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Further perspectives on pandemics and climate change

Filed under: — rasmus @ 23 March 2020

I have recently been asked whether the present corona pandemic will have any consequence on climate change. Gavin has already discussed the coronavirus and climate here on RealClimate, and I like to follow up on his post.

Rather than emphasising analogies, I would highlight additional common denominators between the present world-wide Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.

My first reaction is that the present crisis has taught us the value of knowledge and science. It is also obvious that only collaborative efforts can help us. Both these aspects are also true for climate change, a point that perhaps has been more implicit rather than explicit.

Furthermore, the science behind epidemics/pandemics as well as climate both have long histories. Meteorological services have a history that matches that of modern medicine, and many of them embraced climatology since the early days. The WHO was founded in 1948 whereas the WMO in 1950. But both were preceded by the International Meteorological Organization (IMO) that was established in 1873 and the International Sanitary Conferences in 1851.

Health and climate are also two scientific disciplines with obvious relevance to society, and I think there is no coincidence that Spiegelhalter et al (2006) used examples from both health and climate for discussing the use of infographics. Most people have seen a physician or a weather presenter, and it is fair to say that local climate can be regarded as weather statistics.

Science tells us that epidemics follow a characteristic course (a pandemic is a disease epidemic spread worldwide), with an initial emergence, rapid growth, a culmination and then a decline. Time is critical when dealing with the virus, and it is important to “flatten the curve” to avoid an overload of the health services. In other words, we need to lower the probability of transmission of the contamination to slow the process down, e.g. though “social distancing”.

Science also tells us that global warming will accelerate if we continue to emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. It’s just plain physics. Unlike a pandemic, however, there is no end in sight when it comes to climate change. But as with a pandemic, it is possible to take back control. One crucial difference between the two is that the virus has a life of its own while the atmospheric CO2-concentration so far does not increase by itself, but is a byproduct from our activities (there may also be some feedbacks).

Statistics is another common ground between the pandemic and climate. One example of the use of statistics is testing and false positives due to imperfect screening. The infographics presented by Spiegelhalter et al. (2006) explains that it is possible to test a person positive twice for the virus, first once and then another positive after being declared as having recovered. Similar false positives can be found in climate analyses, but in both cases they are the exceptions and a mere result of imperfect testing accuracy.

Another common ground is where land-use and biodiversity connect planetary health and climate. There is even a cryptic acronym used in the climate community to underscore this point: LULUFC which means land use land use change and forestry.

I think it’s important to consider the big picture and build resilience and capacity ahead of virus outbreaks and ahead of the emergence of natural disasters connected to climate, such as wildfires or locust swarms. It’s better to be well prepared than unprepared. For the virus, it’s a question of having a robust health care system. For climate change it may be necessary to boost firefighters’ capacity to deal with increased fire hazards and improve water infrastructure.

The pandemic has exposed our vulnerability, as our economy seems to collapse like a house of cards. Natural calamities associated with further climate change, described in many of the reports by the IPCC, are also expected to cause big disruptions. A bigger problem is when several bad things happen at the same time. In that sense, the pandemic underscores the importance of building a resilient and sustainable society. And as humans, we are bound to deal with both diseases and climate whether they are connected or not.

A turbulent oil market is another link between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate, thanks to decreased demand and the Russia – Saudi Arabia oil price war.

It seems obvious to me that strategies for dealing with both pandemics and climate change really need to take into account other countries. I don’t think we can solve the crisis without real international collaboration. Neither viruses nor weather respect the national borders, and closing the borders like North Korea does not seem to be a good option.

Scientists around the world are working around the clock to find a vaccine against the virus. When they succeed, it’s important that as many as possible of the world population get vaccinated around the world to develop ‘herd immunity’. Likewise, it’s important that climate scientists collaborate both when it comes to mitigation of climate change as well as adaptation to the changes that already are in the pipeline. Effects of local climate change affect remote countries through trade and politics.

As Gavin already has pointed out, we can also see some common ground between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change through a reduction in the CO2-emissions as the economy takes a hit. There are also reports of reduced aerosol levels and blue skies over Chinese megacities. These changes provide an opportunity to estimate their effects on climate in new ways.

Another common trait is the occasional misrepresentation of scientists’ position in some media. We have seen anti-vaxxers and quacksalvers offering fake medicines and spreading conspiracy theories, which we also are too familiar with from the public discourse on climate change.

A big difference between the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change is how the governments and businesses respond, however. It seems as if fear really can prompt actions, a strategy communication experts suggest to avoid in climate change communication.

One explanation for the different response may be the different time scales of pandemics and climate change, and that the former involves a creepy indiscriminate contamination. The Covid-19 outbreak came as a big and sudden worldwide shock, whereas climate change comes in regional waves disguised as wildfires, floods and monster hurricanes.

