OK, to be clear? I don’t mean that you are less scared of COVID19 than of climate change. You feel however you feel. That’s legitimate. And certainly COVID19 is a more immediate problem–I know multiple people with underlying health issues such that they would probably not survive the disease. I know others on the economic edge who might not survive this recession, unless policy becomes a good deal wiser than it’s been.
And while I personally am more worried about climate, it’s not that I’m not worried about the pandemic–and it’s not that my relative health and security lead me to dismiss others’ troubles as no big deal.
What the issue is, why I say climate change is scarier, is the topic of this post.
Presenting My Credentials
You know me as a climate change blogger, but I’m also a novelist, and my second novel, Ecological Memory, explores the aftermath of a global pandemic. My fiction is heavily researched and as scientifically accurate as possible, so I have read extensively in virology, epidemiology, and the history of real pandemics. I’m no expert, but I’m no stranger to the topic, either–this is not the first time I’ve thought about what pandemics can do.
For example, my fictional pandemic (which has no name besides “the pandemic”) has certain features in common with COVID19:
- A mortality rate that seems low in comparison to obvious nightmares, like Ebola
- An initial infectious period without definitive symptoms
- An initial appearance in an urban area
- Relatively mild expression in some victims, such that some infected people don’t go to the doctor and don’t get tested
- Symptoms that closely mimic existing common diseases, making proper diagnosis without testing impossible
- The primary threat of the disease is not its total mortality but rather the way it puts pressure on existing societal and medical vulnerabilities (pre-existing health threats, bigotry, economic disparity, medical infrastructure problems, and overall economic instability).
It’s not that I’m prescient, it’s that I did my homework. Another global pandemic was inevitable the same way another giant earthquake in San Francisco is inevitable–and another after that. And to successfully evade the sophisticated systems already put in place to prevent pandemic, a disease has to have certain characteristics. I simply crafted my fiction as a worst-case scenario of what all the relevant experts considered likely.
(To be clear, COVID19 is not the worst case come to life, though it’s bad enough; the fictional version also featured a longer initial infectious period, a much higher infection rate, a significantly higher mortality rate, and an initial appearance in multiple urban areas simultaneously due to human nefariousness)
So I hope you’ll consider my remarks well-informed.
5 Reasons Climate Change Is Scarier Than COVID19
I hope you’ll forgive the click-baity subheading–it fits the material, and I do hope it attracts search engines.
1. Climate Change Exacerbates Pandemics
While COVID19 specifically is not caused by climate change, an increased risk of disease outbreak is a symptom of anthropogenic climate change, for various reasons. So, if you don’t like pandemics, you have to do something about climate change.
2. That Which Exacerbates Pandemics also Exacerbates Climate Change
We’re also seeing how politicized anti-science sentiment is fouling up efforts to deal with COVID19 in the United States. Our country faces the crisis without informed, organized leadership at the Federal level because President Trump disbanded the group that would have provided such leadership, undoing the lessons learned from the Ebola threat some years ago. I’m not sure why he did that–possibly it was just part of undoing President Obama’s legacy–but it was part of a larger pattern of stripping science out of the Federal government. President Trump’s response to COVID19 has, at least until recently, been to deny the severity of the problem, and even to interfere with efforts to address the problem. Meanwhile, politically conservative citizens are showing a tendency to treat the whole coronavirus issue as just another liberal plot.
The parallel with the national response to climate change is striking.
I don’t see how pandemic denial benefits anybody. Like the panic-buying of toilet paper, it’s a troubling response that has no obvious motive. I have no hypothesis to offer on the toilet paper thing, but science denial in general does have a motive; undermining public faith in science, scientists, and science-based governmental leadership has the direct effect of torpedoing any possibility of American leadership on climate change–and delaying climate action does mean money in the bank for certain people.
I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say pandemic denial is a deliberate part of an anti-climate plot. It may simply be that once one has accepted the anti-science, anti-government premise, any science-based warning issued by a government agency or by the “liberal media” looks like a hoax. My country’s pandemic response may be collateral damage in an unrelated fight. But it’s also possible that indiscriminate anti-science messaging has been the medium for creating climate denial, meaning that our current crisis may indeed be being deliberately used to some extent. Either way, as I’ve discussed before, climate denial is the deliberate creation of certain people with financial ties to the fossil fuel industry, and those financial ties are not likely a coincidence.
If the United States had an aggressive climate action policy in place and was already leading the way towards global decarbonization, we would not have hamstrung our efforts at pandemic response by stripping science from the Federal government.
If you don’t like pandemics, you have to support science-based government policy, and that means supporting climate action also.
3. Those Who Are Hurt by COVID19 Are Also Hurt by Climate Change
COVID19 is not like rain, falling on the just and the unjust alike. It’s more like a flood that ruins things for the already vulnerable disproportionately. It is the elderly and the already-ill who are most likely to get seriously ill, or even die, from the new coronavirus. It is the economically marginalized who are most likely to be damaged by the closures and other economic issues of our response to the virus. It is the politically marginalized who will bear the brunt of suffering caused by shortages, medical rationing, and general panic, should these be allowed to develop by short-sighted policy. I have already discussed how it is these same groups who stand to lose the most from climate change.
