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What can we learn from the Corona crisis for the governance of sustainability transformations?

Published: 18 February 2021
Portrait of a woman. Photo.

In this blogpost, I argue that the Corona pandemic presents us with a unique opportunity to better understand what happens if people have to change their behaviour fast – and if governments have to steer this change in an effective, but fair and socially acceptable way. What do we learn from the last year for the large-scale changes required to reduce the impact of climate change?

Blog post written by Anke Fischer.

Sustainability transformations will require substantial changes in our everyday behaviour – changes that we’re probably not even able to picture right now. This will include so-called ‘lifestyle’ changes – but more systemic changes will also have a tangible impact on what we do (or don’t do) on a daily basis.

And indeed, many, many citizens and community groups are engaged in working towards a less unsustainable future. But in spite of the widespread positive rhetoric (“many small steps…”), it seems extremely doubtful that society will reach its own declared goals and keep climate change within manageable limits. The change that individuals and communities are able to instigate does simply not build up fast enough.

I personally have therefore always believed that governmental interventions were needed: We can’t expect citizens to do all the transition work on their own; governments have to take their responsibility seriously and develop policies that effectively work towards sustainability transformations. My own experience with the people I spoke to as part of my research – for example in interviews about energy use and climate change – suggested that many people (and not necessarily only those who are particularly environmentally-minded) would actually welcome such interventions.

Government interventions in times of Corona

The Corona pandemic presents us with a unique opportunity to see what happens if governments really do take action and introduce policies that have direct impacts on what people can, and can’t, do. Looking at the different approaches that countries such as Sweden, the UK and Germany have taken since March 2020 to reduce the spread of the virus makes me feel like being in a gigantic experimental governance laboratory – but what do we learn from these interventions?

Let’s for the moment distinguish between two types of interventions: (1) A responsibilisation approach that builds on behavioural guidelines combined with the provision of expert information, so that individuals are empowered to take responsible decisions themselves, and (2) a regulatory approach that is based on ‘hard’ rules that rigidly constrain behaviour (e.g., ‘lock-down’ measures).

During the so-called first wave of the pandemic, Sweden adopted a responsibilisation approach. We were given simple, but clear behavioural guidelines, and had access to a lot of background information to make up our own mind and judge for ourselves how risky a certain activity would be. In moral psychology terms, this sort of approach seems to assume a post-conventional way of moral reasoning – I know that rules (that is, conventions) exist and that they are important, but faced with a moral dilemma, these rules may be disobeyed to prevent other, maybe bigger harm. Of course, this works only if most people are arguing in the same, post-conventional way – and if there is some shared understanding of what ‘bigger harm’ might be. It doesn’t work if people are trying to exploit the wiggle room that the guidelines allow for their own benefit. As much as I personally sympathise with this approach, it also puts a lot of burden on the individual, who has to work out how to apply the general principles to their life situation – and always has the choice to not follow the guidelines if circumstances suggest that another action is a morally better option.

Strict regulations, by contrast, don’t allow this wiggle room. They put, in principle, less of a burden on the individual – but unlike responsibilisation, they only work while they are in place, as they often crowd out more intrinsic, insight-based motivations to reduce the virus’ spread. Strict rules also seem to trigger resistance in the form of both directed and generic protests, as, for example, in Germany during most of 2020, which can become a vehicle to undermine democracy.

Responsibilisation vs strict rules?

If we look at the two approaches in comparison, we find that both approaches create social norms – both through the rules and guidelines themselves (prescriptive norms – what we ought to do) and through people’s actual behaviour (descriptive norms – what is ‘normal’ to do). We can wonder which normative effect is stronger – the behaviour I see in others, or the formal instructions I receive in terms of rules and principles. In spring 2020, many of us who had family or friends in other European countries were heavily influenced by their behaviour, and constrained our own behaviour much more than we ‘officially’ had to, following their example. It felt wrong to meet in person when colleagues in the UK were in lock-down. However, the reverse happens of course as well – if other people seem to do whatever they want, why should I stay at home? We can also speculate if breaches of strict rules are more damaging for the creation of Corona-related social norms than breaches of guidelines, and numerous examples of top politicians and decision-makers circumventing their own rules provide, sadly, a rich field of study here.

