[Global warming] is bound to effect economic and political stability and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world—one worth getting excited about all over again.
A year ago the focus of the world’s attention abruptly shifted as a new and dire infectious disease spread rapidly through the human population. Both our public and our private lives were reshaped by a condition we have learned to call “pandemic.” We are still trying to take the full measure of what is happening and its significance beyond the immediate existential crises of dislocation, deprivation, suffering, and death. As Marilynne Robinson recently wrote, we can control and eventually prevent the novel coronavirus, “but a decline in hope and purpose is a crisis of civilization requiring reflection and generous care for the good of the whole society and its place in the world. We have been given the grounds and opportunity to do some very basic thinking.” This essay joins that search for significance based on the following observations.
First, the history and root meaning of pandemic is fundamentally political and moral, not medical, in that it refers to our interdependent, relational, and common lot.
Moreover, climate change is no less a global pandemic (a natural limit that requires common action and carries common consequences) than Covid-19. Both are warning signs of something fundamentally broken about the current relationship between humanity and the natural world. The effects of global climate pandemic are more complex, insidious, and challenging than those of the spiky virus. The remedy for climate pandemic will not be pharmaceutical but political—not the transformation of the biological immune systems of individuals on a large scale but a transformation of economic, energy, and technological systems and their governance on a large scale.
Finally, we need to expand our political and moral imaginations beyond infectious disease alone and see pandemics as large commons, whose carrying capacity is often perilous and tragic, but sometimes also offers promise and the possibility of a better aftermath in a political morality of greater justice, equality, recognition, and diversity. The covid pandemic and the climate pandemic each will require undertaking a much more concerted and far-reaching process of what might be called “adaptive governance” in the cognate realms of public health and ecology than we have heretofore been willing to countenance.
Old rules of liberalism and capitalism seem malleable in war-like efforts to bring the surging spread of Covid-19 under control before it is too late, and an unthinkable number of deaths become inevitable. Notions of socialistic government financing that recently were ideologically taboo—like spending trillions in federal funds to save small businesses from going under, to cushion the dire consequences of lost paychecks, and to protect vulnerable populations from eviction and hunger—are now within reach. Similar unthinkable thoughts—such as massive federal funding of infrastructure projects, including renewable energy systems—are on the rise in ecological governance and climate action, as well.
Adaptive climate governance goes beyond Green New Deals, however, and will require much more far-reaching efforts. It must strive not only to limit greenhouse gas pollution, but also to transform systems of ownership, subsidies that impede sustainable innovations, and outmoded approaches to land and water use regulation. Notions of efficiency and profitability will have to be recalculated using new metrics. Unjust subsidies and ecologically harmful and perverse market incentives will be recalibrated and will aim capital investment at green targets. Current technological productive practices now standard will have to be altered in many economic sectors, including extraction, manufacturing, construction, transportation, and agriculture. The Farm Bill will be seen for what it is, a keystone law of the land, and given the serious attention it demands. Urban planning will be reconceived and rejuvenated. That is what adaptation means. It is not business as usual.
Acknowledging the promise as well as the peril contained in the covid and climate pandemics is all well and good. However, like William Butler Yeats in “The Second Coming,” we wonder “what rough beast / its hour come round at last” is coming toward us. There are two critical tasks that will test the mettle of both health and ecological governance in the world that lies—and looms—ahead. Whether our governance will be able to fulfill them and thereby keep hope for the human future alive remains to be seen. Shorn of their embellishments and specific detail, I would describe these critical tasks as follows. Governance must provide, first, the adaptative maintenance of the psycho-social determinants of good health; and, second, the adaptive maintenance of the eco-economic determinants of temperate (or at least tempered) climate. In other words, governance must maintain the integrity and functioning of the biochemical systems of our living bodies and the geo-physical systems of our living planet.
Everyone surely realizes that Covid-19 is the most dangerous and massive global infectious disease pandemic the Earth has undergone in over a century. Everyone today will have a story to tell for the rest of their lives, just as my grandmother, who lived through the influenza pandemic of 1918, had a story that I listened to with rapt attention. I saw her as a quaint figure, a survivor of an almost unthinkable circumstance, who knew what it felt like to be there and remembered the many people around her who died before their time. I never thought that I would join her ranks and be among those who would fall—would be thrown—into pandemic time. It is still ongoing and too close, but it feels to me like the moment Yeats sees when he wakes, just before a major swerve in our history collectively, and our biographies personally, is about to begin.