In summary, the best way to deal with both pandemics and climate change must be based on science and good cooperation within and between nations. After all, we are all in the same boat. And a final word to those who have to provide home education as a result of social distancing, mathematics saves lives both in medicine and through climate research.

References

  1. D. Spiegelhalter, M. Pearson, and I. Short, "Visualizing Uncertainty About the Future", Science, vol. 333, pp. 1393-1400, 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1191181

74 Responses to “Further perspectives on pandemics and climate change”

  1. 51
    Russell says:

    Today, the inimitable Rush Limbaugh told his audience not to expect more than 20,000 US fatalities .

    Because climate models:

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2020/03/limbaugh-covid-19-is-no-big-deal.html

  2. 52
    Russell says:

    1,2

    It might be more sobering to contrast and compare the crisis at hand to the reaction to the Al Quaeda attacks .

    As much as it fired up the world’s imagination of disaster, and elevated foiling Weapons Of Mass Destruction to a think-tank and UN industry on the scale of the Energy Crisis, 9-11 proved hard to repeat as the Trojan Horse or Pearl Harbor, the leading actors having self-destucted on day one.

    The Global War On Terror did spawn a trillion dollar Forever War that has thus far killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, but generation of airport kabuki has thus far failed to stop a single replay. Some things end at the beginning

  3. 53
    nigelj says:

    Zebra @50 says “Researchers do know that reinfection is an issue with the four seasonal coronaviruses that cause about 10 to 30% of common colds. These coronaviruses seem to be able to sicken people again and again, even though people have been exposed to them since childhood.”

    True but apparently people reinfected with coronavirus induced types of colds dont actually have symptoms according to this expert:

    https://play.stuff.co.nz/details/_6145112480001

    It therefore looks likely that people reinfected with covid-19 wont have symptoms or its likely to be reduced symptoms.

  4. 54

    #51, Russell–

    Rush Limbaugh told his audience not to expect more than 20,000 US fatalities.

    Good luck to Rush on that, I would say if I didn’t think good luck for him would tend to the detriment of humanity in general. The US has been seeing the body count increment by roughly 30% per day since the beginning of March. (If anything, there may be a very slight upward curve on the log plot.) And that translates to doubling times of just over 3 days.

    Hmm, with a current toll of 2,229, that would yield roughly:

    4/1: 4,500
    4/4: 9,000
    4/7: 18,000 (Where have I heard that number before? Something to do with the flu…)
    4/11: 36,000

    Just in time to “open up” the country for Easter.

    It’ll be pretty hard to spin a failure of that magnitude and import. Can Dittohead Denial handle that? Hard to imagine, but I’m not holding my breath for mass enlightenment.

    #52–

    …but generation of airport kabuki has thus far failed to stop a single replay.

    Really? I’d have thought that was strictly in the realm of the unknowable. Dogs that don’t bark, and all…

  5. 55
    Karsten V. Johansen says:

    Just a few links regarding deaths from heatwaves. Indeed they seem at least as high as the deaths from this pandemic, but what about the attention from the media, powerholders etc.? Deaths from heatwaves get practically none whatsoever…while just a few deaths during a short cold spike in a minor region get enormous attention. There is no rationality in this at all, just as in most human behaviour. The general consciousness is lagging behind reality by at least several hundred years. Most religious rules stem from some real precautions many thousands of years back in time. 1) Fx. jews and muslims don’t eat pork, because the woods diasappeared in the Middle East around five thousand years ago as the climate became much drier. That meant that the keeping of swines, which cannot sweat and therefore use pools of water and woody terrain to cool down, became too expensive with scarce water resources and with the shadowy woods gone. 2) Lots of people are still afraid of wolves, even if noone died by wolf attacks in the last three hundred years here in Scandinavia.

    Doesn’t make you very optimistic regarding the ability of homo sapiens to react rationally to the rapidly growing climatic and ecological crises.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18241810/

    https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/heat-and-health-2/assessment

    https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/124003

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/dec/19/2020-to-be-one-of-hottest-years-on-record-met-office-says

    “There may be water on Mars. But is there intelligent life on earth?” (George Monbiot).

  6. 56
    Karsten V. Johansen says:

    Very interesting regarding the consequences of the rapidly rising human pressure upon the natural ecosystems we all rely on for our existence. As far as I know, fx. humans by now use around sixty percent of the global output from the photosynthesis, around 1990 this number was around forty pct.

    “It’s true, in other words, that an expanding human population pushing into previously undisturbed ecosystems has contributed to the increasing number of zoonoses – human infections of animal origin – in recent decades. That has been documented for Ebola and HIV, for example. But behind that shift has been another, in the way food is produced. Modern models of agribusiness are contributing to the emergence of zoonoses.

