What our Climate Crisis has in common with a Pandemic

With all the fuss in the world about the Covid 19 crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about the parallels between it and Climate Change. I’ve been recording my observations when I wake up in a sweat, but I have not added any new ones in a while, so maybe I am done. Here’s what I have so far. I’m not going to worry so much about the differences which are very real.

New Normal – I have heard this expression so much with Covid, usually accompanied by the caveat that we are not going back to the way things were – the new normal will be different. This is also true for climate change – we are not going back to 1960 or 1980 or anything – we are trying to hold the line so that things don’t get even worse than they would if we take no action.

Science Based – The way we could have known that Covid was coming before it struck with a vengeance was by listening to the scientists. It was invisible to our ordinary senses in  the early stages. Just like climate change in 1989 – not detectable by day to day observation, only by extremely detailed accurate measurement. And, just as Covid is caused by a largely invisible virus, climate change is caused by invisible molecules that are only a tiny fraction of gases in the atmosphere. And the observations of both crises are backed up by sound basic science – microbiology in one case and physics in the other.

Graphs – representation of the progress has been best reflected in graphs with time on one axis and other correlated causes and effects on the other. In the case of Covid it is even more complicated with the y-axis often logarithmic, and yet people, at least some people, seem to have figured it out.

Models – tracking and forecasting for both climate and Covid require the use of models and graphs. The explanations of how the results from Covid models are dependent on actions taken by the actors is complex but is explained frequently. It is analagous to the IPCC scenarios – business as usual, RCP2.5, RCP8.6, etc. With the Covid complexity, people are getting used to the concept and maybe some people are beginning to understand better. Climate models are much more complex, but maybe the understanding is transferable.

Here is a particularly pleasing climate model from Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Initiative. It shows just how hard it will be to flatten the climate curve. We will have to dial all the knobs we can get at. This video gives a quick explanation of how to use the model.

Delay between cause and effect –  In the case of Covid the effects occur after a time delay measured in days or weeks: Infection, spread, cases, death or recovery. In Climate there is a similar delay but it is measured in years or decades: burn fossil fuels, emit GHG, concentration of GHG rises, temperature goes up, sea level rises, corals bleach, and people die. In both cases you are steering while looking in the rear view mirror.

We’re all in this together – in both cases, Climate and Covid, it takes action by everyone, or nearly everyone to make a measurable change. Individual action is required in both cases, and the only way that individual action can be effective in both cases is when government actions make it possible for everyone to pull together in a collective response. It’s also true that in both cases an individual’s actions affect everyone else. Covid has the extra motivational characteristic that an individual’s actions also affect the individual (if they get sick or get their children or parents sick).

Deniers – Both crises have their deniers. The biggest difference is that the Covid deniers are exposed within weeks or months while the climate deniers have time to change their story and move the goal posts.  They both have the “it’s not happening”, “it’s not so bad”, and “it’s too expensive to fix” deniers. They both even have the Chinese Hoax form of denial. There does not seem to be the equivalent of the fossil fuel industry to promote the Covid denials.

Emergency – governments have shown that they do know what to do in an emergency. Act quickly to avoid the worst. Don’t waste too much time finding the perfect solution – try something, and if it isn’t working try something else. Don’t worry too much about how to pay for it. That’s how you react when your house is on fire – you use the nearest extinguisher. You don’t stop for long to analyse if its the right type of extinguisher. Of course the earlier you act the better the results. And being prepared by owning a fire extinguisher makes it possible to act early.

Cumulative vs Daily – People are exposed to the difference between yesterday’s number of cases, and the total number of active cases to date. That’s the same concept as GHG emissions per year and the total accumulation of GHG in the atmosphere measured in PPM. People with a small amount of exposure to calculus will recognize the area under the curve as the integral and will realize that reducing next year’s emissions is important but only because it influences the total accumulated concentration.

News – News coverage suffers in both cases because reporters, especially TV reporters, need simplicity (a number and a date) and they like precision. It’s all they know how to report. You can hear the inner conflict and confusion in the question period after Doctor Tam or after Trudeau’s daily sermons. The reporters ask for precision, and the experts reply with vague probabilities. Forecasts are inherently a range of probabilities and because the forecasts, based on models, change depending on how society reacts (affecting some of the parameters of the model) they are even less reliable than weather forecasts. News coverage in the headline is either the number of cases or deaths today or to date, but with only secondary mention of how that compares with yesterday or with the trend. The words “flattening the curve” try to express the nature of the fact that there is a trend that can be influenced by our collective behaviour.

Global and Local – Just as Covid is global just like climate change, it also manifests differently at different times in different places, just like climate change. It’s not as though the temperature on every day in every place will be higher, and it’s not as though the virus is spread evenly – there are hot spots like old age homes and countries.

Experts vs Politicians – the public responds positively to scientists who just stick to the facts, even when the facts are complex. When the politicians lead the way there is natural distrust. Look at the results in USA vs Canada for example. While Trump has been lying his way into a disaster for his country, Trudeau has been referring questions of science to the chief medical officer and speaking almost entirely about the actions his government is taking to protect people.

Credit: Feature image originally appears here on the NYU School of Law web site.

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