Corona Conquers All

America Is Trapped in Trump’s Blind Spot

The coronavirus forces a personal response from all of us, even if we decide to do nothing about it. Yes, there are people out there who party and congregate at the beach, and you find yourself hoping they come down with a bad case of the disease. Or maybe they escape it and survive, justifying their stupid nonchalance. You also find yourself hoping Trump will test positive.

But you can’t get away from personally dealing with a pandemic like this. I want to talk a little about my response and how it necessarily must displace our concerns about the climate. At least for the moment.

I live in Mexico, which is mostly unprepared for the oncoming disease. The next few weeks presumably will show how woefully unprepared we are. I’m personally at greater risk than most—because of my age (85), sex (male) and medical history (asthma, some emphysema). Like most of us, my urge to continue a normal life conflicts with the need to take some real precautions.

So I’m trying to get used to doing all the recommended stuff, like sanitizing surfaces, wearing a mask when I shop, washing hands, isolating. (I haven’t yet taken to wearing the mask but that will be next.) I got a lecture from my friends last night about being more careful about such things. Sometimes you need to hear this from others.

Andrew Sullivan recently wrote about his case. His words apply to me:

I have chronic asthma and consider my somewhat neurotic attempts to avoid this virus a prudent way to spare any hospital a future ventilator I would almost certainly need to survive. And there’s another reason for wearing [masks] outside as a matter of course: You show the world that you’re all-in on restraining the virus. And that helps encourage others to do the same. It’s a bit like those “I Voted” stickers you wear after doing your civic duty. It reinforces a social norm. Plagues, like wars, require some kind of solidarity over the long haul—and masks help visually express that.

Sullivan catalogs a few of the odious things that get drowned out by the virus, like “the constant harping of the woke” with their insistent assertion of their own identities. Isolation and quiet allow for new, reflective experiences. “For a blessed period, the truth matters—not a narrative, not a construct, and not your truth or my truth, just biology and humanity in a dance repeated endlessly in human history between viruses and bodies.”

Listening to the birds sing, for instance, enjoying the presence of a pet, dismissing the phony drama of Trump’s press conferences, just chilling out: these are the benefits of isolation and a kind of quietism. I’m lucky enough to have a great collection of music that will keep boredom at bay.

I’m also lucky enough to live in Mexico, not Seattle and New York where my kids live. Even as we await the plague, it teaches us how to simplify things and put on a new set of glasses.

More on Corona and Climate

Why the coronavirus outbreak is terrible news for climate change

‘This is a yes-we-can moment’: What the coronavirus response means for climate action

Climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’

The relationship is complicated, very complicated. I’m struck with a few of the many comparisons. One is that corona and climate both demand present sacrifice to achieve future goals—fighting the virus in the short term, attacking climate change over an extended time. Some young people find this hard to accept because the burdens fall heavily on them. Their public protests must give way to social distancing, and the internet is no real substitute.

Both crises require a broadening of the concept of community, a fundamental change to demand of a country like the U.S. composed largely of radical individualists. The populace will have to learn to trust in science, or at least accept it. This will not be easy for a people heretofore dominated by consumerism and laissez-faire economics. The impediments will be our so-far limited understanding of coronavirus and the perceived “remoteness” of climate change.

Both corona and climate have penetrated and largely collapsed the idea of national borders. What’s happening in Europe demonstrates that borders don’t stop the disease though lockdowns may slow its progress. Ethnic nationalists look more and more absurd in the face of it. Nobody can dodge the bullet.

On the positive side, the economic slowdown has given the world cleaner air, a major benefit for the 8.8 million people who die from pollution each year. But it’s a wild card:

If countries like China try to revitalize their economy by subsidizing polluting industries like steel and cement, emissions could soar in the coming months. During a period of economic crisis, climate concerns often fade, many analysts have noted. But there’s another scenario: Governments could seize this moment to enact new climate policies. Low oil prices are often a good opportunity to remove subsidies for fossil fuels, which have been increasing in recent years, or raise taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, since consumers are less likely to feel the impact.

