When it comes to COVID-19 the Australian Academy of Science said the willingness of individual Australians to follow public health directions, and of governments to listen to experts and allow science to guide policy has created a pandemic success story.
This success comes at the same time as the community has been assailed by the blithering of those who would have us do differently: recklessly gulp down hydroxychloroquine; reject vaccination; adopt a strategy of herd immunity – the one that sacrifices the old or vulnerable for the benefit of the young and fit.
By good management and fortune, Australia dodged a bullet. Other nations, equally affluent, technologically advanced and scientifically competent, have not. If we are interested in how we can organise ourselves to solve serious problems, this formula of success deserves to widely known and applied.
This is particularly the case given the need to act on the most complex scientific, environmental and economic problem facing the world today, which is climate change.
So it’s worthwhile looking at the factors that have enabled us to respond so well as a nation to the challenge of COVID-19, yet have us fail so dismally on climate change.
In the fight against COVID–19 our federated structure, much criticised, has created incentives for positive action. The Australian Government was responsible for economics and income support; and state governments were responsible for health. National Cabinet provided a forum for leaders and galvanised and guided action.
Because the Prime Minister and Treasurer shouldered the financial and economic burden, the Premier of Victoria, Mr Andrews, for example, was liberated to work on the health response. Untrammelled by the worry of keeping businesses afloat, Mr Andrews could lock down a city.
So one lesson is that governance matters and incentives matter. Prime ministers and premiers and ministers and advisers were relatively free to act because they had different responsibilities and were accountable in different ways. But when it comes to climate change, the incentives created by a federated structure are destructive rather the constructive. Instead of distinct actions that mutually reinforce the other, we have inaction, disjunction and confusion.
Now, behavioural economists – the nudge theorists – tell us that if governments make it easy for us to make good decisions or comply with the law then more citizens will comply. As irrational beings we are riddled with cognitive biases, which configure how we behave and what we believe. Nudge units in government spend a lot of time working out how to ethically manipulate citizens so that they make better decisions.
In how we responded to COVID–19, we weren’t so much nudged by government as shoved by reality.
We responded as we did because we had to. We had to comply. We had to be distant. We had to wear masks. Apart from the odd Karen or two, male and female, we were model citizens.
Governments at all levels, medical experts, doctors, professional and community organisations agreed that action was necessary and precautions were unavoidable. And Australians showed themselves to be receptive to the idea of absorbing pain as a way to guarantee gains. Peer pressure created social norms and a group identity of collaboration that made compliance easier. Rather than becoming brittle and fracturing under pressure, we became more coherent and cohesive.
Compliance was also high because of a tendency to focus on stuff that is recent and close to hand – the availability heuristic, in the language of the theorist. We know and focus on what is close to hand. We ignore distant and remote threats. The behavioural truth is that there is nothing like the plague ripping through a nursing home to focus the mind on the need to change behaviour.
We also discount threats that are overly complex, expressed in language that we do not understanding or present consequences as abstract and idealised states. And so all of us, immediately understood what was at stake when we had to home school, or cancel weddings, or not visit parents in nursing homes.
Finally, for months, all we did was discuss COVID–19. And our mood, this fixation, made us all receptive to suggestions that we had better shape up for our own good.
Critically, the message that we should comply wasn’t compromised or confused by bad faith actors, as was the case in the United States, and it wasn’t confounded by incompetence as in United Kingdom.
In the work of ensuring compliance, therefore, all roads led to Rome. The evidence before our eyes was clear, uncompromised and comprehensible; peer pressure reinforced the need to respond; we were primed for positive action each minute of the day.
Because of these factors, policy analysts who argue for immediate action to address climate change must deal with profound biases that privilege inertia.
When it comes to climate change, peer pressure, the availability heuristic and our receptiveness to the idea of change work against rather than for concrete measures.
Most importantly, serious action requires action against vested interests and established practice. It requires a jointly-held and agreed universe of facts. By definition, if we have no collective view then pressure exerted by peer groups is diminished and concrete action becomes difficult.
Of course, when it comes to climate change all of us are late adopters and free-riders and are therefore culpable. Some of us, however, – some institutions, some governments, some corporations – are more culpable than others. And these institutions, governments and corporations, using a multitude of excuses, brush off suggestions that we should act now.
Michael Mann Professor of Atmospheric Science at the Pennsylvania State University has for long written on the disinformation campaign that has been waged by bad faith actors. And last year, Dr William Lamb and others carefully analysed how these scoundrels cavil and equivocate and distract and confuse.
Lamb focuses on disinformation straight up, red herring arguments that are deployed as a strategy in the most calculating of way. According to Lamb, the intention is to sow doubt by creating uncertainty about the action to be taken, how fast, who bears responsibility and where costs and benefits should be allocated. In the words of Lamb these are ‘“climate delay” discourses, since they often lead to deadlock or a sense that there are intractable obstacles to taking action.’
So we need to be on the lookout for four categories of disinformation. We start with the idea that we should not act first. Responsibility rests with other parties, never us. A global problem is for others to fix, not us. This strategy makes us better off by positioning us as policy leaners, not lifters.
The second line of disinformation is that disruptive change is not necessary. The proponents of this line of argument would have us all join hands, discuss problems at length, talk and talk and talk, and focus only on technologies that we do not impose change on carbon corporations or reduce our addiction to fossil fuels.
Then comes a push to emphasise the downside. Change has negative consequences, and the argument is that these prevent us from acting. It is an approach that deliberately ignores the counter-factual case. Here, only action is associated with costs, whereas continued inaction is posited as being without cost – it’s the free environmental and economic lunch.
Finally, there exists the extreme position that surrender is the only option. In the place of mitigation, all we can is adjust and adapt. Either change is impossible or what we can practically do comes too little and too late. This strain of doomism is a nihilist’s belief that nothing should or can be done.
This means the challenge for governments and policy makers is great. In their work to implement good solutions, they face an entrenched, organised and sophisticated campaign of disinformation. Because of this, the factors that pre-disposed Australians to careful, thoughtful action on COVID-19 are entirely missing in the case of climate change. We therefore need to start anew and determined with the idea we should not be manipulated into the living of a national life that is based on a set of carefully presented lies.