Pandemic and Climate Change: Two of a Kind

This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed in late March, 2020.

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There are some important similarities between our crisis over the pandemic and our crisis over the disruption of the earth’s climate.

Both the pandemic and climate change involve natural systems that – in combination with human activity – generate damaging forces.

With the pandemic, a virus existing in nature evolves into a form that can jump to humans from some other species, and that can readily be transmitted from human to human. And what that generates – given a civilization with considerable interactions among people across the planet – is a viral contagion that can spread across the globe in a matter of months, a pandemic deadly enough to potentially kill millions of people around the world.

With climate change, the climate system of the earth, which is fueled by energy from the sun, gets destabilized by human activity that increases the proportion of the earth’s atmosphere made up of gases that prevent the heat from the sun from escaping into space. This trapping of the heat results in a general warming trend on the planet— a trend that changes weather patterns and ocean currents, that melts ice and raises sea level, that generates the energy to feed more extreme weather events, etc.

In each case, the changes unfold over time, growing increasingly visible and increasingly damaging to the human world. In each case humans have the opportunity – the earlier the better– to take actions to reduce the magnitude of the damage they will suffer when the full magnitude of the destructive force has become manifest.

(They are different, of course, in the span of time that they take to mount from modest beginnings to major global impact: whereas the coronavirus pandemic takes months to go from onset to crest, the climate change process takes decades.)

But because the coming wave – of pandemic, or of climate change – becomes visible only gradually, for a long while the mass of people are unable to recognize on their own what is happening and the bigger thing that’s coming.

But fortunately, with both kinds of natural forces, our civilization has developed experts whose specialized knowledge enables them to see — even from the modest early signs — what’s developing: Experts in the sciences of

  • epidemiology, in the case of the pandemic, and
  • climate science, in the case of the disruption of earth’s climate system,

have been telling humankind, and its leaders, what we need to know for our civilized societies to minimize the damage and suffering from both threats.

Unfortunately, with respect to both crises — despite America’s being rich in such expertise – our nation has failed to adequately heed the warnings of the experts. And, as a result, the United States has fallen far short of acting as we could and should have to protect ourselves.

In the case of the pandemic, the epidemiologists told us how to minimize the damage: take quick action to identify precisely who are infected with the virus, and then to prevent those human contacts that would spread the virus from carriers to other people.

But as a nation we failed for months to take the necessary measures.

In the case of climate change, the climate scientists told us that it is imperative we stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (And meanwhile, others — scientists, investors, and engineers – developed innovations that could enable us to transform our society’s system of energy in order to protect the human future.)

But as a nation we have proved incapable of making the changes the climate crisis has called for.

Part of the reason for that is that it is difficult for people to believe what they cannot see.

Part is the difficulty of imagining a world so transformed that it requires us to change our habitual sense of the world and of how to act in it.

And part of it is that, for a lot of people, scientific reports do not carry much weight in their understanding of their world.

No wonder it’s proved difficult for people to register as a reality something importantly true but  nearly unimaginable.

But unfortunately, there’s been another major factor in our national failure: in both cases, powerful voices have deliberately worked to keep people unaware of the gathering danger.

  • In the case of the pandemic, our understanding and response were impeded by a self-serving President whose response to this major public health threat was to protect what he perceived as his own political interest, rather than to protect the nation; a President who denied the reality of the coming pandemic out of fear the truth would hurt his re-election chances.
  • In the case of climate change, the fossil fuel industry was so driven by greed – despite its colossal wealth – for its own short-term profit it has puts our children and grandchildren in great peril by telling the public lies about the reality of the threat to the human future.

In both cases, the nation pays a price for power being wielded by the Spirit of Selfishness, i.e. the fundamental sin of putting self-interest above the good of the Whole, even when the stakes for the larger whole are very high.

That, surely, must be considered one of the faces that Evil shows in our world.

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