Some of what I have just said is commonplace and quotidian right now. We all are inundated with images, talk, emotion, and sometimes grief and loss—as my grandmother was when she watched perhaps as many as 100 million lives erased by disease worldwide, just after the “Great War” (World War I) already had taken 20 million. The somewhat new perspective I offer here is that Covid-19 is not the only pandemic we are living through, and tragic as it is, the impact and legacy of the covid pandemic will pale in comparison with that of the climate pandemic. Two rough beasts are slouching toward us, not just one; indeed, both have arrived—one in 2020; the other around 1970—but the harm they promise has been belatedly and ineptly adapted to in both cases. Perhaps I should say responded to, because adaptation in the proper sense of the term has not truly even begun for either one. Michael Pollen sees an interesting political opportunity hiding in this negligence: “Are we willing to address the many vulnerabilities that the novel coronavirus has so dramatically exposed? It’s not hard to imagine a coherent and powerful new politics organized around precisely that principle.”
The years 2020 and 2021 will be forever associated with Covid-19, even though so much else of historical significance was happening at the same time—mass refugee migration, authoritarian political regimes installed in influential nations, megafires, drought, massive ice melts, forest and biodiversity loss, the graphs of virtually every deleterious condition showing an abrupt, steep spike upward—a “hockey stick” slashing all of us. For most people, pandemic is associated with widespread infectious disease, like an epidemic, only larger in scale, scope, and deadly impact. We tend to see a pandemic as nothing but a global outbreak of something dangerous, menacing, and in need of steps taken to protect ourselves from it and to prevent the harm that it may do to us. A pandemic is something the World Health Organization declares.
This is not exactly wrong, but it is not the full range of important ideas and values—even positive values—that etymology suggests. Pandemic comes from the Latin pandemus and from the Greek pandemos, meaning “pertaining to all people; public, common.” It is comprised of pan (all) and dēmos (people), from which the term democracy also derives.
Disease and democracy find common ground in a pandemic. Both require action based on a sense of common purpose; pandemic in this sense is a political and moral ally in the defense of health and nature. What is not an instance of pandemic is the lack of community and common purpose, as exemplified by the highly competitive, transactional society we have become with its strongly valued notion of possessive individualism. Historian Jackson Lears provides an important perspective on such ideological transformations that are killing pandemos in the United States:
By 2016 the concept of ‘liberal democracy,’ once bright with promise, had dulled into a neoliberal politics that was neither liberal nor democratic. … the meritocratic focus on individual striving has…[undermined] any notion of the common good. Even during a pandemic, the notion that we are all in this together remains hazy, and the public interest continues to be defined as the sum of myriad private interests.”
It is our embrace of individualistic self-determination and freedom of choice that leads many to ignore and resist public health measures to abate the community spread of Covid-19, such as wearing facial coverings and refraining from congregating in large groups.
The irony is that the spread of disease is fostered by this individualistic lack of common sense (or sense of what it is we have in common), as well as by an authoritarian, anti-democratic form of political rule exhibiting a leadership style that caters to libertarianism and denounces at every turn all forms of collectivism—like America under former President Trump and Brazil under perhaps soon-to-be former President Bolsonaro. (I say leadership “style” here because in practice the collectivism of mass politics is at the foundation of inegalitarian, authoritarian regimes.)
Democracy, when looked at as one manifestation of an underlying pandemic condition, can be defined as a set of political institutions and rules in common that brings equality of rights, recognition, and respect for persons. Democracy is a pandemic of liberation and empowerment for all. Democratic government is government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln said. Each one of the prepositions in this proposition is essential. And each is pertinent to the meaning of pandemic, too, especially for the people. It connotes a good pandemic, a good common condition; a bad one, as we know, is very much against the people.
