Sometimes we resist forces that take us out of our “comfort zone.” These days, two such forces, one new and in our face, and the other not so new but consistently resisted as its danger grows, now vie for our attention. A viral pandemic and a global climate crisis seem so different. But are they?
Of course, the explosive expansion of the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus defies indifference and denial. When Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife had tested positive, it seemed to draw more attention than the World Health Organization’s declaration that the spread of the Coronavirus, Covid-19, had become a global pandemic.
Out of Our Comfort Zone
One reason many don’t take these emergencies is the failure to grasp the power of exponential growth. I have heard many times now that the coronavirus is no big deal since it is so similar to flu viruses. The CDC reports that influenza caused between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010. The Coronavirus had only killed 3000…as of two weeks ago.
On March 1, only the second confirmed Coronavirus death had occurred in the United States. However, exponential growth is all about acceleration, not current totals. By March 12, forty coronavirus deaths had occurred in the US.
When I first wrote this sentence on Friday, the global Coronavirus death toll had just topped 5,000. Now, on Monday morning, the total is 6470. That is far less than the annual death toll for the average flu season. However, the global death toll jumped 29% in three days, and Covid-19 began to spread only about three months ago. We are on the steep side of the growth curve. “Social distancing,” to the extent that it is exercised, will slow that growth by reducing contact and therefore spread.
In a similar way, very few have noticed and the mass media have not mentioned, as far as I know, the current acceleration of climate refugee migration. The prestigious medical journal Lancet reports that extreme weather events displaced an average of 26.4 million people around the world every year since 2008. That figure is accelerating too, just as the disruption of agriculture by droughts, floods, and severe weather events proliferate around the world.
The term “existential threat” has become a cliché by its application to all sorts of problems and issues. Nevertheless, both the Coronavirus pandemic and the climate emergency qualify as existential threats because they both threaten human survival on a global scale.
So, what is our response to this pandemic? The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control have issued a number of recommendations for both governments and populations and upgraded them as the seriousness of the outbreak increases. The key to all of them is to isolate active cases of the disease from the population. Now, even Trump is bending to the facts of epidemiology after several states have declared the emergency. Complacency has yielded to panic buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
In contrast, the response to the rapidly growing climate emergency has ramped up very slowly, if at all. I am not talking about the talk here; I’m talking about collective action. No government has intervened significantly in its economy to slow down carbon emissions—with the partial exceptions of Costa Rica and the Nordic nations. No nation has taken the drastic steps necessary to achieve safe levels as recommended by increasingly dire reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, despite the fact that the IPCC firmly stated in 2018 that we must cut total carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. The beginnings of economic collapse as Covid-19 spreads, demonstrates how difficult decarbonization will be.
Both these existential threats to humanity are subject to at least partial human influence. “Flattening the curve” is short for cutting down the rate of Covid-19’s spread by a diverse set of actions, both individual and collective, by isolating families from each other. The goal is to reduce the peak number of cases to avoid overburdening healthcare facilities and reduce deaths before the pandemic’s eventual decline.
In the case of the ‘pandemic’ of carbon pouring into the biosphere, to cut emissions means to reduce the activities that cause them. However, for politicians and the financial elites who they serve, the corrupt global corporate economy of growth is sacrosanct and cannot be downsized. In effect, they are killing us all with the creation of “wealth” for the few.
More on the peculiar relations between these two societal emergencies next time.