2020 taught us some powerful lessons – perhaps we should be grateful for that at least. Some of them were obvious, such as when we get enough people focused on solving a technical problem we can indeed innovate astonishingly quickly. But the less obvious takeaways may be the most important ones.
Let’s start with some of the positives.
For one thing, 2020 saw a subtle, but immensely important, shift when it comes to the dynamic around climate change. Pre-2020, we had countries staring into the face of the science and trying to negotiate how little they could change in the face of it. The mindset, even for the world-leaders, was very much one of defensiveness and damage control.
We’ve started to see evidence that that has changed. Action on climate change is now being driven in many countries by the competition for leadership in the new clean technologies that will shape the future. Europe and China are now in a race on renewables and hydrogen. China is additionally leading a charge on fourth generation nuclear which may, or may not, be joined by the US.
Even under Trump, despite the noisy pro-coal rhetoric in public, measures were quietly being driven forward on some of the emerging technologies. Not because of any conversion to the cause of climate change, but simply following geopolitical logic. Both political sides see a national imperative not to allow China free rein in the marketplace.
In other words, it might have been the year when the advocates for climate action won the debate and hadn’t yet quite noticed. World leaders have accepted they are all on the same journey and are engaging with the practicalities of it.
Of course, campaigners will continue to complain that whatever governments are doing is “too little too late” because they define their role as being ahead of the mainstream. But there is reason to be optimistic.
The moment it really sank in was when China announced its commitment to net zero by 2060 and began to engage that reality for its next five-year plan. As the world’s biggest coal user, it has a long way to go. But the country has nursed an ambition for world leadership for decades – this was the first time we could confirm that it intends to do this within the context of new technologies, not old.
There were other positives from the year. We saw a massive upskilling of people worldwide in technologies that will enable more sustainable short-term behaviours.
For the first time, we can say that people of all ages have now gotten to grips with video conferencing technology. Employees and companies alike have acquainted themselves with the tools to make remote working a natural part of doing business.
Of course, some of the old ways will be embraced as lost friends when the chance arises. But the new skills will nevertheless mean there is a greater range of options available. They will continue to be used, especially in a time of constrained budgets. That, in itself, will make a big difference.
On the other hand…
Not all the 2020 experiences we can learn from were so positive, of course. For instance, global governance has become a major fault line. We had a genuine global crisis and mostly failed to respond in a joined-up way.
Nations pointed fingers of blame. Supply chains crumbled in the mad scramble to get enough PPE equipment. Information coming from the World Health Organisation was inconsistent and apparently influenced by China’s sensitivities, fuelling distrust even further. Right now, China is punitively boycotting Australia for having called for an independent inquiry into the cause of the pandemic. This matters.
Such fault lines will be tested more in the future, not less.
Just to give one example. A pilot project – with funding by Bill Gates – is about to go ahead to test the feasibility of geoengineering. Specifically, it will explore the potential for injecting quantities of calcium carbonate into the stratosphere to reduce solar insolation and to cool the planet. It would be fast-acting, cooling the planet by around 1.5C. It would be relatively low cost, about $10bn per year. And it is a project, the principles for which will immediately challenge global governance measures to breaking point.
Who owns the sky? Who signs off on what goes into it? As we saw with Elon Musk and others launching thousands of satellites recently, to the despair of the astronomy profession, the answer is “nobody”. That is going to become something of an issue.
And the dilemma it presents goes to the heart of the final lesson – one that may be somewhat contentious. We learned that we have to grow up about what it means for public policy to be “guided by the science”.
Following the science
Science tells us about what is happening and can provide informed speculation about what will happen under various scenarios. It does not, cannot, tell us what to do about it. Epidemiologists have said, for instance, that both countries that locked down, like the UK, and those that didn’t, such as Sweden, were following the science in what they did. We all want our preferred policy approach to be self-evidently mandated by the science, and that’s part of the problem.
In 2020, the attitude to lockdown sceptics very quickly became identical to that reserved for “climate science deniers”. In other words, the view that one perspective was so disconnected from reality it was harmful and should generally not be platformed.
Unfortunately, both in climate and also in the pandemic, we saw this quickly and easily extended to any sceptical voices of proposed public policy, or indeed genuinely contentious details of the science. Some important lines risk being blurred. Freedom of speech has always been held as a key part of democracy – it does not survive the assumption that different views are not just wrong but self-evidently dangerous.
We create populist backlash when debates are suppressed, and in so doing we lose the freedoms we think we’re protecting. The debates are indicative of a deep distrust in some quarters of a tendency towards globalist technocratic visions for the future.
It’s the sentiment that Trump rode to power on, but it doesn’t go away just because he is. Arguments need to be heard and engaged with, not swept aside. That’s the hardest lesson of all because, yes, it’s hard work.