Comparing the notional effects of corona and climate, Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, had this to say: “The coronavirus crisis is a better lesson than the financial crisis because, while it is still quite like a creeping crisis, it is like a fast-forward run of the climate crisis. The difference is that instead of it taking place over four decades, it has taken place over four weeks.”

The global pandemic is giving us a preview of what’s to come with climate change. Each sets up a range of harsh choices we must deal with. Climate change and the virus both require us to give way to the experts. But the remedies proposed must also involve community action. The costs will be tangible and immediate but offer us the prospect of remote and abstract returns. That will be an interesting challenge to the human species.

The Virus and the Climate

Coronavirus ‘Really Not the Way You Want to Decrease Emissions’

 For Richer or Poorer: Coronavirus, Cheap Oil Test Climate Vows

How the Wuhan Virus Is Accomplishing the Green New Deal’s Goals

María Medem, New York Times

We’re seeing a slew of articles on how coronavirus is affecting climate change efforts. After reading several, my take is that the outlook isn’t good, but nothing is certain. The consensus of opinion seems to be that

    • emissions will go down in the near term, then rebound
    • mountains of waste will increase
    • reductions from cheap oil and a possible recession will be short-term
    • unstable geopolitics make things totally up for grabs.

It’s not all bad news, but the situation is so fluid that no good predictions are really possible. “One of the greatest hazards for climate policy related to the coronavirus is that governments, international organizations and companies may have fewer resources and less time to focus on other thorny problems.” Yet it could be that the challenges of dealing with the virus may fundamentally change behavior and finally enable us to confront the enormity of climate change. A recession will complicate matters.

Let’s hope real change isn’t pie in the sky: “The focus is on health and supply chains right now. But the process of challenging assumptions and fundamentally altering behavior—illustrated by remote work—can be seized on by climate action advocates once the worst of this health crisis is over.”

To the contrary, Daniel Turner in The Federalist, a conservative bible, argues that the virus is a good stick to beat the Green New Deal with. “Coronavirus is a glimpse of the long-term pain a Green New Deal and environmental radicalism would inflict on America. And besides, grandma would die eventually anyway.” How old is your grandma, Daniel?

The virus pandemic has brought the world to a state of both high anxiety and compassion. Could it be the trigger for finally confronting climate change seriously? One can only hope. All the likely negatives are listed here.

The Sanders and Biden Climate Plans

Why climate voters made Biden the front-runner

How Biden’s climate plan stacks up to Bernie’s

The four biggest differences between the Biden and Sanders climate plans

If you follow the politics of climate change, you know that Bernie Sanders has the support of the hard-core environmentalists. Despite the practical challenges to his plans and the incredible costs predicated ($16.3 trillion over 10 years), the Sanders followers are proclaiming the rainbow.

Joe Biden’s plans will cost $1.7 trillion over 10 years and tackle the same issues as Sanders does—but in much broader, less time-restrictive strokes. Since his big Super Tuesday win, the environmentalists are getting on Biden’s case. Here are the major differences between the two:

  1. Fracking, the two-edged sword: natural gas has been a big factor in taking down coal-burning plants but makes its own contribution to global warming. Bernie wants to end fracking immediately; Biden wants to limit the release of methane, fracking’s by-product, and fund research into carbon capture.
  2. Nuclear: Sanders would end all nuclear energy production (some 20 percent of all U.S. energy now). Biden would explore development of advanced nuclear technologies, relying on perhaps promising innovations in the works. No target dates.
  3. Emission deadlines: for Sanders everything must run on renewable energy by 2030; Biden calls for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Biden’s climate plans aren’t less thorough than Sanders’s. He makes detailed recommendations for action, but they are less time-bound if not less urgent. Yet they seem to have been a factor in winning him Super Tuesday votes. He’s building a broader coalition.

One explanation is that

most voters don’t meaningfully distinguish between the candidates’ climate plans. Although some voters take cues from green groups who score candidates’ plans or provide endorsements, last night demonstrated the limits of their power—at least for the moment.

 . . . Biden’s climate plan was scored at or near the bottom of the field by the Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace, 350 Action, Data for Progress and the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. The Sunrise Movement endorsed Sanders and campaigned for him aggressively.

