Common wisdom has it that the lesson of COVID-19 is that we are capable of marshalling a mass, evidence-driven response in an emergency. But the bigger lesson is that we aren’t actually very good at this.
It’s not a criticism — it’s just the way our brains are wired. For the sake of meeting the challenge of the climate emergency, we need to pay heed to the lessons of COVID-19 and apply them to climate policy.
A couple of months into the COVID-19 crisis, you couldn’t scroll more than two inches on social media without another invite to a webinar talking about all the lessons for climate policy-making to be learned from the pandemic response. Imagine people from coast to coast tuning into a climate scientist at a national podium every day! Imagine the federal and provincial governments, standing with resolute purpose, calmly outlining sectors of the economy that are putting us at the most climate risk and then just shutting them down! Imagine the feeling of mass mobilization behind a common goal!
So it was during the first 100 or so days of COVID-19 ... until it all started to unravel.
By June, it was clear we were over tuning in to an endless parade of finger-wagging health officers, ministers, premiers and the occasional mayor. Twitter offered alternate takes on government information. Maybe it wasn’t that big a deal to visit friends, family or our favourite B.C. vacation spot. Even if it was a big deal, we’d done our part valiantly, and didn’t we deserve a break?
It sounds like we are bad people. We aren’t. We are people, and that means our brains are hardwired towards certain cognitive biases. What is a cognitive bias? Simply put, any systematic deviation from what might otherwise be considered a rational decision.
Cognitive bias differs from explicit bias in that it’s not intentional — think of it as the hardware we come prepackaged with. In general, cognitive biases provided positive benefits at some point in our evolutionary history, which is how we ended up with them. But as we’ve seen with COVID-19, some of these biases aren’t that well-suited for a modern reality that our collective actions can wipe out all life on Earth.
In June, Scott Halpern, Robert Truog and Franklin Miller published a paper called Cognitive Bias and Public Health Policy During the COVID-19 Pandemic. In it, they outline the four cognitive biases that they believe have most hampered our response to COVID-19.
Identifiable lives: We prioritize threats based on whether we think they can harm or kill us or someone we know and care about. As COVID-19 wore on and no one we knew had died, we became much less concerned about how our actions impacted others. We were past this threshold on climate years ago.
"For the sake of meeting the challenge of the climate emergency, we need to pay heed to the lessons of COVID-19 and apply them to climate policy," @andreareimer writes for @NatObserver. #climatechange #COVID19
Optimism bias: Hope is a uniquely human experience, and it stems from our cognitive bias that the best possible outcome is also the most likely one, even when all data clearly points to a low probability of that outcome.
Present bias: You may recognize this as the “marshmallow test,” a seminal Stanford University study that looked at whether people would be willing to delay gratification of a small reward in order to get a bigger reward. Most of us aren’t.
Omission bias: This is the hardest to understand but also the most pervasive of the four cognitive biases, and it affects virtually everyone. Essentially, we are hardwired to not take action even when things are going poorly, rather than take action and accept responsibility for the outcomes.
You can see the inherent challenges here for climate action. If these four biases mean we can’t make it through 100 days of responding to a deadly virus without cracking, how will we muster the resolve to take the action we need to save ourselves from the climate emergency?
The good news? We know that we have these cognitive biases, and now we know how they sway an emergency response to a planet-wide threat to humanity. This should allow us to design a climate response to account for them.
For example: Just like we are (finally) legislating masks in public places as part of our COVID-19 response, we can say goodbye to our current “provide information and incentives and hope people act” approach to climate change strategies. Legislation is the only way to save us from rising climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.
We also know that there are parts of our current economy that cannot rationally coexist with a climate safe world, including the extraction of fossil fuels intended for combustion. Rather than continuing to let optimism and omission bias blind us to the reality, we need to buckle down and create a framework to transition these industries and their workforces.
If we can shut down key sectors of Metro Vancouver’s economy — tourism, hospitality, retail — literally overnight, we can figure out a durable plan for transitioning the fossil fuel sector, which has a fraction of the workforce countrywide.
There are many more areas of climate policy we need to shift to align with the lessons from COVID-19. But key to both is first acknowledging that we have a problem we can overcome. If cognitive bias is the hardware we come with, rational action is the software we can decide to run if we choose to observe and learn.
Andrea Reimer was elected to municipal government in Vancouver for four terms between 2002 and 2018, and currently teaches about power and policy at the University of British Columbia's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.