Learning from the Swedes on Coping with Climate Change
1 October 2021
On and before 3 September 1967
Sometimes societies need wholesale change. There can be a great strain at these times where new technical solutions that require a transition to new collective habits. The prerequisite for paradigm shifts is a carefully prepared social consensus, followed by formal decisions and the detailed planning of a new set of solutions which need both consistency and minimal negative implications.
What does the side of the road we drive on have to do with mitigating the effects of climate change? In 1963, the Swedish parliament resolved to reverse a decision taken in 1734 and switch from driving on the left to driving on the right in order to align with neighbouring countries.
The agreed date of the switch was Sunday, 3 September 1967, succinctly designated as "Högertrafikomläggningen".
It would not be appropriate to smile about the scenes filmed on day 1, because despite their initial uncertainty the Swedes accomplished a well-orchestrated transition and there were hardly any accidents.
The critical day was preceded by very detailed planning, ranging from the numerous infrastructural and technical changes, e.g. entrances and exits for roads, traffic signs, bus stops, pedestrian crossings, and bus door conversions.
There was even a popular song about changing the direction of travel that helped in winning emotional support from the citizens of the country.
“Håll dig till höger, Svensson“
The Swedish approach in a nutshell, and why it is instructive today
The Swedes relied on the simple principle that scientists, engineers, politicians and the many volunteers needed to work closely together. The effort to harmonise the change with society was taken very seriously.
Private companies supported the process, but did not lead the way.
While it was difficult for people to change habits that had been anchored for generations, the contribution of many volunteers who lined up along the roads, answered questions and offered assistance to citizens was essential in preventing accidents.
So what’s the relevance of this to the twenty first century? If we are to defend ourselves from climate change we need to think like the Swedes did when they changed driving sides, except we need to think at a much, much larger scale.
The reports on the historic Swedish performance are particularly valuable, for they provide a multidimensional vision of how to curate both the technical and behavioural changes that will be needed for future climate-based transitions.
While there have been large scale systemic transitions, like the introduction of the Euro, these transitions were mostly smooth and there was no threat of any physical harm.
Now we are compelled to carefully plan and implement far-reaching decisions to fight climate change. The reasons for this necessity are to be found in our industrial history, especially in the last decades, because we had not taken into account the side effects of our way of producing and consuming.
Since last summer there can be no doubt that we are dealing with excessive changes in the weather and the decline of our natural environment. Climate change and the pollution of ecosystems by harmful substances are threatening the very foundations of civilised life in many parts of the world. “Katrina” and “Ida” are exemplary labels for calamities, the frequency and intensity of which are increasing.
There is no point in starting blame games, because that would divert valuable creative energy in a direction that cannot lead to solutions. It is anchored in human nature that social groups, organisations and companies stubbornly tend to overhear warnings and also fail to take in information that is not in line with their short term thinking patterns. They need to hit the wall before they acknowledge the need for action. Now we are feeling the physical reality of the wall.
An exception to our “natural propensity to look away” are entities whose very purpose is to identify and quantify major risks over very long periods of time. Their staff are paid to detect disturbances that others do not see due to institutional group dynamics. Both reinsurance companies and dedicated research institutions are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ here, highlighting future disturbances that others have not yet seen.
Munich RE Corporate Climate Centre
Centre for the Research of Existential Risk
However, such institutions are not in charge of steering society. Nonetheless their professional advice is all the more valuable.
Government measures have been in place for years to counteract the problem of climate change, e.g. taxes or bans on the use of harmful substances, mandatory recycling, price tags on emission rights, subsidies for renewable energies etc.
Yet, while these initiatives are certainly helpful, the extreme natural disasters we have experienced recently prove that they are not sufficient.
The most painful symptoms first
Since governments cannot wait and see any longer, they will focus first on defence against the particularly painful effects against which there are known means of defence.
One particularly pressing topic is water, and problems resulting from too much or too little of it. Structural measures are necessary to protect against the impact of droughts,
or heavy rains of hitherto unknown intensity that destroy houses and infrastructures.
Powerful new infrastructure must now be built to ensure the rapid drainage of very large masses of water and to protect buildings and roads from destruction. In areas that are drying out, modern water storage facilities and irrigation systems need to be deployed.
The protection of seashores from rising sea levels is particularly relevant.
