what COVID has shown us.
There are many parts to this. Let’s identify some of the biggest.
We can start with the social position of science. Attitudes towards science are wide-ranging, at times contradictory, and sometimes shifting. A good number of people (media figures, government officials, public health leaders, the population as revealed by polling) saw science as a useful guide through the pandemic. Epidemiology was the center of this approval, of course, accompanied by the full gamut of health care: biology, anatomy and physiology, respiratory science, psychotherapy, geriatrics, and so on. Huge numbers and forms of statistics have been in the air continuously.
At the same time there have been various forms of skepticism and opposition directed at science. A good number of people (media figures, government officials, public health leaders, the population as revealed by polling) have charged science with overstating the danger. Some are now convinced the science is openly political, either connected with party politics, racial politics (in the US), or some form of globalism running roughshod over localities. Scientists themselves contradict each other, not just in the centuries-old tradition of how science develops, but in offering opposed policy prescriptions and seeing their opponents as too politically biased. These attitudes didn’t emerge out of nowhere, of course, as they draw on pre-established cultural patterns, from the global antivax movement to anti-Darwin religious belief to various forms of popular dislike of authority figures.
In the United States I suspect there’s also some our anxiety about health care, given America’s unusual funding structure. I fear we might also experience an uptick in suspicion of academic science, driven in part by partisan politics (Republicans being much more skeptical of higher ed than Democrats) as well as negative responses to how many colleges and universities handled the epidemic (opening up leading to infections and deaths within campus communities and beyond).
A similar range of anti- and pro-science stances have already been taken concerning climate change, and it seems reasonable to project them forward. The particular contours of COVID-era opposition to science – charges of politicization, exaggeration, and being part of a globalist agenda – are certainly in play on climate issues.
One of the strongest sources of opposition to scientific recommendations is the body of counterarguments in favor of economic stability or growth. That objection has cropped up since the start of the pandemic in the west and continues through today. It charges that the economic costs of strong public health measures are too deep, and also carry public health burdens in the forms of exhaustion, suicide, etc. A fresh example appeared this week as the Irish government rejected that nation’s leading medical authorities’ call for high levels of behavior restrictions. “The surprise proposal drew widespread opposition amid concerns that severe new curbs would derail an economic recovery.”
Related to these political arguments are the dynamics of economic and racial inequalities. Since its start COVID-19 has impacted populations unevenly in many ways, including by racial and economic inequities. Economically, poor people have a more difficult time accessing health care, especially in privatized nations like the United States. The pandemic has rewarded the wealthy, generally, increasing economic divides. In the United States black and Latinx populations suffer disproportionately by numbers of infections and deaths. Awareness of this dynamic seems to be widespread; actions to redress it are not.
Climate change seems likely to continue this pattern. Globally, economically and ethnically marginalized populations tend to be geographically and culturally placed to bear the brunt of rising waters, deserts, and temperatures. If 2020’s attitude of criticizing this inequity without doing much to respond materially bears out, COVID suggests racial and economic inequalities will continue to shape humanity’s response to climate change.
Let me return to politics from another angle. How has the human race responded to the pandemic in terms of state power and governance?
Globally we can see several patterns. Nation-states are leading the charge, regardless of how well they succeed. Battling COVID requires action and coordination at the level of provinces, states, and departments. Cities also play a key role. Super- and international organizations have some part as well, most visibly the World Health Organization.
It is not even a year in, and governments can act very slowly indeed, but this suggests to me that humanity is not ready to make seriously political changes in response to global catastrophe. Indeed, our reactions are in many ways conservative. We often hearken back to national governments, and among those a great many reactionaries, as in Brazil, India, the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Iran, etc. None of those states have changed in organization. Beyond them, there is little international cooperation beyond some of Europe and East Asia, and there it was already in place. There are no new treaties or compacts, nothing like the agreements that nations made to handle acid rain (1979) or ozone layer depletion (1987). The European Union doesn’t seem to be changing up to grapple the pandemic. On the other end of the political scale, localisms don’t seem to have taken off as the center of human activity. We might be more urban than at any other time in history, but the state looks central to our response.
In 2018 Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright posited four ways civilization could reshape states and governance to grapple with the climate crisis. To recap:
- Climate Leviathan, the creation of a superstate to organize the world along somewhat technocratic, neoliberal lines.
- Climate Behemoth, which sees a host of right wing states defying climate change and fighting to maintain their individual positions.
- Climate Mao, where multiple nations pick up China’s unique brand of state communism and climate mitigation.
- Climate X, an open category for a kind of decentralized yet collaborative, progressive and liberatory response.
If we can project those scenarios into our present day, it looks like 2020 is the year of COVID Behemoth, followed distantly by at least one Mao in the works (but not others, given global responses to Beijing’s handling of the virus). There are plenty of nation-states addressing the problem, and a bunch are in various forms of denial and/or clumsiness. Despite ad hoc and often quiet international collaborations, there is no sign of any Leviathan and it is too early to see traces of Climate X, except perhaps for some antiracist awareness in the United States.
