As we enter the second year of what Biden has characterised as humanity’s critical decade, we need to reflect on our progress tackling the three major challenges confronting our species: climate change, biodiversity loss and poverty. In 2021 the proximate challenge of the Covid global pandemic dominated the headlines and the political agenda. Hopefully, that will no longer be the case in 2022.
The pandemic revealed that most countries were ill-prepared, either because of poverty and underdevelopment or choosing to fund other priorities they had ceased to invest in resilience. Those countries with more recent experience of MERS and SARS did significantly better. Covid initially presented an immediate threat. In this, Covid differs significantly from the threat of climate change.
The vast majority of political leaders still see climate change as a challenge but fail to understand the urgency. At COP26, some further measures were agreed upon, but many political and business leaders and commentators (and some scientists and NGOs) talk glibly of the importance of achieving net-zero on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and enforcement remains an issue, implementation fails to match the rhetoric. Greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced urgently. As the climate scientists Dyke, Watson and Knorr, have pointed out in practice, the net-zero by 2050 policy “helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.” The debate about the science, about whether anthropomorphic climate change is occurring or not, is largely won. The consequences of our failure to tackle climate change earlier are now clear to see, with extreme weather events, crop failures and migration now affecting the developed world – Australia, Canada, Europe and the US. Climate change is no longer only damaging developing countries. Is it still possible rationally to argue that this is a threat we do not need to take effective action on?
Greenhouse gases are still accumulating in our atmosphere as a group of climate scientists have asked after three decades of climate mitigation, “Why Haven’t We Bent the Global Emissions Curve?” As the graph shows we have gone on polluting our atmosphere and warming our planet.
In an essay published in 1833, the British economist William Forster Lloyd, wrote about the consequences of the unregulated grazing of common land. It makes rational sense for individuals to overgraze a common property resource to fatten their livestock, although, for the group, it is irrational as it leads to degradation of the resource. Individuals gain but the group loses. For the individual, the net benefit of grazing on common grass outweighs the loss of pasture. The individual and group incentives and consequences are misaligned. What makes rational sense for the individual is irrational for the collective. Over a century later, in 1968, the American ecologist Garrett Hardin in an article in Science, popularised this conflict between rational individual and rational group behaviour as the “tragedy of the commons”. There is nothing inevitable about this tragedy. Human societies have evolved a wide variety of governance instruments to rebalance individual and group or collective interests.
Covid and climate change both posed a global challenge, although both threaten all of us, the threat varies seasonally as successive waves of the pandemic have rolled around the globe and as extreme weather events come and go, although the local impacts of extreme weather events often take years to recover from. National governments have responded to Covid and climate change, the EU and US have both struggled to develop a common response across constituent nations and states. The World Health Organisation has advised against travel bans, but national governments have imposed travel bans and a plethora of testing regimes that have disrupted travel domestically and internationally. The travel and tourism sector is particularly vulnerable to government responses to Covid and to the damage to destinations caused by extreme weather events. The sector is seen as responsible for facilitating the spread of Covid because it transports people who carry the infection with them. A growing number of people are concerned about the contribution of aviation to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Climate change is an obvious example of the “tragedy of the commons.” The individual advantage of a flight far outweighs the impact of climate change caused by the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, those impacts will be felt by others. The same applies at the national level; countries benefit from aviation and all the other activities that create greenhouse gases. To date, the benefits outweigh the costs. It is easier to leave future generations to deal with the problem hoping that cheaper and easier technical solutions will be available to them. In the meantime, we go on adding to the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
Governments turned to science and vaccines to address the pandemic and with some success. Many, but by no means all, have understood that taking the vaccine is their best defence against illness and possibly death. Covid is also a “tragedy of the commons.” Governments have exhorted people to take the vaccine, socially distance, and wear masks for their own benefit and their community. For a variety of reasons, a significant minority have resisted. They are pursuing their own ends as anti-vaxxers, maximising their perception of their self-interest at the expense of the common good.
Attitudes to government policies on climate change and Covid now have significant tribal elements. “Vaccines and climate change have much in common. In both cases, a scientific consensus contrasts with a divided public opinion”. Schonfield et al, in a paper published last month, found that “pro-vaccine individuals overwhelmingly believed in anthropogenic climate change, but the converse was not true.” There have been aggressive protests against carbon taxes and mask-wearing and vaccination.
As the World Health Organisation has frequently and consistently reminded us “No one is safe from Covid-19 until everyone is safe.” Nation-states have been slow to ensure that the developing world gets the vaccines that it needs, our failure to act on the evidence that the virus will mutate and return unless vaccines are globally available is another example of the tragedy of the commons. Similarly, national governments have so far failed to provide the funds to enable all countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.
National government action is essential to manage these two global-commons tragedies to ensure that the collective rational interest prevails over individual interests. Covid and climate change require a global response – neither can be effectively dealt with only at the nation-state level. Covid and climate change are global-commons issues, the jury is still out on whether we can rise to the challenge.
To end with some good news, 99 good news stories.
Angus Hervey edits the Future Crunch newsletter, a regular roundup of good news, mind-blowing science and the best bits of the internet. On New Year’s Eve, he published 99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2021