For years, we have been warned that a catastrophic environmental crisis is on its way – whilst living in a world that is uncertain about what a real global crisis looks like. Well, now we know. The coronavirus pandemic is horribly real.
We need to learn the right lessons from how we manage it, and be careful to avoid the worst mistakes. Having the right attitude to risk is key.
Already, environmentalists are applying ‘coronavision’ to the climate change debate. A certain type of green activist welcomes the virus, seeing it as a sort of divine punishment for a civilisation that has lost its way. For most of human history, people have tended to view plagues and other natural disasters in much the same way.
A more sophisticated response comes from decarbonisation advocates who argue that the experience of the pandemic is a striking vindication of the ‘precautionary principle’ – that is, better safe than sorry. This approach demands that we do everything possible to prevent a climate crisis regardless of the lack of certainty about the efficacy of our ‘preventative’ actions.
That certainly appears to have been happening with the coronavirus – with government after government throwing everything at stopping the spread, however much damage is done to the global economy. And where the virus is concerned – this may well prove to be the correct response.
At the moment it’s a case of ‘wait and see’. The Swedish experiment means we can pit two contrasting strategies against one another. If the precautionary principle does end up being seen as more successful, then we need to be much more aware of its fundamental limitations before extending any lessons more broadly.
For a start, this crisis has been immediate and largely unexpected, in stark contrast to the endless and repeated warnings of a climate apocalypse (perennially postponed). We have more time to adjust to any changes in global temperature, and our knowledge of the climate is already quite advanced.
Using the right information and learning from experience will always beat blind fear. In South Korea, the knowledge gained dealing with an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015 was vital. It prompted them to develop an effective test and trace regime, which appears to have been very successful. The whole point here was to avoid having to rely on the precautionary principle, and the costly actions it entails.
Insurance policies worth their salt provide genuine cover against disasters, and at a reasonable price. It is far from clear whether the lockdowns introduced by so many countries will not do more damage to society than the pandemic itself. We will only find out if we try to objectively assess the evidence as it emerges. This becomes much harder when those who raise concerns about the costs of the lockdown are shouted down and dismissed.
Most of all, we need to remember that risk-taking is fundamental to living in a free society. There is no such thing as a zero-risk activity. Deciding what constitutes the riskier course of action is often not obvious and normally subject to our own prejudice. The objective is never to eliminate risk entirely.
For these reasons, Net Zero is looking more and more like the worst possible kind of insurance policy. We are planning to cripple our own economy in the pursuit of steep emissions reductions, all in the (hopefully unfounded) expectation that developing countries will do the same. How on earth will any of this protect us from the floods, droughts and hurricanes that will all inevitably happen, regardless of the severity of anthropogenic climate change?
Goodness knows, if a small fraction of the amount that has been invested in renewable energy had instead been devoted to drought resistant crops, flood defences and on developing more resilient infrastructure, how much better protected we might be.
The growing band of eco-fundamentalists are not invested in developing a rational response to climate change because they are far more interested in spreading fear. For them, COVID-19 is but a minor precursor to ‘catastrophic climate breakdown’, albeit one that might engender a necessary societal transformation.
It is no surprise that they have embraced the precautionary principle. We have now seen first-hand the extraordinary license that it gives to those wielding authority. In our own country, police forces have been given the ability to decide for us what counts as ‘essential’, but in other parts of the world children have been shot for disobeying strict lockdown rules.
Make no mistake, environmental activists will seek to exploit the fear and political instability of this crisis to try and extend the precautionary principle indefinitely. It would be doubly tragic if this pandemic is also the harbinger of the Big Green State.
It does not have to be this way. As a creed, Classical Liberalism may be lightly worn, but it is based on a strong conviction about the importance of toleration and a love of the human spirit. That people are willing to lay down their freedoms, and stay at home to try and protect their fellow citizens, is a mark of that spirit and not some sort of perverse victory for authoritarianism. I, for one, live in hope that this testing period will lead us to cherish our freedoms all the more.
Harry Wilkinson is Head of Policy at The Global Warming Policy Forum. Follow him on twitter: @HarryWilkinsonn