Again, it’s still early days, but COVID shows us a human race wedded to the nation state, and suggests our climate change response will follow suit. Latour argues that these states are operating from an out of date playbook:
What is more worrying is that we do not see how that state would prepare the move from the one crisis to the next. In the health crisis, the administration has the very classic educational role and its authority coincides perfectly with the old national borders – the archaism of the sudden return to European borders is painful proof of this. In the case of ecological change, the relationship is reversed: it is the administration that must learn from a multiform people, on multiple scales, what will be the territories upon which people are trying to survive in many new ways as they seek to escape from globalized production. The present state would be completely incapable of dictating measures from above. If in the health crisis, it is the brave people who must relearn to wash their hands and cough into their elbows as they did in primary school, in the case of the ecological mutation, it is the state that finds itself in a learning situation.
Perhaps we are approaching the boundary of a phase change, when we realize that our response systems are flailing, and that we need to invent or innovate new structures. If I can add another qualified hypothetical, maybe the web of ad hoc transnational collaboration we see in 2020 gives us the first hint of how that new political order might start to appear.
On the other hand, there are clear limits to this entire way of thinking about the pandemic and the climate crisis together. Maybe the dress rehearsal hypothesis just doesn’t work. Back to Latour, who winds up his article with these thoughts:
[I]n the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity!
I wonder about this – not in terms of reality, but perception and culture. I watched a webinar recently about using games to teach and mobilize people about climate change, and I asked a design question. If such a game is competitive, and at least one player represents the forces of good, who are the opponents? If the game has a narrative element, who are the villains? I suggested some possibilities: energy companies; certain forms of human behavior (acquisitiveness, short-sightedness, consumerism); certain politics (petrostates, capitalism); the planetary ecosystemsystem as a whole. Responses tended towards the latter, angling for a kind of (good) humans versus nature (dangerous) dynamic. Such a game would involve rebalancing the global ecosystem.
That game design thinking sounds like a benevolent terraforming exercise. The classic and far too apposite game Pandemic (2008) was suggested as one model. There players team up to stop the spread of a disease, working collaboratively and using complementary abilities. I mentioned this idea to a game designer friend, and he suggested Terraforming Mars (2016) as another useful example. In that game players compete to reshape the Martian surface and planetary ecosystem:
That conceptual approach to climate change, as a kind of global, complex system to intervene in and modify for the better, is not only well suited for game design. It also echoes one leading response to the pandemic. In this view the coronavirus is not a narrative challenge but a natural albeit dangerous life form we need to wrangle, manage, and control. Put another way, viruses are not political, or rather they impinge on politics.
Latour argues thusly:
What allows the two crises to occur in succession is the sudden and painful realization that the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms. This is true of microbes – as we have known since Pasteur – but also of the internet, the law, the organization of hospitals, the logistics of the state, as well as the climate.
It’s a way of decentering humanity from the problem. That can key into several other currents of thought, such as posthumanism. I can see ways for anticolonial thinking to connect with this as well.
Opposed to such as approach is, of course, the nationalistic take that COVID-19 is something China mishandled or even created the pandemic. (Trump just said “China put the curse on” the world.) This take gives us a way of thinking about the crisis in terms of human actors, featuring blameworthy figures (and nations) opposed by heroes.
It then suggests how different people could come to think through the climate crisis, and not just American conservatives. Anyone in the world can blame, for example, the United States for its outsized consumption, voracious energy companies, and global dithering. Others could charge the developing world with ramping up their consumption levels in the face of demands to cut back. Some can cast NGOs and other nonprofits in the roles of bad shepherds, misleading us into counterproductive or openly dangerous paths; the 2019 documentary Planet of the Humans is one example of this. As the 21st century progresses other figures and entities will, no doubt, appear culpable. Either the crisis is something for which humans can play protagonist and antagonist roles, or it’s about humanity as a whole grappling with a vast ecological system problem – the COVID experience points towards both options.
To be clear, I’m not just describing game design, but the narratives and frameworks we use and can apply to these dual crises. These in turn shape our multiple responses, especially at the social, cultural, and political levels. I am also not endorsing any single response in this post, but describing what I’m seeing in the present and tentatively anticipating for the future.
Overall, I find Latour’s hypothesis fascinating as a prompt. There are limitations to it beyond his own, final critique. The crises are very different in many key ways – climate change is a long term progression, for example, while COVID is a blazingly fast eruption whose fate might be long term stasis or repetition, a la flu. The wealthy and powerful can far more easily dodge climate woes than they can the pandemic – indeed, for me one of the sad aspects of 2020 in the United States is watching not only the elite enjoy access to better testing and care, but also how their woes move so many other people to sympathy. (Celebrity culture is a kind of pedagogy at times.) But thinking through the Latour hypothesis is a fine exercise.
Does the Latour hypothesis work for you? What forecasts does it elicit in your mind? The comment box, and the rest of the internet, await your responses.
*”Next” also means “now,” but see the previous post about how COVID can blot out climate change.