Climate Change – Can we Learn From the Corona Virus Pandemic?
We are in the midst of a Corona Virus Pandemic that caught us unawares despite warnings from medical experts for over a decade. When it struck, it spread globally in a matter of months. Consequently, unprepared as we were, a humanitarian and economic crisis is now developing. In the case of climate change, climate scientists have been telling us for many decades that CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, from human activity, are causing the temperature to rise. The effects of this are only slowly evolving, conveying no sense of a public emergency, but an overwhelming majority of scientists are almost yelling out that this will escalate into an irreversible, global, environmental catastrophe if CO2 emissions are unchecked. Will we now listen?
The Pandemic Dynamic – Some commentators have called the Corona Virus Pandemic a Black Swan event even though experts have been warning us for years that some such contagion would very likely occur. This warning was ignored so that, when the virus did arrive, it seemingly appeared as a Black Swan, catching us ill-equipped. Consequently, it rapidly spread infection and death across the world to nearly everyone’s neighbourhood. Imagine an initial, small, localised disturbance on a snow-covered mountain escalating into an avalanche, quickly spreading outwards down the mountainside. This was a high speed, real time, physical playout at people’s doorsteps, bringing many, almost all at once, to a psychological cliff edge. Fear was the key, which unlocked a collective commitment by the population at large to embrace the mitigating actions prescribed by scientists. It drove unprepared and panicked decision makers into throwing the kitchen sink at the economic problem. What ought to have been planned and pre-emptive, a model for dealing with the disastrous effects predicted for climate change, turned out, in fact, to be a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic by those in charge. Now the delay in responding will be much costlier than it might have been.
The Consequences – Over US$ 10 trillion of stimulus is expected to be deployed globally, albeit inefficiently due to a lack of planning, to prevent economies from disappearing into the abyss. Despite this, immense human suffering is unfolding as loved ones are lost, jobs disappear and people become homeless. We might not fully restore our economy and even then only after a number of years.
Looking Back With Regret – If only decision makers had heeded the timely warning of medical experts they could have built resilience into our economic and healthcare systems. Early warning indicators could have triggered timely mitigation strategies, learning from previous pandemics. Efficient distribution channels for emergency funding to reach the most vulnerable segments of our communities and small businesses could have been organised as a priority. A national pandemic fund could have been built up to buffer fiscal action; and excess capacity could have been developed for medical equipment, ICU and hospital beds. Many lives, jobs and homes could have thereby been saved.
Looking Forward with Scepticism – Unfortunately, the very same indifference to science that preceded the pandemic is again likely to prevail for climate change, once more delaying decisive, comprehensive and urgent action. Only this time such a delay could enormously amplify the suffering expected for the pandemic. Despite this, together with the actual pandemic experience as it evolves, we might still not be shaken out of our lethargic response to climate change. There are many reasons, physical, social, self-interest and psychological.
The Climate Dynamic – Scientists have been telling us for almost 40 years about the impact of global warming through human activity. However, on our subjective timescale the temperature rise and its increasing effects at present appear to be quite gradual, giving us time to adapt mentally and apply short-term, physical band-aids. For instance, in south Florida, residents are used to seeing their streets flooding from the rise in sea levels and have been raising their seawalls accordingly, as one measure. Moreover, these effects, such as violent weather, firestorms and general flooding, reveal themselves only as localised, uncorrelated phenomena that seem remote and randomly scattered. Their common basis is not apparent unless we analyse it. Contrast this with the sudden and almost globally synchronous surge of the pandemic brought on by our inaction. Climate scientists, however, vigorously assert that our descent into global upheaval will keep accelerating, unless we reduce CO2 emissions. Extreme weather events which previously appeared uncorrelated over time and space might display visibly coordinated patterns. A sequence of irreversible tipping points may occur, associated with different but connected, planet-wide systems, giving rise to a global tipping point. By the time this happens and the general public realises the looming precipice it might be too late to retrieve our way of life. Immeasurable anguish will occur – refugees, food and water shortage, disease, death – unimaginably larger than for the pandemic.
Absent the fear, we will also deny the problem – it will be business as usual – At present there is no imminent and ubiquitous threat from climate change. Moreover, attempts to explain the link between human activity, CO2 emissions and temperature rise, even mediated through simplified expositions and documentaries have also proved ineffective because they are abstract, stirring only the intellect for a small number of people but not the gut, as it needs to do for most of us. Even evidence-based, cataclysmic narratives offered by informed and concerned citizens either paralyze or at least fail to arouse a sufficient number of individuals in our communities sufficiently to stir their leaders. Thus there is no compelling intellectual or psychological stimulus for coordinated action, on one side, and a very high barrier obstructing global solutions to the problem on the other side. This barrier has a number of components: the immensity of the resources required; the global cooperation needed; the self-interest of fossil fuel industries and politicians and societies’ social structure. Life may thus just ripple along the way it is, making small, localised adjustments and ignoring the larger problem or simply unaware of the approaching cliff-edge.
The Yaksha asked: “What is the greatest surprise?” Yudhisthira replied: “People die every day, making us aware that men are mortal. Yet we live, work, play, plan, etc., as if assuming we are immortal. What is more surprising than that?” —The Mahabharata
Few of us can sustain the anxiety expressed by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg at Davos: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”
The scientists’ and Greta’s warnings may be drowned out by the noise of business as usual. CO2 will continue to be pumped into the atmosphere outstripping our marginal attempts to suppress or withdraw it. It almost feels that we will arise from our daily preoccupations only when the environment itself blows the last trumpet.
The fundamental source of our denial may be the way we are wired – We may actually be wired to deny our mortality. Quoting from Dana Nuccitelli writing in Yale Climate Connections:
“Physician-scientist Ajit Varki has hypothesized that comprehending one’s own mortality is a psychological evolutionary barrier for most species, because this realization would amplify the fear of death and thus “would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals.” Varki posits that humans may have overcome this barrier by developing denial as a coping mechanism, but that “If this theory turns out to be the correct explanation for the origin of the species, it might ironically also be now sowing the seeds of our demise,” since denial now obstructs efforts to address threats like climate change and coronavirus.”
If Varki is right we are in an existential conundrum, which only nature may resolve.
The Outlook – Here are some scenarios:
We exist because of the immutable and dispassionate laws of nature of which we are an integral part. If homo sapiens disturbs the equilibrium in the environment nature will respond to restore it according to those laws and it will be indifferent to whether we live or die. Scientists can warn us how nature might react to our actions, even if imperfectly. It is up to us to act ethically with that information to reduce people’s suffering.