Earlier this week, at gatherings for representatives of the Swedish sustainability community, I couldn’t help but notice the nervous anticipation and foreboding in the air. No wonder, given the rumours circulating freely that our government is about to give up on its climate targets altogether, leaving it instead to the European Union to make all the calls. “What time is the press conference?” – someone would whisper, no need to specify which conference. “Have you seen the report yet?” – another one would ask, and you just knew which leaked document exactly he meant. The name on everybody’s lips was John Hassler.
The Professor of Economics at the Institute for International Economic Studies at Stockholm University, charged by the government to figure out how Sweden could best comply with the EU’s ambitious ‘Fit for 55’ emissions-reduction plan, eventually did deliver his proposal for the future of the country’s climate policy on Wednesday afternoon. Maybe it was the delay, due to the tragic events in Brussels, that pushed impatient journalists and opinion makers to start criticising the report in advance. Maybe it was just pent-up political ill-will. Anyway, the convenient narrative that Hassler’s analysis, commissioned by an allegedly anti-environmental right-wing government, was about to justify reneging on Sweden’s climate commitments, spread quickly and efficiently through all available channels, even though no one had yet seen the report.
The press conference itself turned out to be somewhat less dramatic, except for an uncharacteristically emotional protagonist. Hassler was visibly distraught by the harsh judgment his speedy one-person inquiry had received pre-publishing. “I don’t think this debate climate is good, not for the debate and not for the climate either,” said the professor, sounding quite disappointed by the ease with which Swedish media and even some politicians had swallowed the rumours and ran with them. “This polarisation cuts right into my scientist’s heart,” he added later.
Now, it’s worth mentioning perhaps that Hassler was not the only disappointed part. There are some legitimate reasons to subject parts of his conclusions and recommendations for Sweden’s future climate strategy to constructive criticism, even if the report stands on sound scientific grounds. The Snap being an opinion piece, however, not a news feature, I don’t intend to bore you by dissecting all the 46 items listed in Hassler’s proposal. Let’s stay with his point about the polarisation of the Swedish climate debate instead. I, for one, find it quite poignant and worth reflecting upon.
On the way to the press conference, Hassler tells us, he received a message from a fellow scientist saying, “I will pray for you.” A welcome humoristic break, I suppose, given that his (yet to be published) report had already been dubbed a ‘climate massacre’ and he himself a ‘climate slayer’. “Not by (the platform formally known as) Twitter, mind you, but by mainstream media,” adds Hassler. What he found even more curious, says the logical fellow, was that “the person who started the rumour actually claimed to have the report and could, therefore, see that I did not propose any such thing”.
I feel Hassler’s pain. Polarisation is indeed the plague of our times. The Americans, of course, are way ahead of us. The country with the lofty national motto, e pluribus unum1, seems to have completely forgotten its ways, fixating on differences and succumbing to hyper-partisanship that is poisoning politics and making democracy seem increasingly dysfunctional. Should I mention the proverbial ESG backlash raging across the Atlantic?
Unfortunately, it seems that we are not far behind. Smirk all you want at the clownish American politicians, but Sweden has always been a good pupil, quick to adopt the latest trends. Here we go, with our own politicians rather comfortable spreading unconfirmed rumours or criticising unpublished reports just to win political points.
The climate debate is not an exception, by the way. Just the other day, our former Prime Minister found it appropriate to blame Israel for bombing a hospital in Gaza based on unverified claims by a terrorist organisation I don’t even want to name. Now, that cuts right into my heart, as Hassler would say.
1. Out of many, one.↩