    Take flu, a disease that is considered to have high pandemic potential, having caused an estimated 15 pandemics in the past 500 years. “There is clearly a link between the emergence of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses and intensified poultry production systems,” says spatial epidemiologist Marius Gilbert of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.”

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/28/is-factory-farming-to-blame-for-coronavirus

  7. 57
    Al Bundy says:

    Kevin M: So far, the rate of mutation of Covid-19 seems to be quite a bit slower than in seasonal flus. That should mean

    AB: that we’re lucky to be “ruled” by a very stable genus.

  8. 58
    tygrus says:

    Warming could decrease the longevity of SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease AKA COVID19).
    https://abc17news.com/weather/2020/03/11/weathers-role-in-the-covid-19-outbreak/
    Global warming has it’s benefits.

    [Response: Almost all of the climate/covid papers are not based on very good data. I would not trust any until ppl have much better geographically specific information. – gavin]

  9. 59

    #50, zebra–

    Yeah, brain spasm on my part–evidently misread “flus” for “colds.” Sorry!

  10. 60
    Marco says:

    One has to wonder whether Tygrus #58 even read the link he himself provides…
    It explicitly notes how a related coronavirus, MERS-CoV, seemed to thrive in warmer conditions.

  11. 61
    Russell says:

    #55

    “”…but generation of airport kabuki has thus far failed to stop a single replay.

    Really? I’d have thought that was strictly in the realm of the unknowable. Dogs that don’t bark, and all…”

    Explosive detecting dogs really haven’t had much to bark at:
    The GAO admitted in 2010 that in ten years, TSA’s screeners hadn’t apprehended a single terrorist.

  12. 62
    Kurt says:

    I apologize if this comes across as inappropriate, but will what’s happening now, much reduced air traffic, etc., be something measurable in regards to aerosol effects?

  13. 63
    nigelj says:

    Russell, yeah its very possible the war on terror did more harm than good. The parallel to covid 19 is presumably lockdowns wrecking the economy, but letting the virus completely or largely free take its course would cause a lot of fatalities. The cold logic of such a plan might turn humanity into something super efficient but horrible.

  14. 64
    James Charles says:

    “Can you relapse after recovering from the virus?
    That doesn’t happen with these respiratory viruses. The symptoms that drag on are your body’s response to the virus, but the virus is gone after a few days. I take great umbrage at the lengths of time you are meant to be infectious for because it is just not true. Nine days is nonsense. You don’t excrete a live virus that long.”

    https://www.cambridgeindependent.co.uk/news/cambridge-virologist-explains-what-we-know-and-dont-know-about-covid-19-9104220/

  15. 65

    The GAO admitted in 2010 that in ten years, TSA’s screeners hadn’t apprehended a single terrorist.

    Which suggests that terrorists don’t attempt to walk on to airline flights anymore. Maybe because they know they will be screened? Just possibly?

  16. 66
    Al Bundy says:

    Russell: The Global War On Terror did spawn a trillion dollar Forever War that has thus far killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, but generation of airport kabuki has thus far failed to stop a single replay. Some things end at the beginning

    AB: Yeah. I laughed at the total waste. “Lock the cockpit door” is effective against box-cutters and underwear bombs are better at providing entertainment than taking out a plane.

    Kevin M: #52–

    …but generation of airport kabuki has thus far failed to stop a single replay.

    Really? I’d have thought that was strictly in the realm of the unknowable. Dogs that don’t bark, and all…”

    AB: Kinda sorta.

    “So Homeland Security officials looking to evaluate the agency had a clever idea: They pretended to be terrorists, and tried to smuggle guns and bombs onto planes 70 different times. And 67 of those times, the Red Team succeeded. Their weapons and bombs were not confiscated, despite the TSA’s lengthy screening process. That’s a success rate of more than 95 percent.”

    and

    “Another paper by the same authors found that one post-9/11 security measure — increased checked baggage screening — reduced passenger volume by about 6 percent. Combine the two papers, and you get a disturbing conclusion: In their words, over the course of three months, “approximately 129 individuals died in automobile accidents which resulted from travelers substituting driving for flying in response to inconvenience associated with baggage screening.””

    https://www.vox.com/2016/5/17/11687014/tsa-against-airport-security

    Wannabe terrorists are going to look at that 95% chance of success and go for it. So I’d say that dog doesn’t bark because it is rare and dimwitted. TSA kills people indirectly while increasing carbon emissions.

