The coronavirus pandemic bears an uncanny resemblance to climate change in the way many of the same politicians dismiss the warnings of scientists.
Certainly the effects of global warming are less immediate than a rapidly spreading contagion that has circled the world in a matter of a few months. But just like a pandemic, climate change is global, was accurately predicted by science, and is a source of potentially dire consequences.
Consider that in the U.S., scientists’ warnings of a coming pandemic have gone unheeded for years. Some political leaders just didn't want to hear it. Preparedness programs were defunded, and expertise was purged from the government.
Even when the coronavirus flared up in China and the World Health Organization sounded the alarm in early January, scientists and health officials were dismissed as alarmists whose truth-telling might upset Wall Street and the U.S. economy.
Even though there were clear and unmistakable warnings, precious months were squandered while the White House dismissed or downplayed them. In February, Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC briefed reporters on steps required to slow the transmission of the virus: shutting down schools, closing restaurants and bars, cancelling sporting events, etc. But it still took another month of skyrocketing sickness and death before these measures started to be widely adopted. Some media figures and politicians continued spreading a message that the whole thing was a hoax.
But there is a deeper, more subtle connection between pandemics and climate change. Both of them are sending the same message: ignore science at your peril. Of all Earth’s creatures, only humans have the brain power to understand how our interactions with nature can profoundly change it.
If we don’t use that brain power to honestly confront what the data is shouting at us, we are in for trouble. As the New York Times’ Tom Friedman recently put it, "Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats a thousand."
No, climate change did not cause this pandemic. But man’s carefree destruction of natural habitats, for purposes that include fossil fuel development, is a prime suspect. The virus likely originated in bats, and then was transmitted somehow to humans shopping in a live market in Wuhan, China.
It’s still uncertain whether the fateful jump came from a captured wild animal sold illegally (and profitably) and slaughtered at the Wuhan exotic live animal meat market or from an unsuspecting farmer who somehow contracted the virus in his fields. Either way, the culpability lies with human economic activities that carry on in spite of the warnings from science.
In the future, we believe there will be a vaccine to bring COVID-19 under control. Climate change is more insidious, potentially more devastating and longer lasting than the coronavirus. There will be no vaccine to immunize us against global warming. What will be required instead will be a massive transformation of the ways we create and use energy.
As in the case of this pandemic, we must implore our leaders to follow the science – not feelings, hunches, quackery, or political spin – to rule our decisions and stop the next worldwide crisis before it gets out of hand.
Rick Knight is a research coordinator for the nonprofit Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Brookfield. Gary Dorst is a Citizens' Climate Lobby volunteer and human factors engineering consultant who lives in Riverside.