In the midst of COVID-19-related travel restrictions and market turbulence, I realized there are some important lessons we can extrapolate from the present pandemic to the threat of climate change.
- Humans don’t handle slow-moving threats well
- Government action makes a big difference
- Things can get weird fast
- We’re all in this together
Humans Don’t Handle Slow-Moving Threats Well
We evolved to respond to proximate, physical threats – a prowling lion, a group of men with sticks – because those were the threats most germane to hundreds of thousands of years of hunter-gathering ancestors.
Our brains are much less well-suited to slow-moving, ephemeral threats no matter how existential they may be.
If proof of my contention were needed, imagine how quickly a crowded beach of twenty-somethings would clear were (God forbid) an active shooter to appear.
Now, watch this video about Spring Breakers slobbering drunkenly over one another because they can’t be bothered to uphold CDC guidance regarding avoiding social clustering.
We are evolutionarily hard-wired to pay more attention to threats that, a generation from now will be completely forgotten, even while confronted by a threat that stands to change the ability of human civilization to continue at the density, peace, and prosperity it now enjoys.
Individually, we may be weak to the threat of climate change, but perhaps collectively we can do better. Which leads me to my next point…
Government Action Makes A Big Difference
South Koreans live under a continual threat of destruction from their northern cousins. Your correspondent once spent an uncomfortable 30 minutes in a large tent labeled “Dead” when he failed to move with appropriate alacrity during a monthly missile attack drill in Seoul, in fact.
Perhaps because of this emphasis on public safety and an underlying philosophical orientation towards protecting its populace from life-threatening conditions, the South Korean government and citizenry has handled the COVID-19 outbreak magnificently. Thousands of tests are administered to South Koreans each day and case fatality rates are less than 1%.
South Koreans are evolutionarily no different from Americans or Europeans. They also respond poorly to slow-moving threats because they are human beings. However, the South Korean government, staffed by experts whose careers are based on considering and counteracting slow-moving threats have prioritized efficient pandemic response as a critical element of public defense.
Unlike the present furor about this pandemic, the effects of climate change barely register in my and many of my readers’ daily experience. However, to think that the earth’s inexorably warming climate does not affect our life at all is plainly mistaken.
Changing climactic conditions and the resultant worsening prospects for agriculture have been tied to migrations from South and Central America, the Syrian Civil War, and food insecurity in the world’s most populace continent. Each of these events plainly do affect readers’ lives; calls to “Build the Wall”, close European borders to Mediterranean immigrants, and – through the practice of unhygienic slaughtering and sales of wild and domestic animals – the current pandemic crisis all arguably represent secondary effects of climactic change.
Some governments have made policy shifts away from carbon generating activities, but so far, the attempt seems to be best described as too little, too late.
That lack of meaningful, coordinated government action is especially depressing when one considers my next point…
Things Can Get Weird Fast
The week before last, I was scheduled to meet two start-up CEOs for in-person meetings in Chicago. After listening to Sam Harris’s podcast interview with a Yale epidemiologist, I changed my in-person appointments to virtual ones. I was sheepish when I did so – it seemed to be an overreaction at the time.
The very day we were supposed to meet, the NBA hurriedly announced it was discontinuing its season and suddenly it seemed that everyone in the U.S. was talking about “social distancing” (a good candidate for word of the year, in my book…).
Our planet is a complex, adaptive system. One of the characteristics of such a system is that they are phenomenally stable. However, when critical thresholds are breached, the previously stable system can become unstable and give rise to a completely different and also enormously stable system.
(For an excellent article about this, please read this Quanta article describing this dynamic of complex systems with the example of a Wisconsin bass pond.)
Every month, it seems that scientists find we are getting close to or have actually already crossed some critical climate thresholds. Permafrost may be acting as a carbon source now rather than a carbon sink. Rapidly decreasing ice cover leads to faster warming of oceans, which leads to rapidly decreasing ice cover. Amazon deforestation is at or nearly at a critical tipping point that would, within the blink of a geologic eye, lead to its becoming a savannah rather than a rainforest.
One of the reasons I am frustrated with people like Bill Nordhaus (2019 winner of the fake Nobel Prize for Economics, and certainly completely unconcerned with my opprobrium) is because they assume that we can wait to fix our climate problems until some far distant time when things start to get weird on a day-to-day basis for North Americans like me.
In the same way that a boozy lunch at a restaurant with an up-and-coming CEO didn’t seem anywhere out of the ordinary two weeks ago, but would now be illegal in many jurisdictions, I worry that we will reach climactic tipping points faster than we can presently imagine.
If our civilization hasn’t done the equivalent of buying a supply of toilet paper by then (and it most certainly hasn’t), a huge stock is not going to magically appear on the shelves.
The wonderful thing about a pandemic – if anything could be said to be wonderful – is that it has a peak. The whole world is talking about flattening the COVID-19 peak and celebrating countries whose data show they may be past their peak (initial) transmission points.
Considering the heat already stored deep within our oceans, no one reading this and – at the present rate of inaction – no children or grandchildren of anyone reading this will experience “peak climate change.”
Looking at the economic effects of the pandemic thus far is instructive in conceptualizing an ongoing economic shock that has no peak. No matter how terrible a pandemic is, it is transient. Climate change is permanent on any kind of a time scale that any of us care about.
We Are All In This Together
It might seem funny to say now that we are all getting used to communicating via video conference and assiduously keeping distance while trying to find rolls of toilet paper at the local store, but the current pandemic has underscored our interconnectedness and our reliance on those around us.
Italians and Chicagoans are singing to one another to bolster each other’s courage. Indians are ringing bells and clapping to acknowledge their gratitude to medical workers. My local commuter train system is offering free transit to first responders.
Humans are weak individually, but strong in groups. Our ability to pull together as a group is the one big reason that a species of weak, hairless apes with stubby teeth and no claws were able to spread across the globe and even leave – if only temporarily – its confines within a short 10,000 generations of existence.
My sincere hope is that the current pandemic will succeed in creating a feeling of greater comity and care for our fellow Man, and will encourage politicians and citizens of all nations to work together to confront another existential threat to our civilization.
Another wonderful reservoir of strength for the human species is that we are fabulously adaptable and creative. The economic manifestation of our adaptability and creativity is capitalism.
Governments are relying on powerful tools created by the crucible of capitalistic competition – drug research and development, protective gear manufacturing, and modern telecommunications – to combat the present pandemic.
I submit that the power of capitalism must be harnessed to confront a threat that is orders of magnitude greater than the spread of a new coronavirus.