The Coronavirus Message for Climate

Since the coronavirus is at the top of everyone’s consciousness, there has been a lot written about what the coronavirus experience has to say on a great many issues.  After a while you start to get numb.  However for climate change the parallels are so explicit and telling that they need to be understood.  The argument in this piece is not new, but it’s worth spelling out in detail.

The coronavirus shows just how hard it is for us as a country—or as a world—to act ahead of a disaster even when the evidence is clear.  We were unprepared when the crisis came, because we just didn’t want to believe it could happen.  Our reluctance not to believe was of course encouraged by players (foreign and domestic) who felt there was something to be gained by delay.

The result is measured both by the numbers of dead and by the economic consequences of the drastic measures taken to stop the exponential growth of cases and deaths.  In the US that means on the order of 100,000 deaths and the worst job loss since the great Depression.  The weeks of delay made this situation exponentially worse.  You can argue about the details, but there is no question that failure to act early cost us dearly on both counts.  We’ll muddle through, but badly wounded.

The parallels to climate change are explicit—but for climate the muddling through is no sure thing.  There are two primary points:

  1. CO2 in the atmosphere just adds up—which means that whatever problems finally force us to act will keep getting worse until we can manage to stop fossil fuels completely.  In other words from whatever time we recognize a crisis, we will be locked-in for many further years of worsening crisis.
  2. That’s even worse than it sounds because—as with epidemics—there is an exponential growth aspect here too.  To see this we’ll start with the example of hurricanes.  For hurricanes, the damages in the wind-speed categories are such that each step makes the previous look trivial.  In other words, as wind speed grows in a regular, linear way, damage goes up exponentially.

We can go farther.  Added carbon dioxide leads to regular increases in water temperature and corresponding regular increases in wind speed—which leads in turn to exponential increases in damage. So as the amount of carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, the impact of each further ton becomes spectacularly worse.

This isn’t just a matter of hurricanes; it’s typical for damage.  For floods you go from marginal areas affected to major cities.  In any category you can think of, damage goes up exponentially.  The bottom line is that for all those years of lock-in, every additional ton of carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere will pack a wallop.  This is the stuff of nightmares.

In other words, as with the coronavirus, delay makes the problem exponentially worse.  The latest climate report gives us the timescale.  To avoid catastrophic consequences CO2 production needs to drop 45%  by 2030 and reach 0 by 2050.

We couldn’t get ourselves to believe the coronavirus would really happen, and climate disaster is even further from our past experience.  So the tendency to disbelieve is even stronger.  And there are plenty of well-connected, interested players out to convince us to wait.  The oil companies and their allies are doing quite a good job of it.  Pence and Pompeo, for example, are Koch organization soldiers in a Trump organization out to sabotage all efforts to control climate change.  Another indication of oil company power is Harvard University’s recent announcement of a commitment to fight climate change—by making their investment portfolio carbon-neutral starting in 2050, the year when the scientists say we need to be done!

That’s where we are.  Climate change is the coronavirus on a bigger scale.  It’s much more dangerous and with even more powerful forces out to convince us to wait, and wait, until it’s too late to matter anymore.  We’ve been warned.