In sum, to call something a pandemic can point to a common threat, but it can also point to a common good. With this conceptual framework in mind, then, what shall we make of the pandemic condition that is global climate change? It is pandemic insofar as it is anthropogenic, collectively man-made; an artificing of nature, so to speak. Climate change is a shorthand for large-scale human interference in the functioning of several planetary systems. Climate change is a pandemic of stressing, through global human economic activity, the bio-geo-chemical and physical systems of the Earth into phases of transformation that, by all indications now, will be severely deleterious to current patterns of life on Earth, including our own.
I believe that it is very important right now to discuss the common thing of Covid-19 and the common thing of climate change in the light of adaptive health and ecological governance. Thus far, in the domain of climate governance, adaptation has taken a back seat to mitigation, and I will say more about this conceptual distinction below. Nonetheless, I think the distinctive features of adaptation—especially its scope and transformative possibilities in the governance and regulation of the political economy in the twenty-first century—will make it increasingly important in both the domains of public health and climate action.
My review cannot possibly do justice to these two enormous fields of adaptive health governance and adaptive climate governance in a brief space. But I hope that beginning to sketch a comparative approach to public health and ecological governance can indicate how they might positively supplement and complement one another. Along with social justice, pluralism, and equality in race relations—to which they are directly related—health and climate are the most important public policy and governance issues for the foreseeable future. Donald Trump ended up as a failed, one-term president largely because he ignored and even denied both, wasting precious lives and time. And he tragically encouraged millions of people to do likewise. When social justice, improving health, and limiting climate change converge within law, policy, and social action, then we have a winning combination, even in a highly partisan political culture. It is such convergence that adaptive governance seeks.
Adaptive Public Health Governance
Covid-19 is teaching us the stern lesson that economic goals and public health goals can be at odds, at least in the short run, which now may be defined as about two years. Measures to limit the spread of the disease and the loss of life have brought economic activity to its knees in many of the richest countries in the world. Social distancing induces economic coma, while premature economic reopening opens the doors not only to paying customers but also to community spread of the virus followed by intolerably high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths. There are analogues of this conundrum in the tension between effective response to climate change and capitalism’s preferred structural model of economic growth.
Public health governance has coercive power at its disposal, but the behavioral compliance required to limit infection on a scale involving approximately 300 million people makes coercive means of enforcement very limited. Information, persuasion, and voluntary compliance based on fear, trust, and reasonable self-interest (concern for self and family) and solidarity (concern for others) are the tools of pandemic adaptation and control. These come from public health adaptation planning and implementation infrastructure, which broke down and largely failed in the United States in 2020. To understand why, we need to consider the cultural and ideological context within which adaptation governance in public health, understood as a discourse of persuasion, must operate.
Public health inevitably involves both politics and ethics. Public health is political in that it uses power to achieve population health goals. It is ethical in that it appeals to rational authority and popular legitimacy to justify its use of power in the pursuit of health. Power becomes authority if it is supported by the goodness of the ends it pursues and by the rightness of the means it uses to pursue them. Power has legitimacy if it enjoys popular consent and acceptability. Appeal to objective scientific knowledge alone is important, but it does not provide public health with authority and legitimacy all by itself.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that turning public health power into public health authority and legitimacy is essential. But we have also learned how difficult it is to do this when public trust has been eroded. Americans have paid a high price for their lack of interest and investment in public health institutions over the years. And we are paying now for the recent, apparently deliberate efforts of some to undermine trust in public health further, precisely when we need it the most. Now that public health efforts involving behavioral control are supplemented by a population immunization effort, some pressure on the behavioral side may be reduced. But not soon, if the vaccination effort is delayed in various ways. Large discrepancies between the number of vaccine doses manufactured and the number actually injected does not bode well so far. Nor does the emergence of new strains of the virus that may lessen the effectiveness of currently available vaccines. On the other hand, Iago-like advisors and officials are no longer in charge in the White House.
The public health adaptation response to Covid-19 has been largely based on a grasp of past experience concerning the biological–social nexus of infectious disease. We were fortunate in the sense that SARS-CoV-2 so far has turned out not to be significantly different in its biology from other types of coronavirus. Therefore, we could apply the same techniques of behavioral change to limit its spread that have worked with air-borne infections in the past. But, as I have noted, while measures such as widespread social distancing, testing, contact tracing and quarantine after testing, travel restrictions, and limiting in-person commercial and face-to-face social activities are very effective in controlling infection, they are also very disruptive and burdensome emotionally and economically.
