Failure of imagination led us to be unprepared for a pandemic – we must avoid making the same mistake when it comes to climate change.
The National Audit Office report on Covid-19, published today, doesn’t make comfortable reading. At its heart is the fact that the UK – like countries around the world – was poorly prepared for a pandemic.
That lack of preparedness was not borne out of malice. No politician or official would want to be unprepared for such a situation. The fundamental issue was a failure of imagination. We couldn’t really imagine what a pandemic would be like. And because we couldn’t imagine it, we failed to adequately prepare for it.
To give an example: some years ago, I was involved in a government pandemic planning exercise – how ready were we for an outbreak of bird flu ripping through the UK population?
This was a group of informed people talking through all the possible options and designing responses. We worked out what the policy response would need to include – quickly getting to ideas which seemed beyond the pale, like mass slaughter of poultry, and requisitioning freezer trucks to store dead bodies.
But more interesting is what we didn’t cover. Even as the theoretical bodies piled up, we never conceived of a national lockdown keeping people at home, stopping people from seeing their friends and families, or banning international travel.
But why didn’t we? This was an infectious disease, spread by close contact, bringing society to its knees. Those apparently extreme approaches aren’t just options – they are arguably the obvious thing to do.
Again, there’s a simple reason why we didn’t even consider such measures: failure of imagination. While we could make the logical leap from “birds spread disease, so kill all the birds” or “bodies need refrigeration, therefore requisition fridges” – we couldn’t make the leap to “people pass the disease on, so separate the people”. We could not imagine what a pandemic would really feel like, and what options should be on the table as a result.
Applying the lessons to climate change
The fight against climate change suffers from the same failures of imagination, in two ways.
First, we struggle to imagine what the impacts of unabated climate change will really feel like when they are happening – because, for sure, while we’ve had some warming so far, it’s on track to get a whole lot worse unless we take urgent and fundamental action.
We are told, for example, that entire ecosystems may disappear – but it is difficult to envisage the sense of loss that will result.
We can understand that there will be mass migration from countries and continents which are rendered partly uninhabitable – but we find it hard to anticipate what the social, emotional and public policy impacts will be.
We know that, without rapid action, there is likely to be a tipping point where there is sudden flight of capital from fossil fuel assets – but the leap from understanding that in principle, to conceiving what the impacts of a fundamental destabilisation of our economic model will be, is challenging to make.
And we can expect that our children and grandchildren will be angry at the job of fixing a crisis not of their creation – but we are unable to articulate to ourselves how visceral the anger (and guilt) will feel.
Second – and more importantly – we lack a coherent vision of what a net zero world looks like which the majority of people can understand and buy into.
Discussion of net zero focuses on what a fundamental change it will be to our lives and our economies. There is some truth in that – transitioning a global economy away from fossil fuels in 30 years is a Herculean task.
But in fact, a net zero world will be different – but can be better. It can give us the things that we value: warm, affordably heated homes; a car – electric, not petrol; a well-paid, skilled job; international travel, meat, consumer products and so on. And it can give us real upsides, from green spaces in our communities, to cleaner air and better buildings.
A political opportunity
That vision is not well articulated and understood, and it has to compete with something which is much easier to visualise – that is, the world as it is today.
And setting that vision is where politicians need to step in.
At the moment, we know that the vast majority of the public are concerned about climate change. But too often, climate action is framed as what we are voting against (a future world of runaway climate change) and not what we are voting for; and the vision of a net zero future is theoretical, not practical.
To address that, we need politicians to set out a vision of a world that we can imagine and understand – and which is supported by action to deliver it. Not “net zero can deliver millions of green jobs”, but “we are delivering investment in a factory in your area”. Not “we all want a greener future”, but “we are delivering new green spaces in your community”. Not “you must give up your gas boiler”, but “you can have a heating system which is better than what you have, and which slashes your carbon footprint – and here is how to get it”.
Many in the environmental movement recognise this challenge, and have worked hard to set that vision. And we see some evidence of those efforts gaining traction in mainstream politics, as the major parties focus on the job creation opportunities of net zero.
But a broad and detailed vision of what a net zero world can look like – and why voters should vote for it, not just against the counterfactual – is the big challenge that lies ahead. The political party which can grip that agenda can tap into the 81 per cent of the British electorate who want to act. Otherwise we are doomed to failures of imagination leading to inaction – and the need for ever more extreme measures as a result.