Over the year, we have seen that countries have switched from stricter rules to a more principle-based approach and vice versa, depending on what seemed to work, and on what seemed to be appropriate given the threat. But combining both ‘soft’ guidance and ‘hard’ rules means that some constellations are experienced as inconsistent and unfair, and that they send confusing messages in terms of social norms. In addition, such an ‘adaptive’ governance approach bears the risk that rule-making is based on panem-et-circenses thinking, allowing, say, holiday travel and shopping to appease people where they seem to be most upset, rather than the rules being based on any medical, social or economic rationale.

What does this mean for the governance of climate change?

The last year has taught me a lot. Frankly said, my hopes in the effectiveness of governmental intervention to address climate change are now pretty much shattered (I know, they were naïve anyway).  Of course, a pandemic is biophysically very different from climate change. For example, in both contexts, free-riding (i.e., relying on others contributing to the common good of infection control/climate change mitigation, while I myself choose not to contribute) is possible, but the effects of free-riding are different. Also, biophysical tipping points and irreversibility will, as far as I understand, play a much bigger role in climate change: Changes such as ice caps and glaciers melting, or the Gulf Stream slowing down, cannot be undone, as far as we know. These ‘points of no return’ might be less relevant in the management of a pandemic, and the insights gleaned from this for the governance of sustainability transformation might thus have their limitations.

But in both cases, we’re dealing with complex systems that we can try to predict, although we ultimately realise that our models have shortcomings and that we have to rely on a science-informed trial-and-error approach to governance. The pandemic has a faster rate of change than climate change, which means that we can learn about the effects of governance interventions in a much shorter timeframe. I think that we can draw quite a few lessons from the experience of the pandemic so far.

First, it now seems obvious to me that it is not possible to achieve significant and long-lasting behaviour change through either guiding principles or hard rules. Behaviour change to reduce Carbon emissions would have to be upheld forever, not just for a few months or a year – and the Corona experience shows us that even the immediate threat of a health care system breaking down is not sufficient to keep people from flying to their holiday destinations. How bad, then, will climate change have to become, for us to change our behaviour in (even) more significant ways? At the same time, the Corona protests in Germany evoke the spectre of an anti-democratic dystopia, should government interventions ever be more substantial than the ones issued to restrain the pandemic. What can we do to maintain democracy even if governments have to take serious action?

Second, the behaviour changes that took place in the wake of the pandemic also show what happens if such changes are not in line with the socio-economic model that underpins society. Reduced consumption of goods and services – generally desirable from a climate change mitigation perspective – leads to all sorts of social and economic problems, including existential worries for those whose livelihoods are on the line. A wake-up call that governments have to think much harder about a sustainable, future-proof economic system that can actually cope with the changes in behaviour that are needed to deal with climate change!

Third, the government interventions during the pandemic also teach us something about the interplay between national and international action. Initially, it seemed that every country held the key for its success in dealing with the pandemic in its own hands. National action appeared meaningful. This never was the case for climate change mitigation – instead, we heard the argument ‘but what can we do? As long as other countries don’t reduce their emissions…’ a lot. We are now beginning to realise that international collaboration and solidarity between richer and poorer countries is essential not only in coping with climate change, but also to control the pandemic. At the same time, maybe the energy released to deal with the pandemic at the national level could also inspire national efforts to curb climate change?

Lastly, the experience of the pandemic allows us to see and debate tendencies in governance that we might find undesirable, even if they contributed to climate change mitigation – for example, increased surveillance of our movements and activities.

However, one thing seems clear: Having to cope with the impacts of climate change will constrain our lives a lot more than the pandemic has, and more than a transformation to a less unsustainable society will do. Let’s get going, if we don’t want to wake up to a nightmare of a dystopia.


With thanks to Wijnand Boonstra for comments on an earlier version of this post.

This blogpost is an output of the Formas-funded research project ‘Governance, justice and resistance – on the way to a fossil-free welfare society’.