Pandemics: Preparation for International Climate Cooperation

We need ways of making collective decisions as a society and building consensus, if we’re going to solve our large challenges. We need it for this pandemic. How are we going to solve it? With a vaccine? With lock-downs? Not solve it at all, just let it take its natural course? Similarly, we’re going to need to make decisions about climate change and other issues affecting everyone.

I argue that this pandemic is our best shot at getting it right. Our best chance to learn something. Why? The solution options are pretty straightforward: we know what works and what doesn’t. Any action has a rapid, local effect — a country locking down has an immediate effect on that country’s case numbers. It’s easy to know if we’re making progress, and where more action is needed. We can compare different potential strategies, accurately predict what effects they would generate, and identify which strategy would yield the best outcome. [1] So solving the pandemic is a matter of seeing how close we can come to implementing the optimal solution.

An issue like climate is much harder. Our actions don’t have any immediate consequence — they accumulate over time. The effects are global, rather than local: the country that pollutes the most may not be the one that suffers the most consequences. And there isn’t one clear thing to do: you could try reducing energy usage everywhere, you could try rolling out renewable energy sources more, or you could try innovating newer technologies for generating and storing energy more efficiently. We don’t have a great map for which one would work best. What’s more, we could be stuck with the effects of climate catastrophe for many centuries if we don’t prevent them now. (A pandemic, on the other hand, has a shorter time scale — a couple years or less.) All this makes climate a much harder problem than a pandemic.

So, if we can’t organize ourselves to solve a pandemic, I’m quite concerned about how we’ll solve the harder problem of climate. What’s our goal? What plans are we setting out? How are we making sure everyone does their part, and are we prepared for some countries to simply not express interest in cooperating? Many of the same challenges of international coordination that come up with pandemics also affect climate policy — but the stakes are much higher.

If we want to practice for that future, let’s start now by learning how to cooperate with each other. The pandemic is a great time to practice. Can we achieve something optimal together, rather than just letting chaos and random chance rule the outcome?

[1] Granted, there is some debate we could have over selecting the right goal. Is it to end the pandemic as quickly as possible? To save the most lives? To prevent economic collapse? While these all sound like different goals, it turns out they’re quite similar. The thing you would do to save the most lives is almost identical to what you’d do if you want to save the economy. [It turns out that both goals lead you to do rapid, ruthless elimination of the disease.]

So, if it seems too extreme to say there’s one best strategy, we can instead talk about there being a family of best strategies, depending what goal you have. But it’s more like one big strategy, with several minor variations depending whether you care more about health, or economics, etc.

So this is another sense in which pandemics are an “easy” problem: regardless of what goal society wants to aim for, the optimal thing to do ends up being almost the same. If fundamental differences in values led to different decisions, this would be much harder.

(What’s interesting is that despite this, we see un-coordinated action from actors with different interests — despite the fact that their goals were compatible all along.)

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