The problem is that our society has certain weak points, and any type of severe stress, be it increased severe weather, a public health crisis, or some other thing, collapses those weak points first. The people most exposed to those points of strain suffer as a result.
If you don’t like the suffering caused by pandemics, you have to take climate justice seriously as well.
4. That Which Mitigates Pandemic Risk Also Mitigates Climate Change
As the previous three points imply, if we had been taking the risk of pandemic more seriously, we would be further along with climate action now. And had we been taking climate change seriously, pandemic preparedness would have occurred almost as a matter of course.
Here are several major steps which my country (and likely others, though I’m less in position to comment) should have taken already taken, and could still take.
1. Decarbonize the Economy
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the step without which all other steps constitute rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You know the old saying–if you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, stop digging! And the simplest, most effective way to substantially reduce emissions is to transition away from fossil fuels.
Sustainable use of renewable resources, not unsustainable harvesting of wood, large-scale use of lithium batteries, or other such problematic option, must be the future, a shift which, yes, will require a massive restructuring of the economy. At this point, such restructuring is unlikely to be fun, but the alternative is much worse.
However, it’s worth noting two likely outcomes of such restructuring.
One is that non-essential long-distance travel is likely to get prohibitively expensive. Another outcome is that as the transportation of goods gets more expensive, economies will become regional rather than global.
Less long-distance travel will make us less vulnerable to pandemic. Pandemics will still be possible, but they will spread more slowly, increasing the likelihood of successful intervention.
Regional economies will be less likely to collapse in response to disasters in other regions (long-distance shipment of emergency aid will still be possible).
A low-carbon world will be less vulnerable to the sort of crisis we are seeing now.
2. Plan for Disaster
Climate change increases the likelihood of all sorts of disasters, including flood, fire, famine, and, yes, pestilence. Unfortunately, cutting our carbon habit is not likely to save us from the effects of climate change over the next few decades, because there is a delay in the climate’s response. We have to decarbonize and mitigate the damage we’re already in line for, and that includes planning for disasters of a scale and frequency we haven’t seen yet.
Lots of disasters of all types require the rapid mobilization of resources, the efficient sharing of information both between agencies and with the public, and the prompt and proper care of large numbers of casualties and displaced or isolated persons.
All of the above is also critical in a pandemic.
3. Build for Disaster
Just to elaborate on the point about planning for disaster–part of that planning includes building facilities that can be rapidly converted to hospitals, shelters, or whatever else might be necessary. In ordinary times, such facilities could be used as convention centers, hotels, or whatever else, provided a mechanism was in place for rapid conversion as needed.
The United States has precedent for such dual-purpose preparedness–our interstate road system was designed to function as a network of emergency air strips and military transport routes in case of war. So it’s not as though a network of overflow hospitals would need to sit empty and useless between disasters.
4. Allow Redundancy
A central value in a capitalist society is efficiency. Why have hundreds of little companies when one big one can make widgets, or whatever else, cheaper? Why build capacity we don’t need? Why offer services that don’t turn a profit, or at least pay for themselves? The push, in recent years, to turn more and more of our society over to the private sector is based on the premise that everything ought to be run like a business because businesses are efficient and everything else ought to be as well.
Of course we should avoid waste, but not all inefficiency is wasteful. Redundancy is not wasteful–it’s critical.
Redundancy is a necessary feature of all resilient systems. We have two kidneys, though we can get by with just one, and a good thing, too. Healthy ecosystems have more than one species that eats bugs and more than one species of plant for bugs to eat. Any given part of any system could fail, and when it does, there needs to be some kind of back-up. It’s not that natural systems are smart in any deliberate way, it’s that overly-efficient systems get edited out by the demands of reality. Our efficient society, dominated as it is by just a handful of large companies, just a handful of wealthy families, and fewer and fewer media outlets–and fewer hospitals–is an editing job just waiting to happen.
We could create back-ups as part of disaster-preparedness, and should, but we should also allow redundancy to develop naturally. Stop insisting that everything be run like a business. Stop cutting regulations and protections in the name of efficiency. Stop favoring policies that favor consolidation.
Community-based hospitals with extra beds and staff who aren’t exhausted will be one result.
5. Be Just
Of course justice at all levels is important for its own sake. And, as mentioned, justice is a major part of both climate change mitigation and pandemic harm reduction. But any policy that leaves behind any segment of society is not going to have the cooperation of the public–and it’s not going to work. No one should ever be forced to choose between saving the planet–or stopping the pandemic–and their own civil rights.
5. And the Biggest Reason Climate Change Is Scarier?
I’m sure you see the pattern I’m trying to draw, here; climate change is at least as scary as COVID19 because the two are closely connected. All the ways the virus can hurt you are also ways climate can hurt you, and the neglect that has left us vulnerable to the one has also given us the other.
But why did I say climate change is scarier?
Because COVID19 only kills human beings.