What did we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic? In a new article, we argue that the fight against the coronavirus revealed the extent to which state power can be mobilized, as we witnessed the rapid implementation of policy measures that had previously been deemed impossible to adopt. States, for example, enforced a slowdown of peoples’ lives by introducing severe restrictions to people’s freedom of movement, even among liberal democracies.
Meanwhile, the challenges of climate change and nuclear danger have had much fewer efficient interventions. “Insurmountable obstacles” policymakers face in implementing the measures needed to address these challenges are often blamed for the lack of action in these two domains. Still, we are expected to consider these policymakers to be acting in good faith.
What does the track record of state action on COVID-19 and the lack thereof in climate change and nuclear weapons tell us about the scope of political possibilities and actions in good faith on the part of policymakers?
At multiple times during the pandemic, states challenged or ignored what had previously been presented as limitations on action. States overturned former structural obstacles, reversing entrenched policies on austerity, and acted despite the objections of adversarial forces, such as the powerful airline industry.
This has not been the case in the domains of climate change and nuclear disarmament. Throughout the last three to five decades, policymakers in the Global North have repeatedly promised to address these global challenges but have subsequently failed to undertake action at the necessary scale to fulfill their promises.
From the very beginning of the efforts to tackle climate change, policymakers have promised to adopt a legally binding international agreement, aimed at maintaining a livable biosphere through a radical reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2015, states finally managed to secure what became known as the Paris Agreement. It required states to set their own targets for emission reductions, with the goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” Similarly, pledges for nuclear disarmament have been made for at least half a century. The very first resolution by the United Nations General Assembly called for the elimination of atomic weapons from national armaments. The disarmament pledge was subsequently included as a legal obligation under the Nonproliferation Treaty in the form of article VI and reiterated at the Treaty’s Review Conferences. Specifically, it stated that each party “undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
Still, the promised action has remained elusive. Approximately half of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions between 1750 and 2010 have occurred since the global community realized that they were a problem in the 1970s. And the Paris Agreement does not offer much respite. Not only are states not on track to meet their individually-set contributions, but these pledges are insufficient to reach the overarching goal of the Paris Agreement. Similarly, seventy-seven years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, world leaders have not only failed to abolish nuclear weapons, but they have instead preserved the capability to destroy human civilization several times over. In the last few years, all nuclear-weapon states have started nuclear modernization programs.
SCOPING (IM)POSSIBLE ACTION
Rather than taking action at an adequate scale in line with their promises, policymakers hid behind claims of impossibility. On the one hand, policymakers argued that the promised action was impossible due to structural obstacles, as undertaking such action would have jeopardized a fundamental component of the social contract. From the beginning, for example, actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been constructed as a threat to sustaining economic growth. This produced two forms of boundaries in the fight against climate change, namely that measures to address climate change can only be considered if they do not harm the economy and that climate change should be tackled through market-based measures. On the other hand, policymakers have claimed that the promised action would have been futile due to the presence of adversarial forces. In the nuclear realm, for example, US President Obama sought support from those who opposed the 2010 New START Treaty, most notably Sen. Jon Kyl, by promising a large nuclear modernization plan, even though Vice President Biden had already shown him that such a compromise was pointless.
RATHER THAN TAKING ACTION AT AN ADEQUATE SCALE IN LINE WITH THEIR PROMISES, POLICYMAKERS HIDE BEHIND CLAIMS OF IMPOSSIBILITY.
Yet, possibilities for action existed in both domains. For instance, policymakers can build winning coalitions to implement decarbonization policies or pursue nuclear disarmament. In the realm of climate change, this can be done not just through alliances with climate change activists, but also by fostering support among industries that would benefit from such policies or by enacting green industrial policies that would generate new allies.
Though we do not imply that there are easy-to-find or perfect solutions to the problems posed by climate change and nuclear weapons, we do contend that policymakers have imposed political boundaries upon what would be possible, thereby inhibiting themselves from taking the actions necessary to fulfill their promises.
In turn, this opens up the question of good faith. Good faith is a function of policymakers being willing to undertake action with their foreseeable consequences being up to scale with the pledge. As policymakers have made promises without the intention of keeping them or have acted as though implementing them would be impossible, the case for good faith is weak. Actual boundaries to political possibility certainly exist. Yet, it is impossible to know the presence and the extent of the boundaries of the possible in the moment itself. Rather than using the unknowability of political possibilities as a justification for inadequate action, we encourage policymakers to undertake creative attempts to act at a scale commensurate with their pledges. For instance, the way that political coalitions around energy transitions are built shapes the ability of entrenched veto players to oppose such measures.
To sum up, an important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is that consequential action in good faith was possible: Policymakers can, have, and should undertake action to implement policy change, even when it is politically costly for them to do so. The widespread set of claims that policymakers faced insurmountable obstacles in implementing the actions needed to address climate change and nuclear danger, but that they should still be seen as acting in good faith, should therefore be recognized as unsustainable. Reassessing possibilities and good faith are not just a means to achieve accountability for inadequate action in the past, but also a starting point for policymakers to learn from past mistakes and do better in the future.