Over the edge: Why the COVID-19 response should have you worried about climate change.
What happened so far…
In late 2019, doctors in China had their first contact with the silent killer that would later be identified as COVID-19. As of March 2020, everyone has become all too familiar with the disease, as it continues on its exponential curve, and targets more and more people every day. On the 7th of March, months after the initial outbreak, the virus officially reached 100,000 confirmed cases. On the 18th of that same month, the number had doubled to over 200,000, and by the 25th it had doubled again, with 400,000 infected people. Even as the virus spreads over the world at an ever-increasing pace, it can be difficult to grasp exactly how fast this really is happening, and how many people will be infected a month from now if this continues. After all, our brains are not used to dealing with exponential scales.
There is also another factor that hurts us, directly linked to this increasing number of cases. As more people get infected, the strain on the medical system increases to levels that were never planned for. When a certain threshold is reached, triage begins. Patients that are more likely to survive get treated the best they can, others are left to their own demise. As it stands, no single country has the capacity to deal with the sudden influx of patients that come with the infection rates observed so far. It’s also why many countries are essentially locked down, to try and slow the rate at which new cases emerge, to give a chance to the healthcare system.
How does that relate to climate change?
COVID-19 is by no means humanity’s first encounter with thresholds, and exponential curves that shake the very foundations of our society. Climate change continues to be a looming threat to everything we have built, and much like we have done with this current pandemic, the early signs of danger are being shoved aside and ignored. It took three to four months for the virus to reach the first 100,000 people, but that number then doubled within less than two weeks. It took all of humanity’s existence to reach a population of one billion people, but a little over 200 years later we are now nearing eight billion. In 1817, we emitted around 49 million tons of CO2 on earth. By 1917, at the height of an industrial war, we had peaked at 3.5 billion tons. In 2017, that number had increased again, to more than 36 billion tons. Meanwhile, similar curves can be seen in relation to biodiversity loss, land use, deforestation, and resource consumption.
In isolation, many of these problems are not a direct threat to society. After all, we have continued to be able to feed the growing population thanks to technological advancements, and deforestation has been a hot topic since the age of sail, when armies were worried they would no longer be able to build ships. So, then, why worry about issues that have, so far, tended to resolve themselves? Well, much like the hospitals reaching capacity in the current crisis, there is only so much pressure that any system can take before it begins to fail. Again, we find ourselves searching for these thresholds, where the system cannot support the pressure that is exerted on it.
Should you worry?
The limitations of nature are not as well known as for the COVID-19 pandemic. We know how many people fit in our hospitals, we know how many doctors and nurses we have, we can also track most of the supplies we need and how to source more. In nature, however, things are not so clear-cut. How low can a fish population go before it collapses entirely? How much longer can we drain aquifers before sourcing potable water becomes an issue? Or even, how much more CO2 can we emit before events like Australia’s 2019 Black Summer, and Sweden’s 2018 wildfires become commonplace?
The 2019 coronavirus pandemic began with governments trying to do everything in their power to keep the economy running. The World Health Organization even recommended against travel bans in order to ensure economic stability, something which many countries have now ignored, closing their borders to all but essential goods and personnel, including the European Union’s Schengen Area, now having border controls for the first time in decades. Countries are reacting as best as they can, but often it is too late to stop the contagion, and now the best they can hope for is to slow it down enough that the system can handle the flux of new infections happening every day.
When we reach the natural thresholds of our planet, there will be no emergency measure strong enough to stem the tide of problems we will suddenly be facing. We have no system in place that could suddenly step in to replace extinct animal species, repopulate forests, or stop failing crops. We cannot expect to combat fires the scale of which we have seen in recent years on a regular basis, and we certainly do not want to find ourselves at the mercy of rising sea levels when the vast majority of our population lives in areas that will be directly impacted by them.
We, as a society, have mostly ignored and ridiculed those who have been trying to warn us for many decades now, often on the ground that economic development should take precedence on the environment. We put in place half measures to reduce the impact of our consumption on the planet, while ignoring the approaching cliffs that we will inevitably fall off of. We have looked away from the exponential growth of our resource use, and ignored the fact that nature cannot sustain our ways much longer. As with the current pandemic caused by an invisible threat, climate change looks very small and inoffensive at first, almost like a non-issue. It’s only when this invisible enemy starts hurting us that we pay attention, but by then, it is too late. Hopefully, our current lesson in exponentiation will lead to people taking our future more seriously, but if not, then we only need to look at ourselves, and the current response to crisis to know what can happen to us when society starts failing to care for the long term in exchange for short term economic security.