That didn’t stop Biden from winning a plurality of climate voters across Super Tuesday states, according to a Washington Post compilation of exit polls.

Biden took 33% of those voters compared to 28% for Sanders, 16% for Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 11% for billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

The climate movement may be finally taking shape politically. More people are paying attention, and the upcoming two-person contest will generate still more interest in climate. That may well redound to Bernie’s credit, though Biden will surely highlight the unfeasibility of his plans.

Emergency without Urgency

Trump’s Coronavirus Press Conference Wasn’t Exactly Reassuring

Climate risk and response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts

A Very Hot Year

If you watched El Cheeto’s incoherent news conference on coronavirus, you saw someone attempting to announce an emergency and minimize it, while continually congratulating himself on the good job he’s doing. It was a disgusting performance, totally unreassuring and self-serving. If you’re telling people everything is fine, there is no urgency. The stock market reaction shows us something different.

It was later reported that Dr. Anthony Fauci, “the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was told to ‘stand down’ and not appear on five Sunday morning talk shows to discuss the coronavirus.” Presumably, he would only scare people.

Climate activist Bill McKibben recently wrote: “It is far too late to stop global warming, but these next ten years seem as if they may be our last chance to limit the chaos.” That’s the urgency. Government and university labs have been predicting the climate crisis for thirty years and more. And what’s been done about it? McKibben tells us how the emergency was predicted, with the World Health Organization calling it “potentially the greatest health threat of the 21st century.” We are not even close to accepting that; coronavirus is so much more immediate.

McKinsey, the management consulting firm, has been taking it on the chin recently, not without cause. They recently published a study about climate impacts, showing their severity. It was an impressive summary, though their lame conclusion was not:

Societies have been adapting to the changing climate, but the pace and scale of adaptation will likely need to increase significantly. Key adaptation measures include protecting people and assets, building resilience, reducing exposure, and ensuring that appropriate financing and insurance are in place. Implementing adaptation measures could be challenging for many reasons. The economics of adaptation could worsen in some geographies over time, for example, those exposed to rising sea levels. Adaptation may face technical or other limits. In other instances, there could be hard trade-offs that need to be assessed, including who and what to protect and who and what to relocate.

A lot of conditional words here (“likely,” “could,” “may”) but no urgency, and unfortunately that’s been typical of much of the writing about climate. Too little of what we write has any immediate urgency. A Guardian writer in the U.S. south put it this way:

In eastern North Carolina, where I grew up and write from, climate change was never a polite topic of conversation. I was told the same in a coffee shop in Mississippi, and by a minister in Georgia. Too many southerners are still dancing around the reality of climate change, and the cost of avoiding the conversation is going to be steep.

Politics, Confusion and Doubt

Planners talk about resilience in the face of climate change. We need to start using a different R word.

 CLIMATE SCORECARD: 10 critical climate actions that the Democratic nominee for President can take immediately upon entering the White House.

Jeff Bezos just made one of the largest charitable gifts ever

Our extreme level of uncertainty and anxiety today begins with Trump and ends with climate change. We don’t seem capable of dealing with either.

The president is getting away with murder: the pardoning of crooks, the sick cronyism, megalomaniacal acts of revenge, and daily denials of reality reached new heights this week. There seems to be no way to stop him, and the opposition party is in disarray. Mike Bloomberg, as we saw Wednesday night, will be no savior.

Climate change efforts are also in disarray. The Democratic debate saw almost no consideration of what the candidates were calling “an existential problem.” They attacked each other, inflated their accomplishments, blathered on again about healthcare, and so there was no time for talk about the existential issue of our time.

Aside from a few studies there has been a total failure to plan for or address what’s certain to come from climate change.

Around the world, instead of some 50 million people being forced to move to higher ground over the next 30 years, the oceans will likely rise higher than predicted, with a coastal diaspora at least three times larger; by 2100, the number of climate refugees could surpass 300 million. Indeed, sea-level rise looks likely to be measured in yards and meters, not inches or feet.

