I have mentioned the concept of “constructive destruction” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic before (June 16, 2020). By necessity, our status quo is being disrupted, but that also means we are beginning to grow in unexpected ways. At my college, we are now completely focused on remote teaching. We are trying to optimize it, given that it might continue to be a good teaching tool even after the pandemic ends.
We are currently in the middle of two global disasters that make our life miserable. One, COVID-19, was caused by the emergence of a deadly, contagious virus; the other, climate change, is being triggered by our economic activities and their subsequent disruptions of the atmospheric chemistry. COVID-19, by its nature, is a relatively fast event. It is growing exponentially, with a doubling time that can be measured in days or weeks. Climate change is a longer-term disaster but its growth is also exponential, with a doubling time that we can measure in generations (25 years). Most of its growth comes as feedback from the original disruption of greenhouse gases (July 10, 2018). COVID-19 is a self-limiting pandemic since its replication depends on the availability of carriers. This limit can come either from herd immunity (May 12, 2020) or an effective and available vaccine and/or medications. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people will likely lose their lives.
The last global viral pandemic of this scale was the Spanish flu, which raged from 1918-1920. As we fight to minimize the current pandemic, maybe we can learn strategies that will aid in climate change mitigation. Climate change is not self-limiting and it is not an exaggeration to say that it could lead to the extinction of humanity.
Studies have been done on the impact of climate change on human health (November 27, 2018) so it’s no surprise that the National Academy of Medicine dedicated a special event to discussing connections between COVID-19 and climate change. I got an invitation to attend. One of the “advantages” of the lockdown is that you don’t have to factor in traveling and hotel reservations to attend conferences that you might be interested in (good for me, bad for the tourist industry, especially for airlines and hotels).
Bill Gates, the keynote speaker at the event, connected the two disasters and warned that as bad as COVID-19 is, climate change will be much worse. In both disasters, changing our behavior is key to mitigation efforts. We need to learn from the pandemic both how to cooperate globally and how to set up (and follow) concrete plans for the future. Dr. Anthony Fauci was the keynote speaker for the session on COVID-19, while Sir Andrew Haines played the same role in the climate change session and Dr. Sanjay Gupta served as moderator.
We can look at the connections between COVID-19 and climate change from several angles, both past and future.
Not only did people discover 2,000 year old palm seeds in Israel several years ago, they were able to propagate a new palm tree from them.
A tree grown from a 2,000-year-old seed may bring its sub-species back to Israel, where it once flourished, after a millennium-long absence.
The seed was one of six discovered in 1963, in a jar in Herod the Great’s palace at the Masada fortress in Israel. Radiocarbon dating found that the seeds, preserved by the arid climate, were from sometime between 155 B.C. and A.D. 64.
Unfortunately, not all ancient things being uncovered are good ones. Climate change-triggered thawing of permafrost may resurrect terrifying disease-causing agents that could put COVID-19 to shame:
The thawing of the permafrost also threatens to unlock disease-causing bacteria and viruses long trapped in the ice.
There have already been some cases of this happening.
In 2016 a child died in Russia’s far northern Siberia in an outbreak of anthrax that scientists said seemed to have come from the corpses of infected reindeers buried 70 years before but uncovered by melting permafrost.
Released from the ice, the anthrax seems to have been passed to grazing herds.
Scientists have also warned that other dormant pathogens entombed in frozen soil may be roused by global warming, such as from old smallpox graves.
In 2014 scientists revived a giant but harmless virus, dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, that had been locked in the Siberian permafrost for more than 30,000 years.
In truth, however, regardless of how much we learn about disaster mitigation from COVID-19, any such efforts for climate change will require leadership. A week from now, the US will elect a president, congress, and one third of the senate, not to mention many local government officials.
The second and last presidential debate took place in Nashville, Tennessee. Comparatively, it was exemplary. The Commission on Presidential Debates proved that it is made up of fast learners. Unlike the first debate (see October 6th blog), they limited this one to only 6 topics. The newly imposed mute button afforded each candidate two uninterrupted minutes for each of the 6 segments before they could contradict each other. It worked. That, in combination with the much more effective moderator (Kristen Welker of NBC) produced a much more “civilized” debate. Of course, this is no accident. It is very difficult to moderate a discussion when the participants talk on top of each other, so a mute button made things much more controllable. The personalities of the two candidates came clearly through and both got the full opportunity to state their cases. The factual grounding of the discussion was much more problematic. Indeed, almost every publication devoted huge swaths of space to fact checking the candidates’ statements. Some print versions lent less space, making the topic much more manageable (in The New York Times at least). The Washington Post announced, “At debate, Biden makes relatively few gaffes while Trump breaks fact-check meter.”
I was waiting for the climate change section, which ended up being the last full topic and garnered about ten minutes of discussion. In his two minutes of uninterrupted presentation, President Trump provided an unintelligible version of his take of the Biden’s climate change plan. Here is how Forbes (a publication that often favors Trump) covered it:
Why Does Trump Think Biden Wants To Shrink Everybody’s Windows?
President Donald Trump insisted Thursday night during the final presidential debate that Democratic opponent Joe Biden is pining to knock down buildings and shrink their windows, a bizarre and inaccurate riff on Biden’s climate plan that has quickly turned into one of Trump’s go-to attack lines.
Science Magazine delved a little deeper into the matter.
Anybody who is even slightly familiar with climate change knows that mitigation requires global energy transition to zero-carbon-emitting fuels. You can only continue to use fossil fuels if you can capture the carbon dioxide they produce before it gets to the atmosphere. The timeline for that transition is in general agreement: by mid-century. The somewhat controversial part is how to get there with minimal economic drawbacks. VP Biden proposed a plan for how to do so. President Trump, in his two minutes, “redefined” Biden’s strategy as a commitment to destroy the oil industry. Republicans later claimed this as the key takeaway from the entire debate. This was a strategy particularly aimed at Texas and Pennsylvania. Both states have long histories with the fossil fuel industry and their votes could sway the election.
Meanwhile, to the contrary, the oil companies themselves seemed much less concerned. Many of them (more in Europe than the US) are already busy incorporating the transition into their own business models, and will continue to do so no matter who wins the election.
In their National Academy of Medicine presentations, Mr. Gates and Dr. Fauci touched on the similarities between COVID-19 and climate change in how they impact our everyday behaviors. I will try to expand on this issue in the future.