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  1. International Politics
27 October 2021

The biggest barrier to radical climate action is the global epidemic of mistrust

It’s no good bowling alone if we’re to have any success in resolving Covid-19 or climate change.

By Jeremy Cliffe

A new Iron Curtain has descended on Europe: the vaccine divide. West of the old capitalist-communist border, jab rates today are around 150 doses per 100 people. East of it, they are typically under 100, or in the cases of Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, significantly lower – a reality reflected in the soaring infection rates in those countries. The observation even works within once-divided Germany. Of the six federal states in the old East, four make up the least vaccinated in the whole country. A plausible explanation for this European divide is that folks in post-communist places are less trusting of authority, a product of deep memories (or in the case of Russia, the enduring reality) of oppressive surveillance societies.

As we approach the second anniversary of the start of the pandemic, the role of trust in combating Covid-19 is all but incontrovertible. Drawing on his 1995 book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama argued recently that trust works on two levels. First, trusting societies are ones where citizens have enough faith in each other to cooperate to solve collective challenges and to indulge in altruistic behaviour. Second, citizens in trusting societies have more confidence in experts, institutions and most of all in their leaders. “In many countries during the pandemic,” Fukuyama writes with reference to Latin America, “low social trust has interacted with high levels of polarisation to produce devastating consequences.”

These observations apply far beyond the pandemic. Complicated modern societies throw up what economists call “coordination problems”, where mutually desirable outcomes depend on coordinated behaviour by large numbers of actors. Such societies have all sorts of machines for solving those problems: from devices such as prices and laws to institutions such as public services, stock markets, trade unions and courts. But the oil that lubricates the wheels of all those machines is trust, without which none can work smoothly.

The American political scientist Robert Putnam documented this in his 1993 book Making Democracy Work, which concentrated on the profound gulf in prosperity and social cohesion between the northern and southern regions of Italy. Putnam showed that while the north of the country enjoyed high levels of trust rooted in medieval experiences of self-rule, the south’s weakness lay in low levels of trust produced by long periods of foreign domination. In his subsequent book Bowling Alone (2000), he went on to argue that this trust (or “social capital”) was in widespread decline in the rich West. Research suggests that this process has only accelerated. The Gallup World Poll, which monitors global attitudes, shows a fall in trust in 25 OECD countries between 2007 and 2016. Similar findings emerge from other major global monitors of trust, like those by Pew and Edelman. It is impossible to understand our times without reference to these shifts.

That reality will loom over world leaders and their representatives when they gather in Glasgow for the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow from 31 October. The climate crisis is the ultimate coordination problem. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the costs of the energy and infrastructure investments needed to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C at around $2.4trn a year until 2035. Global annual GDP is about $80trn. So that is 3 per cent of global output for one generation to save the planet for thousands of generations to come. It is a no-brainer.

Yet bringing those resources together and executing that industrial and social transformation will mean marshalling unprecedented reserves of trust. Citizens need to trust those authorities preaching the dangers of the climate crisis and spending their tax money on the transition. They must trust each other to cooperate in collective efforts to change lifestyles. Governments must trust their counterparts and international institutions to shoulder their share of the burden. No surprise, then, that academic research shows a close correlation between social trust and support for climate action. “We find that higher trust relates to a higher proclivity to engage in pro-social and pro-environmental behaviour,” write researchers Stefano Carattini and Matthias Roesti in a sprawling research review published by the London School of Economics last year.

No surprise, either, that the language of climate change deniers and belittlers amounts to: “don’t trust”. Don’t trust the experts, governments and institutions to be right about the dangers; don’t trust others to do their bit; don’t trust those facing drought, floods and fires to be worth saving. Today’s world, with its strongman leaders and fragmenting multilateralist institutions, is a low-trust environment. If Cop26 is a flop, that will be the best explanation. And the vaccine divide will look like a premonition.

The answer is superficially simple: promote trust! Value and respect it. Invest it in those who deserve it (the informed, the qualified, the selfless), and respect others who make that investment. Restore it where it has been betrayed, with honest leadership, citizen engagement and rigorous transparency. Yet the difficulties contained in those nice mantras are obvious. The saying that trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair is no less accurate for being a cliché.

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It is not the way of this column, nor its author, to catastrophise. Often things do not work out as badly as we fear. Societies do not collapse every time something goes wrong. If the climate cause needs one thing, it is optimism: progress depends on the belief that remarkable change can be realised, using all the force of human ingenuity and altruism available. And yet in such a low-trust global environment, and with the countdown to climate meltdown ticking away so excruciatingly, it is hard to escape the feeling that humanity is well on the way to flunking this most existential of coordination problems.

[See also: The EU climate chief Frans Timmermans: “The planet is probably going to be OK. But we won’t”]

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