May 26, 2020

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How COVID-19 Is Like Climate Change

I’m listening to the comforting background hum of the old refrigerator in my rented apartment. The humming noise stops suddenly; the only sound now is the tinnitus in my ears. From my chair, I look out through the sliding glass door. Wind and rain animate the bright yellow flannel bushes on the hillside. California just had the driest February on record. The flowered branches of the flannel bushes seem to stretch like fingers to catch the life-giving rainwater. “We want more! We want more!”

I have plenty of time to observe the world outside my windows. I’ve been self-quarantined in my apartment for a week. After returning to the Bay Area from a climate change workshop in Washington, D.C., I came down with a low-grade fever and a dry, hacking cough. The cough made sleep difficult, leaving me fatigued and weak. Rest and over-the-counter flu meds didn’t help much.

On the third day after the start of my symptoms, I consulted a nurse practitioner in my doctor’s office. We interacted via Zoom. It seemed prudent to minimize possible risk to others. The NP prescribed medication for the cough. But after taking the medication, my symptoms persisted.

On day five I was tested for the novel coronavirus. I drove to the parking lot outside my doctor’s office. While still seated in the car, a masked and suited nurse practitioner listened to my breathing, measured my temperature, blood pressure and blood oxygenation, and took swabs of my nasal passages. The exam and test took less than five minutes.

I don’t have the results yet. I should get them soon. It will be good to know what I am dealing with. Knowing one’s adversary is always helpful.

While sequestered in my apartment, I’ve thought a lot about how complex systems respond to big perturbations. That’s part of my job. As a climate scientist, I study the atmospheric and ocean responses to different “forcings”—things like massive volcanic eruptions, large changes in the sun’s energy output, or a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels. I use computer models to analyze how such shocks ripple through the climate system. What characteristic patterns of climate response do they generate? How long does it take for the climate system to return to the pre-shocked state? Are there cases when the system doesn’t spring back?

The novel coronavirus is a major perturbation to complex human systems of governance. Here are a few personal thoughts on “lessons learned” from the U.S. response to this viral perturbation.

Lesson 1: Scientific ignorance can be fatal—particularly if ignorance starts with the U.S. president and trickles down from there. It was scientifically incorrect for President Trump to dismiss the coronavirus as no worse than the seasonal flu. It was scientifically incorrect to advise U.S. citizens to engage in business as usual in the face of a pandemic. Dissemination of such incorrect information by the commander-in-chief helped to spread the novel coronavirus in America. Ignorance served as a potent disease vector.

Lesson 2: The president of the United States failed to accept responsibility for the administration’s chaotic response to the virus. The shortage of reliable tests for the “foreign” virus? Not his fault. Shutting down the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense? Not his decision. The quarantined passengers on a cruise ship off San Francisco? Not his problem. In the Trump administration, the buck never stops at the top.

Lesson 3: Our president cannot lead this country. A leader tells hard truths in times of crisis. A leader does not assume the mantle of expertise in areas where he or she has none. A leader is more concerned with the well-being of all citizens than with bad poll numbers or bad numbers of confirmed disease cases. A leader accepts responsibility for personal and organizational failures (see above). And a leader cares more about saving lives than winning reelection.

Lesson 4: “America First” is a singularly poor survival strategy in the middle of a global pandemic. No nation is an impregnable fortress against a microscopic agent that can hitch a ride on any plane, ship, train or car. Building effective international organizations and alliances is a far better way of surviving a global health crisis than “going it alone.”

The phrase “in an abundance of caution” has become commonplace in the last few days. Prominent politicians and celebrities use this phrase to explain their decision to self-quarantine. In the U.S., an abundance of caution should have been exercised at the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Detailed plans for scientifically accurate messaging should have been ready, along with strategies for national and international coordination of response efforts.

They were not ready. The capability to test tens of thousands of citizens a day should have been in place. It was not in place. And in an abundance of concern for public health, members of the Trump administration should have corrected the President’s misstatements on the seriousness of the coronavirus. Instead, they largely remained silent.

After years of belittling and neglecting science, Donald J. Trump is suddenly discovering that science is imperative to human survival, and perhaps even to his own political survival. Through science, a vaccine will be developed for the novel coronavirus. If this country invests in science now—and if we invest in maintaining strong global health systems—we will be better prepared for the next novel virus waiting out there.  

Pandemics are not the only existential problem we face. Climate change endangers every present and future citizen of this planet. If we truly care about the health of our communities, countries and global commons, we must find ways of powering the planet without relying on fossil fuels. It would be a tragedy to survive the coronavirus but succumb to human-caused climate disruption. An abundance of caution demands that we address both problems.

Read more about the coronavirus outbreak here.