It did not help successful pandemic adaption, then, to have social media and presidential rhetoric confer symbolic and political, even psycho-sexual, meaning on opposition to adaptive public health precautionary measures. With all the ways available to protest and express disagreement, there was no inherent reason why coming closely together in mass gatherings and refusal to wear face coverings should turn into the preferred means of exercising one’s right to freedom of speech and assembly.
This was not an accident. To focus on face coverings and social distancing for resistance and ridicule is less an exercise of constitutional rights than a rejection of public health and governmental authority as such. Thus, public health adaptive governance in the United States has had to contend with both the virus’s attack on health and a concerted political attack on the legitimacy and authority of pandemic adaptation governance itself.
If persuasion is at the center of adaptive health governance, then one of the most interesting lessons learned thus far is that successfully persuading a majority, or even a supermajority, of the population is not sufficient to control the surge of community infection. Rates of infection vary greatly, but at an RO rate of 1.1, one thousand infected persons who are non-compliant can induce twenty-five thousand or more new cases over a period of sixty days. Covid-19 has been given a RO range of 1.5 to 3.5, which is more infectious than influenza but much less than measles. Today, some countries have brought the infection rate below 1.0, but recently new strains have emerged that are more readily transmitted than the initial strain identified at the beginning of 2020. In January 2021, there were thirteen states in the United States where the infection rate was 1.1 or more.
There really is no such thing as an entirely private action that has consequences only for oneself here. The risks imposed on others by an individual’s non-compliant behavior are serious, widespread, and distributed from the point of initial contact exponentially, so that any notion of voluntary consent on the part of those exposed cannot be appealed to in order to justify the non-compliant behavior.
Under such conditions, one wonders how viable an adaptation strategy depending upon persuasion and voluntary compliance can be. Will it require a much higher level of strict behavioral control over a large population to contain a serious health pandemic like Covid-19, at least until pandemic immunity in the population is achieved through vaccination? And what about a deleterious pandemic like climate change, for which there will be no equivalent of vaccination and planetary immunity? When new rules are set, how forceful will the crackdown on non-compliant behavior need to be?
Why did adaptive health governance in the United States perform so poorly? I suggest some of the reasons below. And what about next time? Will it be Keystone Kops or well-informed and judicious leadership inspiring trust? And there will be a next time, and a time after that. Zoonotic disease is a global sword of Damocles waiting to descend. Thousands of viral types are being exposed to naïve and rapacious human contact and stand poised for an evolutionary leap into our own bodies and lives.
There was inadequate pandemic preparedness planning at all levels of government at the beginning of 2020. Despite investments made in the health care system in other ways, the United States was not prepared for the rapid surge in hospital utilization in certain regions that took place in April 2020. We could not deploy in a timely manner adequate intensive care equipment, medical and nursing staff, protective equipment and other supplies. There was a very high death rate in some places. Staff and family members suffered the stress of explicit triage measures and patient isolation.
There was precipitous and inconsistent decision-making by political leadership. This was an unfortunate combination. Projections based on models shocked the government into imposing drastic measures of lockdown. Sensing political backlash, the White House and conservative media began to make light of the disease and to deflect blame and undermine scientific public health messaging. The Republican party’s political strategy of deflecting blame backfired during the presidential election, when inaction and denial by the White House became the focal point of Democratic party opposition and ultimately allowed Democrats to regain control of the White House and Congress.
Widespread economic distress complicated the public perception of how best to respond to Covid-19. Were public health experts insufficiently attentive to the social harm being done by containment measures? A conflict narrative of health versus livelihood began to gain traction. There was inequitable economic loss and impact, just as there were racial and ethnic disparities in rates of morbidity and mortality. Federal government financial assistance programs were parsimonious and time limited. Subsequent political polarization has led to what may turn out to be a disastrous delay in a larger scale and longer term program of financial relief. There is endless talk about a return to normal, but permanent business and employment losses are widely expected.
