Lessons for the (Really) Big One

By Mike Koetting March 27, 2020

Coronavirus is a monster hit to every aspect of our lives. It is hard to imagine writing about anything else right now and every publication is full of articles on the topic. But most of them are providing advice (not always consistent), looking at its short term impacts, or, here and there, guessing about long term impacts. I have nothing to add to those. At least at this time.

What I do want to write about is lessons that might be learned for dealing with another issue of even potentially larger impact–climate change. As disruptive as coronavirus undoubtedly is, my guess is that the changes that could be wrought by unchecked climate change will be even bigger, and last longer. Maybe we should consider the virus as a practice run and take advantage of what seems like a teachable moment to get the people of this country thinking about what we can learn from the pandemic and what it might suggest we focus on going forward.

Exponential Growth

The Washington Post had the following headline a couple days ago:

It took three months to reach 100,000 coronavirus cases worldwide. The second 100,000 only took 12 days.

Hello exponential growth.

We all learned this concept somewhere in school but most of us don’t have much reason to think about it on a daily basis. But Covid-19 has painfully reminded us. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard all about “Flattening the curve”—which is to say slowing the rate of exponential growth. (By the way, “flattening the curve” doesn’t necessarily change the fact that the virus will grow exponentially for a period; it will just grow at a slower rate.)

Many of the factors driving climate change are also subject to exponential growth. Consider the following the following two graphs, one of carbon dioxide growth and one of global temperatures.

Both show exponential growth and both are ominous. Although these data are hardly new, the American response to them can best be described as “Oh yeah, maybe we ought to do something. But nothing too drastic.”

Why this response to trends that imperil world civilization as we know it? Because it is the nature of exponential increases that the impact is not so obvious in the early stages and it is the nature of human beings to ignore that which doesn’t impose an immediate threat.

Whether people will learn the danger of short-sighted thinking from the current pandemic remains to be seen. I still hear people saying….”Well, it’s only a few deaths—nothing compared to the annual death rate from the regular flu.” Could be they are right, which would be a good thing. But that is not what we would predict with an exponential growth curve for the virus. I don’t want the epidemiologists to be right. However, if they are, maybe people will really understand how exponential growth works in the real world. You only know how much trouble you’re in when you’ve passed the point you can do much about it.

Two weeks ago, Megan McCardle shared her coronavirus concerns using a metaphor about a lily pod that doubles in size every day and if you knew it was going to cover the entire pond in 48 days, even on day 40 the pods would only cover a very small portion of the pond’s surface..

The first time I heard this metaphor was in a 1971 book—The Limits to Growth—which was warning that we were still on the flat end of environmental issues but, unless we started taking steps, we were courting disaster. I had not heard it since. American citizens are, for the most, still partying on the beach of environmental degradation. Most give verbal assent to the notion that there is a crisis looming, but have shown little willingness to take serious action and less willingness to demand legislators treat the issue like the crisis-in-waiting that it is.

Making Expertise Great Again

One of the major problems with getting traction on climate change issues is the willingness of people to disregard expert opinion, especially when it might require change. Some of this is a result of deliberate efforts by corporations to sow doubt. Other parts of it result from media which, on the one hand, treats all issues as controversies and, on the other hand, treats all counter opinions as of equal value or fails to put any one “finding” in a larger context. And some part of the mistrust is the sense that expertise has been coopted to do the bidding of the elite class. While it is probably true that much expert opinion can be seen as having greater short-term effects on the less affluent, the bigger issue is that this perception perfectly well suited the purposes of Republican politicians. One whole pillar of Donald Trump’s campaign was to attack expertise of any sort, scientific and otherwise. (At the beginning of the current crisis, Donald Trump announced his ‘natural ability’ for healthcare while second-guessing health professionals. His tussle with experts obviously continues.)

However, as Sonja Trauss says:

Americans are being reacquainted with scientific concepts…Unlike with tobacco use or climate change, science doubters will be able to see the impacts of the coronavirus immediately.

We have seen much of that already. Increasingly the average person is more interested in Dr. Fauci than President Trump. People recognize that even as Trump tells them what they want to hear, their odds of getting reality are greater with Fauci.

