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Warning Lights Flashing Red

The world has been turned upside down of late because of the spread of the novel coronavirus. Gosh, if only we had seen this coming. Heeding warnings isn't always very fun nor very convenient, but as time marches on, the predictable has taken place regardless. Does this remind you of climate change in any way? It should.

By now, it's fairly clear China initially downplayed the severity of what is now known as coronavirus or COVID-19. They tried to put the best possible face on things and hoped that it would pass. That strategy didn't work out so well, and eventually they had to get serious. But while some may be eager to point a finger at China, the US response for weeks if not months was about the same. Denying the obvious and not wanting to look bad, they hoped that it would pass. Only just recently has that approach started to change. By now, things have gotten out of hand and drastic steps are needed to turn the tide of infections.

But the current coronavirus pandemic isn't the only thread we face. Since long before Bill Gates spoke prophetically about our lack of preparedness for a possible future pandemic, Al Gore and others have been warning about the changes coming from the accelerating advances of climate change. As someone who cares about the natural world and the planet we all live on, this concerns me. And it should concern you.

If you haven't seen it, The Atlantic published a graph based on data from COVID Tracking Project that clearly shows the exponential growth of virus spread over time. From very a very modest outset, the line begins to curve upward inexorably, ever more steeply rising until it resembles a vertical line. The graph bears a striking similarity to the famous "hockey stick graph" displaying the rise in planetary temperature over time. Changes that may appear minor at first, spread and becomes exponential. As time goes by, they become increasingly hard to ignore. If only we had seen this coming.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is now warning that lockdowns alone will not be enough. Widespread testing is urgently needed to find those infected, isolate them and get them treatment. This whole lockdown thing can't responsibly end until we have much broader testing. Otherwise the spread will just pick up right where it left off, and within days this disruption will all have been for naught.

Some predictions are now warning that we could be nearing the point of no return with regard to effects of climate change. As artic ice melts, it naturally turns to water, and its surface area of the ice shrinks. Solar radiation is largely reflected by the blindingly white surface of a glacier or ice sheet but is absorbed by water, warming it. As the water temperature rises, the pace of ice melt in turn increases along with it. Clearly, this is another exponential function in the making.

In other, perhaps ironic, news, the widespread lockdowns across China and Italy do seem to have had a small silver lining. Satellite image tracking has shown decreased levels of nitrogen dioxide and other greenhouse gasses over China and lowered air pollution over Italy. Shutting down large segments of industrial activity is obviously an extreme measure, yet we're now engaged in it out of necessity. This won't cure or prevent the virus, but it will slow the spread of a pandemic as we learn more about it. Without this, the spread will surely overwhelm the capacity of health care systems in countries around the world. As stress on the system become more severe, the potential for casualties will rise. The lockdowns buy us time while we try to make up for lost time caused by denial and lack of preparation.

It frustrates me when I read certain pundits and government officials claiming that it will cost too much to address climate change. I wonder if they're just trying to put the best face possible on things in the hopes that it will go away if we ignore it. After all, they say, it wasn't that long ago that scientists were saying we were headed to another ice age. Temperature records and reconstructions do show a gradual cooling prior to the start of the industrial revolution. But since that time, there has been an increasingly unmistakable rise that far exceeds normal variability. By now, the data is clear, as is the consensus of scientific predictions. The effects are becoming increasingly hard to deny. Maybe we don't have all the answers yet, but making even small changes now could minimize the need for more drastic changes to come.

We should listen to the experts on climate change now. The longer we wait, the greater the consequences and the more severe the measures will need to be to contain them. The future we will be living through is in our hands today.

Date posted: March 22, 2020


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