Trust in the government has been eroded, and tackling climate change becomes more daunting still when politics demeans itself
There is always a climate angle. One of the beauties and tragedies of the climate crisis is that it is truly all-encompassing. It is a story about economics and the environment. About complex politics and raw power. About the foundations of the state and the freedoms of the individual. About financial risk and commercial opportunity. About human interest and the sweep of history. It is, in short, about everything.
As such, virtually every story has a climate angle. There are stories about personalities and celebrity, about outrage and ephemera, about singular incidents or specific events that can appear to be fully detached from the climate era, but the angle is almost always there if you look. The Dominic Cummings affair is one such story.
The facts are these. The Prime Minister's most senior advisor broke the lockdown. There is some debate over whether he broke the spirit or the letter of the law, but he sure as hell broke something. Trust in the government's coronavirus response has been shattered. It is unclear if it can be repaired.
By his own admission Cummings thought it was OK to rush back into 10 Downing Street because it was unclear whether his wife had coronavirus, then decided it was OK to drive the length of the country with his wife and young child because it was sufficiently clear that she may have coronavirus. Once there his family had to visit a local hospital, taking people with suspected coronavirus into a medical environment where there were negligible numbers of Covid patients and as such precisely re-enacting the very scenario that necessitated a ban on visiting second homes in the first place. He then marked his wife's birthday by taking a 60 mile drive to and from a known beauty spot to test his eyesight and take in some exercise - a story that stretches credulity so far past breaking point that it has prompted Ministers to openly laugh as they defend it and led to polling that shows only eight per cent of people believe it. Presumably, not all of them are Tory MPs. Interestingly, the 78 per cent who do not quite believe the eyesight test drive tall tale seems to include Durham Police.
Completing this lockdown litany, Number 10 spent weeks refusing to answer questions on sightings of Cummings at the opposite end of the country at a time when everyone was being instructed to "stay at home". The government then finally cobbled together a defence that centres on the fact there is a loophole - which hardly anyone was aware of at the time - that means lockdown can be broken in exceptional circumstances involving vulnerable people who require care. This defence is still yet to be accompanied by a clear explanation as to what was so exceptional about the challenges the Cummings family was facing when compared to the awful experiences of literally thousands of families in recent months. Moreover, the only rational explanation for not publicising Cummings' trip and his loophole justification for it before the Guardian and Mirror broke the story is that Ministers did not want families with young children travelling hundreds of miles around the country in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, because such journeys would be dangerous and wrong. Occam's razor is not Cumming's friend.
Add in a Machiavellian smirk at the end of a press conference where he somehow managed to maintain an otherwise straight face, the bizarre tale of his historic blog post on long tail risks that was mysteriously updated to specifically reference coronaviruses, and the sight of Ministers humiliating themselves as they simultaneously fail to credibly explain away both Cummings' infractions and the much worse collective failures that have resulted in the UK having one of the most appalling death rates in the world, and that's pretty much where we are at. At the time of writing there has been no apology or admission of fault, little expression of regret, and no resignation, unless you count those Conservatives resigning in protest. 'One rule for them, another for the rest of us' is now the unofficial motto of Her Majesty's Government.
And yet for all the disquiet of Tory MPs and the polling confirming widespread public anger, it looks as if the government is happy to see its own public health messaging grievously undermined. The charges of hypocrisy and dishonesty leave the Prime Minister completely unmoved. As such Cummings and his boss could very well ride out this particular crisis by simply urging the public to "move on" to the next one.
Why does any of this matter for the climate? Well, there are a lot of ways in which the coronavirus and the climate crises are different (chief amongst them is that climate change is a lot worse), but there are some important similarities. Both crises highlight the importance of resilience, the danger of low probability/high impact events, the wisdom of the precautionary principle, and the tyranny of exponential growth. Both demonstrate the complexity of cost-benefit analyses, the endogeneity of disasters, and the critical importance of acting early and decisively in the face of escalating threats. And both demonstrate the vital role of government and the hugely powerful yet eternally fragile nature of public trust. It is here that the Cummings affair finds its climate angle.
Near the start of the pandemic in Europe, Bloomberg published a brilliant essay by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge arguing that coronavirus had preyed on the West's failure to take the basic mechanics of government nearly seriously enough in recent decades. The governments of some of the world's richest nations were simply not up to the most basic task of keeping their citizens safe. Emerging Asian economies may have myriad governance challenges and questionable practices of their own, but they had adapted to new technologies and techniques to keep their death rates down, even as the virus blitzed its way through the US and Europe. The West had been asleep at the wheel, it has descended into a spiral of fake news, tribalism, and shameless hucksterism at a time when it should have been retooling its models of governance for the 21st century, and is now paying the price in cash, influence, and lives. The analysis did not mention climate change, but it really should have done.
