Listen to the scientists

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed lately about COVID-19. It’s hard to think about much else. All of our lives have been turned upside down, the stories we’ve heard from Italy, Queens, and that we’re expecting throughout the U.S. in the coming weeks are hellish.

As a PCP, I’m still working my usual two days in the office. We’re trying to shift to as many virtual visits as possible, and we’re not doing in person sick visits, but each time I do see a patient in person, I feel nervous that I could unknowingly get infected and then infect other patients. Calls from worried and sick patients are increasing, and I’m feeling the weight of the potential consequences of making the wrong call each time I decide over the phone whether to refer someone to the ER or tell them to stay home. My professional organization has published critical care review modules, and I’m studying them just in case.

While it’s hard to predict exactly when things may be able safely get back to “normal,” I doubt my boys are going back to preschool this school year, and we’re trying not to get our hopes up for summer camps, pools being open, or even a semblance of normalcy when it’s time for our older son to start kindergarten in the fall. The social contacts we enjoyed a few short weeks ago have become potentially deadly. Some days I have a blast just hanging out with my little family, but other days, as someone who’s already prone to anxiety, and whose usual mental health self-care involves seeing friends regularly, I struggle, and I know I’m far from alone in that. And I know my family’s losses and struggles are much, much smaller than those many people are experiencing: loss of jobs, loss of life, and loss of loved ones, without hospital visitors or a proper funeral (whether the person’s sickness and death were related to COVID-19 or not). Healthcare workers in the ER and ICU without adequate personal protective equipment and without enough ventilators for all the severely sick face huge threats to their own physical and mental health. 

So, as much as I usually think about the climate crisis, it has not been at the forefront of my mind lately. This blog’s usual focus is our family’s journey to reduce our carbon footprint, and I have a long list of blog posts I want to write on that topic (and will, eventually), but now just didn’t seem like the right time. Ironically, as the world’s emissions have dropped from one country after another shutting down (never a reason you want for emissions to decrease!), our family has temporarily given up some of our climate-friendly habits in favor of public health and safety. I’m driving to work instead of taking MARTA, we’re using disposable grocery bags, and we plugged our extra fridge back in so we can space out grocery trips more. Probably our lack of other driving and our cancelled upcoming trips cancel all of that out, but that’s kind of beside the point. Right now, it makes sense for everyone to prioritize fighting the acute public health crisis we’re facing. 

But the climate crisis hasn’t gone away. And there are quite a few lessons I think we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to try to stop the most catastrophic consequences of climate change while we still have the chance. As nightmarish as COVID-19 is, and as much collective trauma as we will carry forward from it, it’s not likely to be a major threat to humanity after another year or two. Climate change is a threat to the long-term viability of human civilization, and the baked-in effects of the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted will likely take centuries or millennia (if ever) to reverse.

One commonality between COVID-19 and climate change is the false reassurance of the relatively mild appearance, early on, of an exponentially growing problem. The day this article came out, I took MARTA to work and saw a full schedule of patients in person. Andrew took our boys to preschool and my parents picked them up, although I was getting increasingly worried and wondering whether and when these routines needed to stop. The next day our boys went to their grandparents’ house for the last time for the foreseeable future. The day after that I picked them up from preschool for the last time and cancelled everything on our calendar. It’s amazing how quickly normalcy can disappear in the face of an exponentially increasing threat. 

Climate change is already having dramatic effects on life for humans and other living things. There are plenty of stories of record-breaking natural disasters and farmers scrambling to find new varieties of crops to adapt to changing temperatures and soil conditions, and there are plenty of graphs showing how hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts have increased alongside greenhouse gas emissions and temperature. But everything that has happened so far is only the tip of the iceberg of the danger we know is there. Just like we see with a highly contagious virus, the effects of climate change are an exponentially increasing danger. Even though climate change in the long term is a much more profound threat than COVID-19, most of us (with some notable exceptions) have not yet had our daily lives upended by it as much as we have by COVID-19. We are currently at about one degree Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times, and each half-degree increase brings exponentially increasing threats. A two degree Celsius temperature rise compared with a 1.5 degree rise means a several times higher likelihood of ice-free arctic summers, extreme heat waves, and habitat loss for wildlife–think what that means if we reach a 4 degree rise, which we’re on track for by 2100 without drastic action. Also, each incremental temperature increase increases the chances of dangerous positive feedback loops, like methane release from thawing arctic permafrost and loss of the protective cooling “albedo effect” of the whiteness of large areas of the arctic being covered with ice.   