There were competing ideological messages and public confusion. Mistrust in public health experts was working in tandem with the fact that many people had begun to mistrust their own political and moral intuitions. Presidential messaging was misleading and counterproductive from a public health point of view. Another conflict narrative of health versus civil liberty began to surround the wearing of masks, displacing an earlier narrative of solidarity and mutual responsibility. Public mask wearing or mask avoidance became the symbol of an underlying identity politics. Political interests became increasingly dominant and pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to spin the public guidance it released. Meanwhile, state lawmakers filed lawsuits to block the authority of governors to make social distancing mandatory rather than advisory. Tremendous effort has gone into ideologically motivated tactics of this sort.
The pandemic has induced social distancing fatigue. It has also revealed a pronounced lack of resilience, multiple complex system failures, and poor intergovernmental coordination. Highly unequal distribution of wealth in a country produces a very large number of people with little to no savings to fall back on. The prolonged economic downturn necessitated by Covid-19 has exhausted financial, social, and psychological reserves. The pandemic has also revealed other vulnerabilities, including: the neglect of the safety and quality of long-term care facilities, which resulted in high mortality rates; the precarity of rental housing for low-income families, who now face eviction for not being able to pay their rent; the functioning of the public school system as a de facto structure of childcare support with no public social service backup; and finally, the vulnerability to hunger revealed by the longest food distribution lines seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Adaptive Climate Governance
Climate action is a grassroots social movement. Climate governance is a legal and regulatory authoritative exercise of power. And the interplay of power, authority, legitimacy, and trust is essentially the same in the political morality of climate governance (a type of ecological governance) as in public health governance. Climate action and climate governance each have two components. One is the mitigation of deleterious climate change, mainly by curtailing its cause: human activities that add carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to Earth’s atmosphere. The other component is adaptation that involves changing human activity in ways designed to accommodate anticipated large-scale and interlocking shifts in bio-geophysical and ecological systems. This involves facilitating transformation and innovation in political and economic institutions and practices. It also requires widespread alterations in collective and individual behavior.
The terms mitigation and adaptation have been with us from the very beginning of the international climate change governance era in the 1990s. But for the next two decades, mitigation of greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere was the watchword, and adaptation was relatively neglected. Nonetheless, ecological and climate governance encompass both mitigation and adaptation and should coordinate them. However, coordination of the essential preventive and precautionary functions of mitigation and the ameliorating and responsive functions of adaptation has been managed poorly. Today, there is a discernable pivot toward adaptation, but not because mitigation efforts have failed. The single most important component of mitigation—transition from a carbon-based to a renewable fuel energy system—is well underway.
The problem is not that mitigation has failed but that it has come too late. Its focus on the longer term was perhaps a drawback as well as an advantage. As the years, then decades, plodded on, it seemed to many as if society still had plenty of time to turn things around. If we had the will, there would be a way. And we would get the will when fear got our attention. Well, either climate change was moving faster and with more stealth than we expected (it was), or we were more obtuse than we realized (we were).
Given where we are today—as compared to where we were in 1988, 1998, or even 2008—mitigation alone will not suffice. Both mitigation and adaptation measures will be crucially important in the twenty-first century and will require developing a complex apparatus of governance and planning—a task that the world, and especially the United States, is behind in doing. Going forward, a visible, sustained, adequately funded commitment to adaptation planning and public engagement will be necessary. We must recognize the potential contribution that climate adaptation planning can make to a more participatory ecological democracy—and to a more just, egalitarian political morality to inform it.
A combination of mitigation and adaptation measures are still required in agricultural practices, land-use planning, initiatives to curb biodiversity loss, freshwater conservation, net-zero building design, mass transportation, and the like. Indeed, in these areas, there is not really a bright line between mitigation and adaptation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tried to draw it by assuming that natural systems like coral reefs, polar icecaps, rainforests, and arboreal forests have suffered permanent degradation, and so a strategy of adaptation to reduce harm—rather than the preventive and restorative measures of mitigation—was the only action open to us. But many of the focal points of adaptation that I mentioned above are cultural and technological systems, not natural or ecological ones. The difficulty of transitioning away from them comes from the financial, legal, and attitudinal attachments to the status quo and the concomitant institutional obstacles to change, not from natural necessity that cannot be overcome.
Climate change mitigation has been conceptualized so that it fits under pre-existing frameworks of environmental regulation. While still politically and ideological controversial, mitigation is not a regulatory anomaly, which is a good thing pragmatically. It is driven by scientific expertise and reliance on judicial and administrative reason, rather than by ideological, campaign finance attuned legislative discourse. Yet precisely for that reason, mitigation has been vulnerable to legal opposition and regulatory requirements that have slowed it to a snail’s pace.
