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Common Denominators: Covid 19 and Climate Change

Paul Kando

Is there a causal connection between Covid 19 and climate change? Nobody knows. But there are parallels worthy of note. Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius calculated and warned about the global warming effect of burning fossil fuels in 1896. Photovoltaics were first described in the mid-19th century. Wind has been harnessed for millennia. We know how to build houses that require no heating system; even ones that produce more energy than they consume. We know how to build electric vehicles for road and rail. We know how to decentralize the power grid and improve its security and resilience. We know that, as not true of fossil fuels, the marginal cost of solar, wind, and conserved energy is zero, so whatever the cost of avoiding carbon emissions, we can recover it for certain. Generations have already passed, yet we aren’t acting. Why?

SARS-CoV-2 Virus
photo credit: Wikipedia

When the first cases of Covid 19 developed in Wuhan, it was a public health problem, not a crisis. And the knee-jerk reaction of the authoritarian Chinese government was to keep it secret. By the time the city was locked down and a comprehensive testing and isolation regimen was instituted, the problem had metastasized into a crisis affecting the whole of China and, within days, the rest of the world.

Even as the virus became a pandemic spreading uncontrollably, it met with the same authoritarian response in Iran, Italy, and the US. Authoritarians seem to have a hard time dealing with problems, let alone crises, they cannot control. Nor are they disposed to listen to competent scientists whose insistence on fact and truth runs counter to the need for unquestioning fealty to the Dear Leader.

Europe is now the pandemic’s epicenter. Case counts and deaths are soaring, and many countries have imposed lockdowns and closed borders. Meanwhile, the US, hampered by the fiasco of still-delayed mass testing, is just guessing at its COVID-19 burden, though experts believe it is on the same trajectory as Europe.

In contrast, South Korea has greatly slowed its epidemic, reporting only 74 new cases on March 17, down from 909 at its February 29 peak. And it has done so without any authoritarian measures. After the virus emerged in China, Korea rushed to develop its tests and cooperated with diagnostics manufacturers to develop commercial test kits. The first test was approved on February 7, when the country had just a few cases. The national testing capacity has since reached a staggering 15,000 tests per day. South Korea has had only 75 deaths so far. Its experience shows that timely diagnostics, contact tracing and case isolation at scale are the key to epidemic control.

To my mind, this pandemic is a huge learning opportunity, and our silent isolation from each other a good chance to reflect on how crises develop from problems left to fester. Timely action is the key to avoiding a crisis once a problem is recognized, be it a new virus or climate change. It is best to listen to scientists and experts — to authoritarian politicians not so much.

Mother nature has just flicked a dismissive finger at the certainties of the economic fantasy-world hoisted on us in the 1980s by a few economists and politicians. The privatized public sector is proving to be woefully unprepared. The casino economy crashes, and over-glorified money displays its true value. Our real wealth — our accumulated, shared knowledge and our creativity when working together — is dismissed.

I welcome this solitude as a rehearsal. Will we know our lines better for the show? Will we be better prepared to face mid-21st century climate change? Will our being locked away from each other teach us the value of working together in and for the commons? To use fossil fuels as raw material instead of burning them? To make things responsibly and reap a decent profit, but not a killing? There is no time to waste.

In this self-imposed isolation to avoid being infected, I remember how farm folk in my childhood trained kittens to use the litter basket. The young violator had its nose rubbed into any offending outcome they left around the house. Like those disciplined kittens, we — once-cocky citizens of imaginary greatness — have been reduced to hoarding toilet paper. The kittens learned rather quickly. I wonder if we humans will.