Science, corona and climate change

The pandemic caught us with our pants down. Within days it demonstrated the limits of our health systems, brought the world economy to its knees, led to an until-recently-unimaginable restriction of our rights, and profoundly altered our communities and lives. The corona crisis also put science in the spotlight: physicians like Anthony Fauci in the US, Christian Drosten in Germany, and Jaap van Dissel in the Netherlands became national celebrities almost overnight. The opinions of researchers quickly became reference points for action, and the credibility of politicians has depended on how close their actions followed the advice of researchers.

The role of scientists

Comparing the role scientists play in the corona emergency on one hand and in the climate crisis on the other is tempting. In both cases, we depend on scientists to diagnose and treat our predicament. Climate scientists and virologists care about the public good, invisible but essential for our life. In climate as in health, decades of policy lethargy and lack of prioritization reduce our ability to respond to the current crisis.

Of course, there are also many differences. A pandemic demands an immediate policy response and very drastic and sudden, but short-term, behavioral change. In contrast, climate change is a slow-onset event that requires equally incisive but long-term policy responses.

The prominence of scientists in the corona pandemic is particularly interesting because over the last decades the prominence of science in the policy arena has steadily eroded away. Where previously scientists would be called upon to provide expert opinions, policy pundits now take center stage. And many populist leaders ridicule any science that spoils their political worldview. When the Fridays4Future generation demanded politicians take scientists seriously, they presented an almost radical request. Even today, while few see the benefit in delaying corona action, skeptics still see benefits in delaying climate action.

A few early lessons

While it is still too early to present a more profound analysis, the corona crisis can teach us a thing or two about the essential role of science for a measured and adequate policy response to climate change.

Lesson 1

Things can spin out of control very quickly, and seemingly distant events can alter our lives suddenly and profoundly. Emergencies do not follow the logic of linear events. The exponential growth of the infectious disease has led to a global pandemic within weeks. Climate change impacts are erratic and can trigger feedback loops that alter our environment within a few years but offer almost no chance to reverse the damage.

Lesson 2

It is essential to recognize the power of small numbers and seemingly low probabilities. Whether the mortality of coronavirus is 0.1 or 2 percent results in hundreds of thousands of additional deaths; whether each infected person passes the virus to 1.2 or 2.1 people is an essential indicator of the effectiveness of policies. Whether climate change will be contained at 1.5, 2 or 3 degrees Celsius will determine how livable life on this planet will be, and a couple of additional years of inaction will determine whether we will be able to meet the Paris climate goals and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Lesson 3

Preparedness matters; so does stable funding and investment. Institutions need to be built in times when the crisis is still a distant probability, and policymakers need to consider sound science when devising public policies that make our societies, global and local communities, and ecosystems resilient to external shocks. It is not sufficient if just a few individuals know what should be done in the case of an emergency; preparedness, as well as resilience, needs to extend to our society and societies as a whole.

Lesson 4

Changes in society and behavior are possible. We have seen that people can change quickly in the case of an emergency, and they can put the collective over individual interests. To address climate change, we also need to change our behaviors. In the corona crisis, many hope to revert back to their previous routines as quickly as possible. In the event of runaway climate change, there will be no going back. To avoid dangerous climate change, behavioral change and support for government action need to be built and sustained over long periods. This requires strategic cooperation among politicians and social scientists.

Lesson 5

International cooperation is essential. Even though some governments have shut their borders in response to corona, in the end, the pandemic can only be contained through cooperation and coordinated strategies. Politicians have a lot to learn from the way researchers collaborate internationally and share an interest in results.

In the current situation, politicians turn to epidemiologists and virologists for advice – they have quickly advanced to become some of the most trusted persons in public life. This crisis provides us an opportunity to raise the profile of scientists defending other public goods, most notably a stable climate.