The world is more unsettled in ignorance and anxiety than at any time I can remember in my 85 years. We’re living in a world where bots on Twitter control opinions, creating more disinformation and anxiety. A recent study finds that

On an average day during the period studied, 25% of all tweets about the climate crisis came from [climate denialist] bots. This proportion was higher in certain topics—bots were responsible for 38% of tweets about “fake science” and 28% of all tweets about the petroleum giant Exxon.

Is there any good news? Well, Jeff Bezos the world’s richest man, announced he was giving $10 billion for a climate initiative to “fund scientists, activists, NGOs—any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” Maybe this will quiet the ongoing efforts at Amazon to make the company more climate conscious? Probably not.

Are the billionaires like Bloomberg and Bezos finally stepping up to the plate? We don’t yet know how Bezos’s gift will be structured, what it will cover. The devil will be in the details. We do know that the Democratic candidates are all over the map on climate—from Bernie’s pie in the sky ideas to Bloomberg’s and Klobuchar’s proposals which scored at the bottom (1 out of 10 criteria) of a recent evaluation.

When will they ever get a debate format that puts them on the hot seat? There is no accountability in the way we debate climate issues, just as there is no accountability with Trump.

Threat Assessment

Weather: A novel

Global Climate in 2015-2019: Climate change accelerates

Every Democrat should run on Trump’s disastrous budget proposal

What most keeps you up at night? Thinking about Trump or climate change? Which is the worst threat? Or maybe it’s getting the kids off to school tomorrow?

The answer for many would be Trump, who thrusts himself constantly before us, one high crime and misdemeanor after another, every day a new offense to law and the polity. Climate change recedes to the background because our field of view is so narrow. And yet the daily impacts of both are sometimes comparable, I think.

Jenny Offill’s novel Weather plays with both threats by putting them in the context of a Brooklyn librarian’s daily life concerns and patterns. Lizzie’s words, full of insight and humor, carry the freight of Trumpism and climate change that are behind her daily attempts to succor people and keep a normal life going. She wonders whether to buy a gun. The book plays with the metaphor of weather and how we are all connected.

The impacts of climate short-term are fires, floods, famine and storms—all mostly determined by changes in weather. Weather is our barometer. Long-term, the changes predicted are more frightening and less predictable: sea level rise, heat, populations on the move, illnesses increasing, vast ecological changes. But it seems less and less possible to diminish these to the background, as Lizzie’s life demonstrates.

At one point she interrupts her thoughts with:

People Also Ask
What will disappear from stores first?
Why do humans need myths?
Do we live in the Anthropocene?
What is the cultural trance?
Is it wrong to eat meat?
What is surveillance capitalism?
How can we save the bees?
What is the internet of things?
When will humans go extinct?

Trump is small potatoes compared to this. Or is he? Each daily dose of scandal displaces the last. As in climate change, the effects pile up and accelerate. Look at Trump’s proposed 2021 budget! The push for political change finally becomes inescapable. The push to deal with climate change will become so.

Flight of the Bumblebees

Climate Change Could Push Bumblebees to Extinction

Bumblebee Decline Linked With Extreme Heat Waves

Climate Change: It’s a Buzzkill for Bumblebees, Study Finds

A major study has documented what has long been suspected: the bees are dying, and the world’s plants and biodiversity will suffer from that. Bumblebee extinction seems to be underway, and populations have declined across Europe by 17 percent and in America by some 46 percent.

The study found that over a 115-year period nearly half of the North American regions home to bumblebees lost all their populations. That’s called extinction, and it’s irreversible. The pattern was observed across a number of studies.

Bees are the great pollinators, as we know. According to one report:

Tomatoes, squash, and berries are just some of the crops we can thank bees for pollinating. Animal pollinators like bees, birds, and butterflies could be responsible for up to 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat, the US Department of Agriculture says.

Honeybees have also been affected. Climate change and its consequent heat waves are the major cause, since bees can’t tolerate a rapidly heating climate. The study predicted “with surprising accuracy” how changes of bumblebee communities and species have reflected the pressures of increasing heat. More detailed studies are called for. Changes from farming, land use and pesticides are another factor.

Said one of the study’s authors: “What I suspect is that you wind up with this really terrible one-two punch. Climate change is making bees want to move to new places, and then you have things like pesticides and human land uses that are stopping them from moving.”

