The COVID-19 pandemic is an especially difficult challenge for our—indeed any—democracy.

Our political system is well set up to resolve disagreements by finding compromises between the competing claims of different groups of people. We hope to arrive at a conclusion in which neither side gets exactly what they asked for but both sides walk away with a sense that the other side made concessions that were difficult for them.

Political compromises work well when deciding which community gets the jobs brought by a new factory or who gets to own a valuable fishery. But they don’t work so well when responding to nature’s challenges.

Politics can deliver compromises about climate change that balance the need to seriously curb emissions and the need to emit the carbon required by economic growth. This approach might work if we were dealing with Gaea, the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth who might look at our not particularly impressive efforts to curb emissions and reflect “Well, the reductions were less than I was hoping for. But I did ask a lot of you, and some of you clearly did try, so I will spare you my wrath.” Sadly, if the levels of atmospheric carbon exceed certain levels, there will be consequences, period. There’s no asking forgiveness from Gaea.

We are learning that COVID-19 is similarly intolerant of our attempts to balance the demands of a public health crisis and of the economy. Familiar expressions like “the coronavirus does what it wants” or “the virus doesn’t care about excuses” send the message that there’s no Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, in charge, a being who can look at our worthy efforts and spare us further suffering. Asclepius would likely be giving Spaniards a break about now.

The chaotic response of Americans to the pandemic is an excellent expression of their democratic culture. Many people pay close attention to the recommendations of Anthony Fauci, prominent member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and wear masks. But there are also Americans angry about curtailing of the freedom to basically do what they want, where and how they want, and others who resent the suggestion that they should wear a mask and thereby “throw God’s wonderful breathing system out”.

If you were allocating space in a United States city, you’d want all these attitudes reflected in your choice of public buildings. The problem is when democratic diversity informs responses to COVID-19. Suppose that 80 percent of a population studiously wears masks and refrains from attending large social gatherings. That would suffice for a commanding election victory of the science party over the non-science party. But the evolutionary logic of COVID-19 suggests that the response will nevertheless fail. COVID-19 will seek out the exposed 20 percent who would rather party than stay at home and wear masks. It will thrive.

There’s a familiar complaint about politicians twisting science to serve their purposes. But we should also acknowledge that scientists can be very clumsy when forced to play politician. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield understands this well. He conveys scientific information about COVID-19 but he clearly doesn’t want your vote. Dr Bloomfield will be there to advise whomever we elect. Let’s hope that whoever that is will be glad of his advice.

Donald Trump’s hostility to the ugly and depressing facts about COVID-19 in the United States has dragged Dr Fauci into the political arena. There he finds himself forced to compete with the practised appeals to liberty and God of career politicians.

Recently, Dr Fauci departed from his pattern of depressing warnings about the pandemic with an optimistic forecast of a vaccine by the end of 2020 and one billion COVID-19 vaccines in the United States by early 2021. That would be lovely for Americans. But when scientists make optimistic, hope-driven predictions, they can fall into the same traps as the rest of us.

I am currently finishing a book on the history of very confident forecasts of victory in the war on cancer. In 1971, President Nixon declared war on cancer. Some of his scientific advisers assured him he could have the cure by 1976. In 1997, Nobel Laureate James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA, confidently predicted the end of cancer within two years. When 1999 came along with no cure, he repeated the promise—“two more years!”

We’d love Ashley Bloomfield to promise us an entirely COVID-19-free Aotearoa in 2021. But we should be grateful he won’t. Politicians can make such promises and be punished at the hustings for failing to deliver. Scientists mustn’t.

“If we depoliticise the climate, we would treat the climate crisis in the way we treat the pandemic. No major party would dare front up to an election during a pandemic without an extensive plan about how to get through it and rebuild afterwards.”
Professor Nicholas Agar

Aotearoa has got it right about the science of the coronavirus. It’s time for us to get it right about climate change too. We can do this by depoliticising it.

Depoliticising climate change would require shared agreement about the basics of climate science and the magnitude of the threat. Few Kiwi politicians deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change. But there’s evidence for the politicisation of climate change in that we hear so much more about it from certain political parties than from others. Some parties openly call for prompt action. Other parties recognise that it’s good politics to talk about anything but the climate.

If we depoliticise the climate, we would treat the climate crisis in the way we treat the pandemic. No major party would dare front up to an election during a pandemic without an extensive plan about how to get through it and rebuild afterwards. Depoliticising climate change would mean all serious candidates for government would offer themselves to be judged on how well they respond to our changing climate.

That wouldn’t require a situation in which we all unquestioningly comply with the directives of a Green Tsar. Aotearoa’s political parties could advance a variety of responses, including those that focus on free markets. But they wouldn’t be allowed to seek votes by diverting attention away from the problem of climate change. We should be as intolerant of this way of attracting voters as we would of a political party that sought to play politics with the basic historical fact that there was a treaty signed at Waitangi in 1840.

Nicholas Agar is Professor of Philosophy in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations.

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