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Why global crises are political, not scientific, problems

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize he was awarded in 2007, Al Gore, the former American Vice President, made the claim that “the climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.” The reason why Gore does not see climate change as a political issue is presumably because he thinks it is obvious. In other words, he thinks that climate change will damage everyone’s interests because it will destroy the planet. It is therefore in everyone’s interests to do something about it and fast. In other words, there is no political decision to be made.

Lurking beneath this interpretation of Gore’s claim is the assumption that politics is predicated on the existence of differences. These differences might be about interests (self-interest) or they might be about values (what we think are important objectives for society irrespective of our particular interests). Politics is therefore defined as the process by which groups representing divergent interests and values make collective decisions.

Now, the claim that climate change is not a political issue is of doubtful veracity partly on the grounds that it does not affect everyone in the same way and, at least for the currently living, there is not an active threat to human existence. That is, acting on climate change, particularly when doing so has significant economic consequences, is not necessarily in everybody’s interests or not to the same degree.

What of the current pandemic? Is there a case for saying that coronavirus is not a political issue but merely one that requires the objective expertise and judgment of scientists and medical professionals? Listening to Government Ministers claim, as they often do, that they are merely following the science certainly gives credence to such a claim.

What it would require for politics, defined in the way I have done so above, to be absent in the coronavirus crisis is for it to threaten everyone in similar ways, and for acting on it to be consistent with universally held values. A useful parallel is the common threat often said to exist in the event of war. In Britain, for instance, the country’s internal politics was put on hold during the Second World War and there was no general election between 1935 and 1945. It is no accident, perhaps, that war-time metaphors have been regularly used in the pandemic crisis. Thus, we are at war with an invisible killer and healthcare professionals are on the front line against it.

Of course, war between sovereign states is predicated on the existence of conflict between them and, as the nineteenth century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz memorably pointed out, war is “the continuation of politics by other means.” Given that the present pandemic is a global threat and sovereign states have been, for the most part, supporting each other in fighting it, there would seem to be a stronger case for regarding it as being above politics, similar, perhaps, to an attack on Earth by aliens as envisaged by science fiction writers.

It would be wrong, however, to regard coronavirus as a non-political issue. There might be a case for regarding it as such if it threatened all humans with the same outcome (death). This is clearly not the case. Indeed, for most people, COVID-19 is pretty harmless. For the young it barely registers. For others, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, it can and has been deadly. As a result, competing interests do exist. The action taken against it, in most cases some form of lockdown, does not serve everyone’s interests, and it serves some people’s interests much more than others.

Protecting people from the virus inevitably conflicts with some interests and values. Crucially, of course, there are acute economic costs which will be played out in declining standards of living in the future. There are also impacts on human development, not least in the case of the shut-down of schools and universities. Children’s prospects (particularly the prospects of children from poorer backgrounds) are likely to be damaged by their inability to access formal education. The negative psychological effects of social isolation should also not be underestimated.

Values, too, are under attack and not least the limits placed on freedom deemed necessary to control the transmission of the virus. It is one of the fundamental articles of liberal faith – exemplified by the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill – that the state should not intervene to prohibit “self-regarding” actions (those that affect the individual alone), irrespective of the risks the individual is willing to take. A counter argument here would be that anyone deliberately flouting the lockdown measures is behaving, as Mill would put it, in an illegitimately other-regarding fashion since the potential consequences – of further spreading the infection – will affect others negatively. A possibly useful compromise (one which is close to the strategy of the Swedish government) is to self-isolate those who are likely to be particularly vulnerable to the virus whilst allowing others to behave as relatively normal, thereby preserving at least some of their liberty.

The politics of coronavirus requires a balancing of the interests and values involved. The debate surrounding schools is instructive. The government has proposed the gradual reopening of schools but this proposal has met opposition from some teachers and parents as well as medical professionals. All of these actors have (some) competing interests which they will seek to defend and added to the equation are the interests of children (not always the same as their parents) which are probably more likely to be ignored.

The state’s role, in a democratic pluralist political system, is to seek to balance the competing interests that are articulated. Crucially, it cannot, if a fair compromise is to be achieved, prioritise the interests of one group over another, seriously disadvantaging the interests of others, unless a failure to do so is to put one group at serious and substantial risk.

Featured image credit: Markus Spiske, ‘Global climate change strike’, Unsplash (21 September, 2019)

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