All of this relates to another question—whether the country will demand that government take a longer view, including planning for unpalatable outcomes. Most Americans are now aware of the randomly fluctuating attention of the National Security Council to global health. Emphasis, typically expressed by having a specific office, ebbed and flowed depending on the whims of the administration then in power. Most Americans are also aware that even in the immediate instance the U.S. was caught relatively flat-footed and lost several weeks to disorganization as this crisis started to gather speed.

This ties to something else. We need to start seeing the world globally rather than focusing too much on our little piece. Scott Kelly, in his observations on what space flight teaches about surviving the pandemic, reminds us of what we all know but sometimes have a hard time internalizing:

Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. People are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.

This is even more true of climate change.

Again, I don’t know if these potential lessons will carry into a concern about preparation for climate change.  On the one hand, the rate of change is slower and much less “in your face.” What’s the loss of polar ice cap or increasing draught in Africa to the average American? And if flooding in New Orleans, Houston and Miami doesn’t get people’s attention, it’s not likely the flooding in Indonesia will. Still, the consequences of climate change are so potentially far-reaching, it is possible that, because of what happened when we dithered for a few weeks on coronavirus, more people will realize the potential harm of the 50 years of environmental dithering since Limits to Growth was published.

Hard to know how this will turn out but the lessons are clearly there for all to see. If we want to.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

5 thoughts on “Lessons for the (Really) Big One”

  1. I remember a British movie from the 1960’s named I’m All Right Jack. It was a way of thinking that meant I’m okay in my life so I’m okay with how things are going generally. A self-centered view. I can’t help feeling that as long as the floods, fires, droughts don’t affect me, then it’s not a problem I am worried about. That’s what I think most comfortable Americans think. But the expectation is that when vast regions become uninhabitable, those people will want to move where they can survive. Wasn’t drought in Syrian agricultural areas behind the mass migration to the cities, which destabilized politics in that country? Throw in the U.S. mistakes in Iraq and intractable problems in Afghanistan and you’ve got problems in Europe of immigration pressures and right wing political movements on the rise. These disruptions will only get worse, many started by dire climatic changes.


  2. For some time now, climate change has made me wish I *didn’t* understand statistics so I could ignore the problem. Not so. 😦

    And please note that even on the “suppressed” curve, the down side is significantly long. The “post-max” issue for both covid-19 and climate change will be extensive temporally. Neither will just be instantly finished one day. Reality ain’t wired that way.


  3. No offense, but baloney. 1. Less than ONE degree temperature change in less than 100 years. 2. Exponential growth within the parameters of ONE degree? [you serious?!) 3. Different instruments over time with unknown inter-measure reliability. In other words, any “change” is indeterminate. 4. Margin of error greater than alleged amount of change. . So, worthless numbers. 5. Correlation says nothing about causation. 6. You have NO way of knowing whether CO2 change precedes or follows alleged temp change. In fact, change in ocean temp increases the release of CO2. 7.You make a case based on selective “evidence.” You have no idea what Trump believes about science. “dire climatic changes”! You serious? What climate changes? What exactly is the independent variable that allegedly produces drought in Africa? Heat? Your own graph shows a rise of less than ONE degree. Africa ALWAYS had droughts. Sahara? “dithering”? You have no idea what really went on, besides an absurd impeachment. Polar ice caps have been thickening! https://realclimatescience.com/2019/01/eleven-years-of-arctic-sea-ice-thickening/

    The really “really big one” is the duplicity and power-at-any price activities of the democrat party, whose play book was written by Pareto and Alinski.


    1. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Science can’t “prove” we are heading for a disaster because we aren’t there yet. If you’re more comfortable waiting to see who was right, go for it. But try to stay out of the way of those of us who believe the consensus of people who spend their lives working on these issues. (Yes, I know. Consensus is not proof. There is no proof that you won’t win Megabucks next time you play. But the consensus is that your odds are low. I think I’ll bet that way.)
      Oh, and your “power at any price” comment is absurd and irrelevant…. But keep reading. Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something.


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