Climate and COVID: The structure of two crises

by Felix Schaumann

Author’s own photo

A common explanation for delayed mitigation action concerning the climate crisis cites the fact that the response of climate policies is only visible on a decadal timespan – thereby affecting neither quarterly profits nor parliamentary terms. COVID19 on the other hand only has a knowledge delay of up to 2 weeks, before infection events reveal their effects.

I would like to explore how these different dynamics of action and response play out and what they mean for the politicisation of science.

The relevant parameter of climate scenarios is greenhouse gas emissions. For pandemic spreading scenarios, the amount of new infections is the relevant parameter. Now it is interesting to look at where the agency on the two parameters lies, respectively. 100 companies account for more than two thirds of industrial greenhouse gas emissions of the last 30 years, while individual action is considered to play only a minor role in reducing total emissions. The amount of new infections, on the other hand, is very much determined by the everyday behaviour of individuals. Thus, primary action on the climate crisis has to be taken on the societal level, whereas for the COVID crisis this happens on the level of individual compliance.

Another common explanation for inaction with respect to the climate crisis points to the fact that the required mitigation policies tackle the very basis of our economic model – «fossil capitalism», as it has been coined. Actions to control the spreading of the pandemic, on the other hand, affect interpersonal intimacy, gastronomy and cshops – the realest of the so-called «real economy». Thus, both crises affect our society on a very basic level, but in a completely different manner.

In climate science, models play an important role in bridging the gap between action and response. Given the lack of timely response by the climate system itself, the choice of policies is mostly justified with model results. This is often seen as a reason for the politicisation of climate science, alongside the fact that it tackles the basis of our economic structures.

The COVID pandemic is also widely modelled, and these models play a big role in the shaping of political measures. In this case however, the time span that is being modelled often comprises only weeks or months. Interestingly, it is again the time span that is needed to bridge the gap between action and response. This short time span allows for a feedback between society and science. On the one hand, researchers can incorporate data from the effects of political measures into the calibration of their models. On the other hand, model projections have an influence on people’s behaviour and thereby affect their own projected outcomes. Even though the models themselves are much simpler than climate models, these feedback processes make the debate more complex.

One could hope that this complexity and the possibility of a lively political discussion on different strategies and measures prevents the spillover of political conflicts into the scientific realm. Yet also in the COVID crisis, science is getting very politicised. Conspiracy myths and discrediting of scientific practices are widespread. It seems that neither the short time horizon nor the lively debate on different measures could prevent this, but instead we encounter a familiar phenomenon: political measures are justified with scientific results and political criticism translates into a criticism of science.