As we collectively reel from the changes wrought by the current pandemic, people are being drawn by analogy to climate issues – but analogies can be tricky and often distort as much as they illuminate.
I am relieved to see policy makers treating the coronavirus threat with the urgency it deserves. They need to do the same when it comes to an even greater underlying threat: human-caused climate change.
In a recent column (“I’m skeptical about climate alarmism, but I take coronavirus fears seriously,” Ideas, March 15), Jeff Jacoby sought to reconcile his longstanding rejection of the wisdom of scientific expertise when it comes to climate with his embrace of such expertise when it comes to the coronavirus.
In so doing, Jacoby took my words out of context, mischaracterizing my criticisms of those who overstate the climate threat “in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.”
As I have pointed out in past commentaries, the truth is bad enough when it comes to the devastating impacts of climate change, which include unprecedented floods, heat waves, drought, and wildfires that are now unfolding around the world, including the United States and Australia, where I am on sabbatical.
The evidence is clear that climate change is a serious challenge we must tackle now. There’s no need to exaggerate it, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.
There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is still largely in our hands. That sentiment hardly supports Jacoby’s narrative of climate change as an overblown problem or one that lacks urgency.
While we have only days to flatten the curve of the coronavirus, we’ve had years to flatten the curve of CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, thanks in part to people like Jacoby, we’re still currently on the climate pandemic path.
Michael E. Mann
State College, Pa.
The writer is a professor at Penn State University, where he is director of the Earth System Science Center.
There are some direct connections too. The lockdowns and travel restrictions are having a material effect on emissions of short-lived air pollutants (like NOx, SO2 etc.), water discharges and carbon dioxide as well. The impacts on air and water quality are already being seen – perhaps allowing people to reset their shifted baselines for what clean air and water are like.
Business-as-usual is kaput
Obviously, nothing is going to be quite the same after this. We will soon be describing prior norms and behaviours as “that is so BC” (before coronavirus). Already, when watching pre-recorded TV shows, I internally cringe when seeing the handshaking and hugging.
But it should also be obvious that for worst-case scenarios to materialise, it is a combination of factors that drive the results. Luck, good or bad, and decisions, wise or unwise, combine to create the future. Luck drives the specific potency of the virus, it’s incubation period and lethality, but societal decisions determined the preparation (or lack thereof), the health care system design or capacity (or lack thereof), and governmental responses (adequate or not).
Indeed, every possible future can only be reached by a specific track of what is (the science) and what we do about it (the policy). That is no different with climate as it is with pandemics. There is no possible future in which no-one made any decisions.
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but planning for low probability, high impact, worst case scenarios is looking pretty smart right now.
— Gavin Schmidt (@ClimateOfGavin) March 15, 2020