For many densely populated areas, the risk of flooding far inland is increasing significantly and we will witness the massive and global deployment of advanced technology to protect low coasts. Centuries of dramatic experience forced the Dutch to become world champions in this field.
Many countries are already benefiting from Dutch expertise, but this is only the beginning.
Just as the dangers posed by floods need to be countered, harmful gases have to be extracted from the atmosphere on a large scale. The technologies needed for this will soon be ready for use.
These projects will hardly interfere with people's daily lives and should not cause much controversy, but they will require substantial investments.
Tampering with people's habits
Governments have started to influence the external effects of habits in the areas of emissions, consumption and use of harmful substances. To do this, they set technical standards for production, maximum limits for emissions or rules for recycling. However, these regulations are often bypassed.
Governments also pay subsidies for measures that are considered environmentally friendly, such as insulating houses or putting solar panels on roofs.
It is likely that governments will be compelled to opt for much deeper interventions and increasingly regulate core areas of life, i.e. consumption, all forms of transport and the use of non-degradable materials.
Such measures can be perceived as authoritarian by citizens, many of whom may resist them fiercely if they do not understand the urgent need for them. Never-experienced heat waves in Nordic regions, storms, torrential rains, landslides and the shrinking of biosystems will not be enough to win people’s hearts for changes to their engrained habits.
When markets adjust, there will be winners and losers. Some industries will fight back fiercely if they are barred from using plastic for consumer goods, for example while others, who have already begun the transition to more ecological conscious production will see their fortunes rise.
The Swedes took up the struggle for public consent in preparation for 3 September 1967 and met the challenge successfully. The changes that are now imminent, however, will not be directed at any specific cut-off date, but will materialise as part of a spectrum of change extended over many years. It will also take much longer before we feel any tangible success in mitigating the worst effects.
The Swedish strategy to get buy-in is still correct today, but it must be carried out on an ongoing basis and on a much larger scale. Governments will need highly qualified staff to continuously provide pertinent and understandable information and psychologically planned nudges to facilitate transitions. Citizens with adjustment difficulties are to be identified early and supported respectfully. The tone will need to remain friendly and respectful even when there is fierce and unjustified resistance.
Presently, we know that parts of the population irrationally oppose the prevention of viral infections, take diffuse ideological positions and cannot be reached with rational arguments. There is no reason to assume that this phenomenon will disappear. But there is also no other way out than sticking to scientifically sound arguments and responding politely even to impolite attacks. If you give in and adopt the erratic discourse of the other side in a debate, you will lose. To retreat to authoritarian forms of influencing would be a defeat.
The Covid pandemic has shown us that proper governance in crisis situations is not possible without the ongoing involvement of scientists by policy makers. It is also the only effective antidote to prevent the changing moods of a bewildered population from prodding their government into costly deviations from the technically correct path.
The value of closing ranks with science becomes particularly clear when one compares the governments' desperate and largely futile struggle against the 1918/19 influenza pandemic with the scientifically supported approach to the Covid-19 pandemic begun in 2020. Of course, there have been and will always be wrong decisions. However we are now in a position to minimise their frequency and impact.
While consensus is emerging among scientists regarding some of the root causes of climate change,
it will take some time to form actionable opinions on the complicated web of causalities and the possibilities for long-term holistic strategy.
Many root causes are known and can be influenced, others have not yet been found. Therefore, we must approach this issue as we do when starting a jigsaw puzzle, with the pieces that are recognisable and actionable, in order to then continue to approach the scientifically proven possibilities of correction.
Government to lead
The Swedish example shows that only the state and states acting together can lead when changes are imminent that are fundamental in character, have a large dimension and affect citizens’ lifestyles. The free market paradigm does not become obsolete in these situations, but competition takes place under government direction.
The process of transition is easier if the state modernises itself in the areas concerned and aligns itself with the model of a well-managed company. Decisions must be made swiftly, and the personal responsibility of decision-makers must be clearly identifiable.
Recent history shows the perfection with which a government is able to carry out large projects with maximum inefficiency and without regard to cost.
On the other hand, there is proof that it is possible to implement a huge undertaking ahead of schedule and exactly on budget.
So in addition to the Swedes, the Swiss also provide valuable examples from which we can draw on. We have every reason to follow only the sensible courses of action.