By contrast, climate change adaptation cuts across all kinds of regulatory and jurisdictional categories and is more flexible and open methodologically. Adaptation planning brings climate science, ecology, and conservation biology into contact with public health and similarly oriented perspectives and movements in cognate fields, such as disaster planning, adaptive environmental management, land-use planning, and property law. It draws orientation from social epidemiology, community-based participatory research, deliberative planning, and management science. It may have to draw upon technological innovation and deliberate ecosystemic management that will go against the grain of many established tenets of conservation management. Note the reference in the IPCC definition to “adjustment in natural systems” and the willingness to “exploit beneficial opportunities.” More Gifford Pinchot than John Muir, this. It must plan for differential impacts in various areas and for large-scale changes in biodiversity and human migration patterns, rendering the geographically bordered nation-state a problematic unit of planning, governance, and social control.
Adaptation planning is closely tied not only to environmental law and governance, but to economic production and distribution, and to cultural and social imaginaries or worldviews. The practice of climate change adaptation presses upon us the question of not only how adaptation is accomplished, but also what should be accomplished through it. What does successful adaptation look like? It dares to ask—in an aspirational but not utopian vein and even assuming reduced material standards of living—what kind of society, what kind of landscape and watershed, what kind of living world do we want to inhabit and have as our companion? What kind of pandemos do we want to be our common home? In which kind of commons can we best flourish and dwell? If climate adaptation governance is conceptualized and conducted narrowly, as a matter of technical expertise, then it is likely that only the “how questions” will get attention. But if it is conceptualized more broadly as a civic practice, as a matter of inclusive participatory democracy, then the “should questions” may receive concerted attention as well. If they do, then the equity and democratic legitimacy of the activity of adaptation—or the lack thereof—will be made explicit.
The infrastructure of adaptation planning necessarily will be diverse and localized. And this, in turn, is determined by how a dynamic planetary transformation such as climate change manifests itself. In light of this, the dialogic activity of participatory planning, from which a guiding plan emerges on a given scale, becomes all the more important. Real estate development interests, corporate lobbyists, and environmental activists must not be the only people who show up and take ongoing part. Adaptive planning in this key requires the coordination of many groups, disciplines, and interests and draws on numerous bodies of knowledge and expertise.
What the coming future requires of us, when you come right down to it, is pandemic governance as well as the governance of pandemics. We need to find within us a capability to adapt, in far more than a Darwinian sense, not only in the negative sense of avoiding harm, but also in the positive sense of bringing to bear in our lives together a commons of civic and scientific learning undergirding democratic ecological citizenship and responsibility. Adaptation should be a widespread condition of inclusive parity of voice and reasonable (evidence-based) deliberation and debate. Scholars of social adaptation have argued that:
An adaptable society is characterized by awareness of diverse values, appreciation and understanding of specific and variable vulnerabilities to impacts, and acceptance of some loss through change. The ability to adapt is determined in part by the availability of technology and the capacity for learning but fundamentally by the ethics of the treatment of vulnerable people and places within societal decision-making structures.
The discourse of climate adaptation will be grounded and specific—about solar arrays and wind turbines, water diversion, easements, zoning, dredging and ponding, air quality, solid waste disposal, sustainable farming, property value reassessment, and the local tax base. Behind all that and ultimately vivifying it, however, will be the conversation about what kind of pandemics we want to live in and what kind we don’t.
Pandemics are commons that, in one way or another, pull everyone into a skein of mutual and reciprocal causes and effects. But though they pull us in, not all pandemic conditions bring people together. Some pit us against each other—as antagonistic individuals, as groups at odds—into an association of sharp elbows. But other pandemics have the potential to transform competition into care, the upper hand into the helping hand. How can the hard and often melancholy work of adaptation be turned into an occasion for the growth of solidarity? How can solidarity and the political imagination of just and mutual recognition be turned into a force that can support and legitimize health and climate adaptation governance? When we can find the answers to those questions, just and effective climate change adaptation will be within our grasp. It could be something we could get excited about all over again.