How Bad is Bad Enough?

Emissions—the ‘business as usual’ story is misleading

 We may avoid the very worst climate scenario. But the next-worst is still pretty awful.

 ‘Collapsologie’: Constructing an Idea of How Things Fall Apart

What if many of the predictions of upcoming climate disaster have been based on faulty premises? What if the worst-case scenario has been way overdone? Climate scientists model their projections for the future on greatest and fewest emissions discharges. If the projections are wrong there are big implications for us all.

Climate science has been questioned in a recent Nature article which is rocking a lot of boats. The authors propose that the commonly accepted worst-case (“business as usual”) scenario is based on faulty assumptions, a major one being coal consumption.

Emission pathways to get to RCP8.5 [the worst-case scenario] generally require an unprecedented fivefold increase in coal use by the end of the century, an amount larger than some estimates of recoverable coal reserves. It is thought that global coal use peaked in 2013, and although increases are still possible, many energy forecasts expect it to flatline over the next few decades. Furthermore, the falling cost of clean energy sources is a trend that is unlikely to reverse, even in the absence of new climate policies.

The world is still on course for a 3-degree Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warming, which is more likely but still catastrophic. Says the Washington Post, “That’s severe—it would be three times the amount of change that the world has seen—but appreciably different from 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (7.2 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit).” The Nature graph shows the problem in a nutshell.

Some experts still say the worst-case RCP 8.5 scenario is still possible and there should be plenty of concern. Among other things, the possibilities of climate feedback loops, as from melting permafrost, are what “keeps us climate scientists up at night.”

Then there are the collapsologues, those folks mostly but not exclusively in France, who believe the world is heading for total collapse. They think we have crossed the threshold of “burning the totality of the earth’s stocks of fossil fuels and heating the atmosphere well beyond 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius—which most scientists now conclude is the red line for averting the worst effects of global warming. That these thresholds are violable does not, however, mean that transgressing them will be any less devastating.”

This way of thinking derives in part from Jared Diamond’s fascinating 2005 book Collapse and owes something to David Wallace Wells’ more recent The Uninhabitable Earth, a bestseller. Collapsologues predict dreadful outcomes and conflicts and look at efforts like the Green New Deal as wishful thinking, illusions. Their critique finds that “the fatal weakness of traditional environmentalism is its inability to think beyond economic growth.” There is always “the inexorable question of limits.”

Their answers to all this involve religions and “bio-resilient pastoral communities,” responses we have heard before. Yet these folks must be taken seriously.

The collapsologues do point to real contradictions in contemporary environmentalism. Collapsologie is really just a name for a very serious problem: the frivolousness and injustice of much of what passes for solutions to our current impasse. That some form of mystical antinomianism should emerge from this void recalls the philosopher Michel de Certeau’s saying: “When the political withers, the religious reawakens.”

The Young Girl and the Fatuous President

Trump and the Teenager: A Climate Showdown at Davos

 Climate experts agree: “Steve Mnuchin should go back to college”—not Greta Thunberg

 Trump Roars, and Davos Shrugs

Mr. Trump’s Davos insults referred to above were typically illiterate and haughty. We must reject, he said,

the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse. They are the errors [heirs?] of yesterday’s fortune tellers, and we have them and I have them. And they want to see us do badly, but we don’t let that happen. . . . This is not a time for pessimism. This is a time for optimism. Fear and doubt is not a good thought process, because this is a time for tremendous hope and joy and optimism and action.

After this word salad, the Treasury Secretary had to get into the act. Mr. Mnuchin said, “Is she the chief economist? Or who is she? I’m confused.” After claiming his remarks were “a joke” that was allegedly “funny,” Mnuchin added: “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.”

What a sense of humor this guy has. And the crowd at Davos was not amused. Trump & Co.’s blabby promotion of the U.S. was generally seen as something no longer interesting or relevant.

“He is a moron,” a European energy executive said of Trump. “Do we have time for it? No. We have to change our whole company to get carbon-neutral.”

“Greta is great,” said an executive for a Japanese manufacturer. “Even if she can’t deliver, she is needed to balance Trump in conversation and that seems to be happening.”