Because the climate crisis condemns us all to a series of rolling and likely worsening crises. These crises can be minimised and navigated, they need not prove to be disastrous. Progress can be maintained and even accelerated. But the combination of increasingly extreme weather, threats to food security, stranded assets, rising sea levels, migratory pressures, and expanded disease vectors means the coming decades will be defined by escalating risks and the search for enhanced resilience.
In response to these crises governments will have a central role to play in shaping the fastest, most wide-ranging, and most disruptive industrial revolution in the history of human civilisation. Remember, the stated aim of every government in the world bar the Trump administration is the delivery of net zero emission economies by 2070 at the absolute latest. It is the biggest long term governance challenge since the formation of the nation state. It does not matter whether you think the role of the state is to actively lead this transition through investment and intervention or to focus on keeping people safe while providing a vague framework that lets the market drive the pursuit of net zero emissions, government is still an absolutely critical player. Good government has never been more important.
The irony is that Cummings is arguably a powerful ally in the mission to ensure modern governments are match fit for the looming climate challenge. His blog posts do not need to be surreptitiously updated to underline his belief that the role of the state is to mitigate long term risks - he has written in the past about nuclear weapons, bio-threats, AI, climate impacts, and the like - and foster innovative responses to these existential worst case scenarios. His instinctive catch all solution to just leave the brilliant people alone may be an Ayn Rand wet dream that falls apart on contact with any form of democratic accountability, but there is no doubting that some of his proposals to streamline Whitehall processes and drastically boost R&D investment have merit. It is notable that Boris Johnson's government has sounded much more ambitious and focused on the net zero agenda than either of his two immediate predecessors.
The problem is that this interest in reform, innovation, and long tail risks forms part of a package deal with the divisiveness, post-truth antics, and open contempt for both institutions and the public that we have seen in the past few days.
Climate action does not require the sacrifices and constraints coronavirus asks of us. There are good reasons to think the economic impacts of a net zero transition will be net positive and that the gains in terms of health, quality of life, and prosperity will be considerable. But there will be winners and losers. It will be vital for governments to inculcate a sense of fairness, to instil a belief that we are all in it together.
In any grand change movements you need leaders who for all their flaws command the public's trust and respect. You need Roosevelts and Gandhis, Mandelas and Churchills, Kennedys and Merkels. They look pretty thin on the ground right now. You also need bridge builders and alliance makers. It will be near impossible to deliver the behaviour change and investment required to drive a net zero transition in the midst of the kind of culture war and epistemic crisis that Cummings repeatedly looks to stoke. And you need the highest levels of competence. Former COP26 President Claire O'Neill has an axe to grind having been fired from the role by Cummings himself, but with the UK now seeing over 60,000 excess deaths while still failing to deploy a fully functioning test, track, and trace system her Tweet yesterday suggesting that a "government with breathtakingly arrogant close minded muppets like Dominic Cummings in charge couldn't deliver a pizza, let alone COP26" has a certain sting.
Following the financial crash, the expenses scandal, a decade of austerity, the moral and legal contortions of the Brexit saga, and the self-immolating Corbyn experiment British politics was in a deeply troubling and divided place even before the coronavirus crisis hit. The Cummings' day out to Barnard Castle has cut through with the public in much the same way as the expenses scandal and the '£350m on the side of a bus did', only this time the controversy is at the heart of government in the midst of a pandemic. Trust in politics has been eroded further at the worst possible time.
In lashing himself to the mast in defence of Cummings the Prime Minister has ensured that his entire government has squandered its moral authority. Ministers who need to be trusted and respected are being openly laughed at. A government that desperately needs to convince people to adhere to their civic duty has explicitly demonstrated that there is one rule for its favoured advisers and another for the rest of us. 'We're all in it together' has become a punchline, rather than a slogan.
Such indifference towards basic concepts of fairness and truthfulness, such an instinctive and increasingly Trumpian willingness to fuel tribal tensions, makes it much harder to govern when in the grip of a deadly pandemic. But it also makes it much harder to govern full stop. And all at a time when the climate crisis and the net zero transition makes governing more challenging than ever and the nurturing of public trust and engagement of the upmost importance. Building a decarbonised and climate resilient economy in the space of three decades is difficult enough as it is. The task becomes more daunting still if politics demeans itself, if Ministerial statements are met with incredulity, if standards in public life become a standing joke. That is the climate angle, and it is not an encouraging one.