Climate, Covid and politics

It is now a common belief that our future is connected to the climate. Few people, however, realize just how closely connected the two really are. Take the current Covid-19 pandemic. According to the WHO, all available evidence suggests that the pathogens responsible for the disease were transmitted to humans by animals.

Although we do not yet know how exactly the virus came to be transmitted, we do know generally that when we go about destroying our ecosystem through activities such as deforestation, mining and illegal hunting, we reconfigure the environment in a way that makes transmission of viruses like Covid-19 more likely. Faced with a loss of habitat, animals are forced to venture into human settlements, thereby increasing the risk of transmission of potentially deadly pathogens.

Typically, the first thought of those pushing for climate action such as scientists and NGOs is to do more intensely what they have been doing and hope for a different outcome. Given the alarming rate of climate change and loss of biodiversity, it is evident that these strategies have not been very effective at bringing about the scale of change needed to avert the climate crisis. To be sure, I am not claiming that research is antithetical to our interests or that NGOs have not had a meaningful impact.

Indeed, we would be worse off if it were not for all the work that has been done. According to the 2020 Environmental Performance Index published by researchers at Yale and Columbia University, India is ranked 168 out of 180. The results show that India must redouble national sustainability efforts along all fronts, ranging from biodiversity to carbon emissions. If we concede then that our current efforts to bring about change have fallen short, we must consider what we can do differently.

One problem is that there is a lack of understanding of the politics of climate change. Relatively few are focusing on how to make the climate movement stronger and more politically effective and even fewer have recognized that affecting climate outcomes is more about bringing political resources, such as votes, media and money to the table rather than academic journals. Indeed, scientific knowledge has seldom been sufficient to persuade decision makers.

When it comes to the political game, those fighting against climate action are way ahead of their counterparts. As David Johns has observed: “There is no general public, only groups that engage and groups that sit on the sidelines; groups that know how to make a difference and those that fumble about; groups that organize people to act and those that point to opinion polls.”

Powerful corporations have been winning so far because they organize more efficiently and know how to engage with those in power. What then needs to change? For starters, we must increase our efforts to understand how politicians function. This begins with the basic awareness that good policy is not always good politics. If you had a choice between two climate positive policies, one that was academically ideal but which would not stand a chance of being implemented, and a politically achievable one which did, which one would you pick?

A policy that gets implemented is, needless to say, better than one that does not. Take carbon taxes, for example. From an economic efficiency perspective, it is the perfect policy, which explains why economists keep insisting on it. From a political standpoint, it is a hard sell. The word ‘tax’ does not generally rouse positive emotions among voters. Studies show that even when the public is informed about the relative cost-effectiveness of the policy and its revenue neutrality, a large percentage continues to oppose the measure.

Asking a politician to put such an idea forward is like sticking a red target on his back and inviting the opposition to strike. A wise climate strategist would ask the politician to push for a combination of flexible regulations and fuel standards and give him the assurance that this will not cost him at the ballot box. We must also seek to integrate our knowledge of the climate system with knowledge of how people make decisions.

Sociologists and psychologists have a key role to play in the fight against climate change. To achieve climate success, therefore, we must focus our attention on strategies that are pragmatic and not products of wishful thinking. To support this, academics must make greater efforts to produce inter-disciplinary work that combines knowledge of the energy-economy system with knowledge on how people make personal and collective decisions. Finally, we must seek to improve our political organizational capacity so that we can jump from hoping that change will happen to making it happen.

(The writer is a lecturer at Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, specialising in environmental issues)

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