Can Corona Virus Teach Us About Climate?

March 5, 2020

I have a hunch, that the stream of ignorance and misinformation from the highest office in the land is not reassuring citizens, voters, or markets.

Bill McKibben in the New Yorker:

There’s nothing good about the novel coronavirus—it’s killing many people, and shutting millions more inside, with fear as their main companion. However, if we’re fated to go through this passage, we may as well learn something from it, and it does strike me that there are a few insights that are applicable to the climate crisis that shadows all of our lives.

Some of these lessons are obvious: giant cruise ships are climate killers and, it turns out, can become floating sick wards. Other ideas evaporate once you think about them: China is producing far less carbon dioxide, for the moment, but, completely apart from the human toll, economic disruption is not a politically viable way to deal with global warming in the long term, and it also undercuts the engines of innovation that bring us, say, cheap solar panels.

Still, it’s worth noting how nimbly millions of people seem to have learned new patterns. Companies, for instance, are scrambling to stay productive, even with many people working from home. The idea that we need to travel each day to a central location to do our work may often be the result of inertia, more than anything else. Faced with a real need to commute by mouse, instead of by car, perhaps we’ll see that the benefits of workplace flexibility extend to everything from gasoline consumption to the need for sprawling office parks.

Of course, that’s a lesson that can be learned in reverse as well. The best excuse for an office is people bouncing ideas off one another, and the best excuse for a society is just people bouncing off one another, something that’s getting harder right now, as events start cancelling. But the “social distancing” that epidemiologists now demand of us to stop the spread of infectious diseases is actually already too familiar to lots of Americans. Living lives of comparative, suburban isolation, we already have fewer close friends than we used to. (Health-care authorities warned, on Thursday, of a serious epidemic of loneliness, which older Americans are more vulnerable to. The research shows that, when controlling for all other variables, older Americans who reported being lonely are twice as likely to die prematurely than those who aren’t.) But the patterns that produce this solitude in our culture are so ingrained that we’ve come to take them for granted. Perhaps, in an odd way, the prospect of forced isolation may lead us to embrace a bit more gregariousness when the virus relents. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be penned up in a Wuhan apartment; I can guess, though, that liberation will feel sweet when it comes, not only because people presumably will be safe but because they can be social. A certain kind of environmentalist has long hoped that we’ll learn to substitute human contact for endless consumption; maybe this is the kind of shock that might open a few eyes. (Also, strained global supply chains are a good reminder that local agriculture has very practical benefits.)

This might also be the moment when we decide to fully embrace the idea that science, you know, works. My grandfather was, for many decades, doctor to the tiny town of Kirkland, Washington, now a suburb filled with software execs, which has turned into an American coronavirus ground zero. So I’m thinking frequently of the brave nurses and paramedics carrying out front-line care, and also the researchers who have scrambled with remarkable speed to produce prototype vaccines. Élites seem a little better when they come bearing cures. And that should probably carry over to other realms: Americans, polling shows, are wary of Trump’s cavalier disregard for reality when it comes to global warming; now he’s claiming that the virus is a hoax, as well. Given his contention that maybe a “miracle” might make it “disappear,” I’d expect that skepticism to keep growing.

And one would also expect a growing awareness that what happens elsewhere matters—that there’s no real way to shut out the rest of the planet. That’s true for the virus, which seems to have seeped through most of the world’s borders in a matter of days. It’s even truer, of course, for the CO2 molecule. Not even a guy in a hazmat suit, clutching a temperature gun, can slow down the warm air cascading up to the Arctic, or the hurricane headed across the Atlantic. So maybe it’s a moment when we remember that coöperation with the rest of the world is a boon, not a trap.

4 Responses to “Can Corona Virus Teach Us About Climate?”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    As long as one has a large supply of toilet paper, all is good.
    OK, not helpful, couldn’t resist.

    Throw in the obvious one, actually off topic, bugs and diseases thrive in heat.

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    Differential diagnosis for epidemics

    Karl Smith, a professor of public economics and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has a good rule of thumb for categorizing epidemics: If it spreads along lines of communication the cause is information. Think Bieber Fever.
    If it travels along major transportation routes, the cause is microbial. Think influenza.
    If it spreads out like a fan, the cause is an insect. Think malaria.
    But if it’s everywhere, all at once—as both the rise of crime in the ’60s and ’70s and the fall of crime in the ’90s seemed to be—the cause is a molecule.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      The information about the studies linking tetraethyl lead in gasoline and crime rates is absolutely mind blowing—-good find.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    McKibben is a wishful thinker. The corona virus is going to distract us from climate change for a while, but Trump’s followers do NOT accept science and likely never will. The absolutely and unbelievably ignorant and downright stupid things that Trump spouts (based on his “hunches”) will be accepted as truth by members of his cult.

    Perhaps if the corona virus turns out to be a true disaster, some of them will begin to listen to scientists about climate change, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    PS Wife’s 30-ish niece in New Rochelle NY is on home quarantine—-she rode the same train into NYC from New Rochelle as the first confirmed NY case.

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