If we wait until we are all severely feeling the effects of climate change on our daily lives, our options for how to respond will be limited, and by then even the most drastic and disruptive action won’t be very effective. This is what we’re seeing now with our response to the coronavirus in the U.S. Early in the Wuhan outbreak, South Korea developed a comprehensive test/trace/isolate plan, knowing they would likely soon face their own outbreak of the virus. When COVID-19 came to South Korea, they were prepared, and they were able to flatten their curve and keep their numbers of cases and deaths relatively low without shutting down society. Taiwan similarly responded quickly and proactively, making the best use they could of the science and data around the looming threat, and has been very successful at stemming their outbreak while not having a prolonged total nationwide shutdown. In the U.S., we were told that the threat of the coronavirus was a hoax, that it was under control, and that it was just going to disappear on its own. Now we have the highest number of cases in the world, deaths in the thousands, and a University of Washington model predicts that even if we continue extreme social distancing measures for months, we will end up with somewhere around 81,000 U.S. deaths by July in this first wave of the virus. If we were to loosen social distancing too early (say, by Easter, like some are suggesting), we might end up with 1 to 2 million deaths.

At this point, obviously the right thing to do is maintain social distancing as strictly as possible. Shutting down regular daily activity, businesses, and social contact for months comes with a profound economic, health, emotional, and spiritual cost to us as humans, and it is tragic that alongside this cost, we are still likely to suffer many tens of thousands of deaths, and perhaps hundreds of thousands. This was preventable. Trump disbanded our country’s pandemic response team in 2018. When we decide during times of comfort that it’s too inconvenient or expensive to prepare for crises, we are left with no good options when the crisis hits. We had no excuse for being unprepared. Bill Gates has been warning of the risk of a major pandemic for years. Obama’s outgoing team engaged in a transition exercise with Trump’s new aides in January 2017 simulating a pandemic much like COVID-19. But when COVID-19 hit, we didn’t take the proactive steps Taiwan and South Korea did. When we Americans are feeling comfortable and enjoying our individual freedoms to do whatever we like, we can’t be bothered to take proactive steps to fend off disaster. And look where we are now. 

Back to the climate crisis. The evidence is clear. The scientists have been warning us for decades. In the 1980s, the world came very close to a much needed change of course away from fossil fuels that would have kept us safely under a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise, and the world, in no small measure due to actions and inactions by the U.S., failed to do so. Scientists don’t tend to be particularly confrontational or alarmist. But we’ve ignored them for long enough. A few months ago, thousands of scientists declared a climate emergency, warning (again) that “untold human suffering” is inevitable without a drastic shift away from fossil fuels. 

Although climate change is here, most of us are not feeling the “untold human suffering” of it just yet. If we were truly feeling it, we wouldn’t be choosing to “protect consumer choice” to buy energy-inefficient incandescent light bulbs. We wouldn’t continue to give tens of billions of dollars annually to the fossil fuel industry in direct subsidies. If we took a brave and honest look at the face of the problem, we wouldn’t be so concerned about the inconvenience and perceived expense of some of the possible solutions (my personal favorite, which actually minimizes cost and disruption while dramatically reducing emissions, is carbon fee and dividend, but more about that in a future post). 

There are ways that we can use our current very disruptive situation to do better when things get back to “normal.” There’s a very good case to be made for airlines to regroup with a dramatic plan for emissions reductions during this time of quiet. From both a climate perspective and a pandemic prevention perspective, we should strongly consider reducing or avoiding meat consumption. But I think the biggest lesson to take with us is, when the exponentially increasing threat is small enough that we feel we have the option to ignore it, we need to wake up and listen to the scientists, before it’s too late.  

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