Optimism Bias in the Pandemic Response: Implications for Climate Change Policy

What can the optimism bias evident in governmental responses to the COVID-19 epidemic teach us about future climate change policies?

During lockdown, there have been growing debates in Europe about what the pandemic means for climate change policy. Will governments blindly offer state support to rescue fossil fuel and high other carbon-emitting industries, counter to their stated climate objectives? Of course they will. Their immediate concern is about saving jobs and protecting incomes. The long-run agenda is always put aside when dealing with a crisis.

There is a different lesson from the pandemic that is more concerning. What this crisis showed is that no one – governments, population, media – wanted to believe in the extent of what could happen until it actually did. And that was even after Hubei went into lockdown and the virus started to spread abroad. Indeed, even after Italy closed pubs and restaurants, I don’t think anyone quite believed that would be necessary everywhere else in the West. Every stage of the crisis seemed to come as a surprise even when there was evidence from elsewhere. Parts of the US still don’t appear to appreciate the necessity of the response, even after the record number of recorded fatalities there.

That optimism bias is a problem we have to tackle with climate change policy – no one wants to believe that any such disaster will happen or that the consequences could be existential.  That is despite clear evidence that it is happening. One can already see the resulting chaos afflicting people’s lives from California to Australia.

The science background 

The amount of CO2  in the atmosphere has risen since the industrial revolution to be nearly 415ppm (Source: UK Met Office). Based on ice core samples from the polar regions, today’s CO2 level is the highest in over 800 thousand years – ‘normal’ levels have been 170-280ppm with a previous peak of around 300 (Source: NOAA).  

Why does this matter? Last time levels were so high, the sea level was around 15-25 metres higher than today. The sea level is rising at about 3.3mm a year – with signs of acceleration as thermal expansion adds to ice melt (Source: NASA).

Global temperatures are also rising inexorably (albeit with significant year-to-year variation) and the link to man-made greenhouse gas emissions has been generally accepted. CO2 emissions are still increasing globally. The past five years have been the warmest five on record and the planet is, on average, over one degree warmer since the start of the Twentieth Century (Source: Met Office). To stabilise the planet’s atmosphere, not only do emissions have to be brought down to net zero, we will probably need to see a period thereafter of substantial CO2 extraction to get back to ‘normal’ levels.

Note that slow-moving trends are not the triggers for disaster. As temperature rises, natural variation means that there are more extreme weather events that cause the most damage. 

The consequences of climate change

If the current generation does not successfully limit climate change, millions, possibly billions of future lives will be put at risk: from rising sea levels, ‘natural’ disasters (storms, floods, droughts, wildfires etc), ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity, clean water and arable land. And the consequence will be mass migrations from unliveable areas leading inevitably to violent conflicts. In short, an economic and social catastrophe is foreseeable that will make the pandemic seem like a minor diversion. This is not idle speculation or scare-mongering, we are already witnessing such events in microcosm. Extreme natural disasters are becoming more common. And, for example, it is thought that the root cause of the Daesh movement in the Middle East was driven in large part by regional drought.

No one wants to believe that it will get that bad. Rising temperatures in the UK seem like a boon, not a threat. But such an attitude could be our downfall. By the time we all realise that much more action is needed, it will be too late. Just as with Covid-19. 

Let us consider a practical example: it is already accepted that the Thames barrier will need replacing to protect London from flooding. The official Government target date for replacement is 2070. My concern is that action will be taken too late because of the up-front cost.  

London was close to flooding in the winter of 2013/14 when the Thames Barrier was closed over 40 times because of the high rainfall over land (the Barrier was closed at low tide to create a space for the excess water to flow into). It’s just such an extreme event – perhaps high rainfall and high tides in combination – which would directly cause a London flood. And the occurrence of extreme events is rising.

And the cost? Well, the financial and welfare costs will be highest if we wait until after a flood, then have to clean up and subsequently need to replace the Barrier under duress. 

This is an important message about the climate change agenda – when someone complains about the cost of ‘going green’ or of getting to ‘net zero’, let’s remember that the biggest costs will come from doing too little, too late – and then not only having to deal with the ensuing disaster but undertaking desperate and expensive measures in a disaster situation. 

Post-Covid, there will be an opportunity to build climate mitigation objectives into economic regeneration policies.  Governments must grasp that opportunity.

Dr Paul Fisher is, inter alia, a Fellow of the Cambridge University Institute for Sustainability Leadership and a Visiting Professor at the London Institute of Banking and Finance.

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