  17. 67
    Russell says:

    Rasmus notes that he has ” recently been asked whether the present corona pandemic will have any consequence on climate change.” The answer is well, sort of–

    Some UK authorities have decided to put social distancing before radiative forcing and albedo feedback

    They have been dyeing blue lakes black to deter people from congregating to admire the water-

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2020/03/in-covidwar-albedo-feedback-is-first.html

  18. 68
    ozajh says:

    nigelj @ 39,

    Bear in mind the mortality rate in Italy and other countries is probably inflated because not all cases are known and young people often have no symptoms. So my guess is countries that have a 4% mortality rate are probably only half that.

    Against that, I understand that the COVID-19 mortality rate is in some (many?, most??, all???) countries based on the number of people identified as positive who then die within the medical system such as in hospital. People who die from the disease without ever entering the system may not get counted at all until an epidemiologist does ‘excess deaths’ analysis.

    There are anecdotal reports that non-trivial numbers of people in Nursing Homes have died this way in Italy and Spain, and there are rumours of tens of thousands of uncounted deaths in China based on observed cremation urn quantities.

  19. 69
    Richard Creager says:

    James Charles @ 64 “The symptoms that drag on are your body’s response to the virus, but the virus is gone after a few days.”
    That is an unwarranted assumption. Some Covid-19 patients have continued to test positive in serial follow-up surveillance for weeks after full clinical recovery, where that has been done. Whether this is due to the residual presence of cellular debris amplified by the pcr test modality, or the persistence of a reservoir of intact virus that could allow contagion or relapse is an open question, but the duration of positive testing argues against the former.

  20. 70
    Al Bundy says:

    Looks like my idea of infecting low risk folks has hit the medical community, though not as advanced as mine. They’re talking about infecting young adults so as to help with vaccine development.

    https://doi.org/10.1093/infdis/jiaa152

  21. 71
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Anyone looking into the impact of global warming on infectious & contagious disease spread? I remember doing a poster for Earth Day some 30 years ago which depicted various impacts of warming, including disease spread. There as been mention on forest destruction on pushing wildlife and humans into closer contact, also “zombie” viruses coming to life in melting permafrost. I also started a novel some 30 years ago set in the future around 2080…. one aspect was how people had to social distance to avoid diseases due to the warming and get their blood tested each day.

    Of course we can’t say this outbreak was caused, at least partly, by climate change, just like we can’t say Hurricane Maria was caused by climate change, but I think we can say it is likely there will be increasing numbers of infectious & contagious disease spread into the future due to the warming

  22. 72
    Brian Dodge says:

    @ Lawrence “…people who are genetically predisposed to infection will pass on their bad genes thanks to modern medicine. And natural selection will be further degraded. Plain Darwinism.”

    No. Darwin meet CRISPR.

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/four-us-crispr-trials-editing-human-dna-for-new-medical-treatments-180973029/

  23. 73
    Brian Dodge says:

    @lynn Vincentnathan “Of course we can’t say this outbreak was caused, at least partly, by climate change, just like we can’t say Hurricane Maria was caused by climate change ”
    Au contraire on both counts. The specific conditions of SST, atmospheric absolute humidity wind currents and jetstreams driven by the difference in temperature between the tropics and the poles all would have been different absent global warming at the time, and for the previous ten years. The cumulative effect of changes wrought by global warming over that time are much more than a butterfly flapping its wings.
    The human immune system is less efficient and effective when we are under stress – physiological – cold, wet, hungry, tired; psychological – depressed, angry, upset.badgered; or environmental – pollution, low O2, high CO2, abnormal light and seasonal cycles.
    Bats have immune systems that fight, usually successfully their endemic coronavirus “colds”. Bats that are under stress from habitat loss, abnormal seasonal changes in food availability, unseasonable cold snaps and heat waves will carry higher viral loads when they catch a case of their endemic “common cold”. Higher viral loads will have more cases of naturally occurring mutations from cosmic radiation, radon, potassium 40, as well as from human environmental carcinogens from industrially produced PM2.5. Most of these mutations will kill the virus. Some will be harmless. One produced zoonotic SARS-CoV-2 which produced COVID19. We have stacked the dice against us through climate change and other human caused stressors, and every roll of the dice, every cosmic ray interaction etc with a coronavirus is different because of our influence. It isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last that we crap out.

  24. 74
    Adam Lea says:

    73: ” “Of course we can’t say this outbreak was caused, at least partly, by climate change, just like we can’t say Hurricane Maria was caused by climate change ”
    Au contraire on both counts.”

    Not true. You cannot say any individual weather event is caused by climate change, any more than you can say a death from lung cancer was caused by cigarettes. You can say that changes in regional climate as aa result of AGW have made a particular weather event more likely, or may have made it more likely to be more severe, which is not the same thing. Climate change changes the distribution of weather, the mean and/or variance, so it affects the probability of individual phenomena occuring. It is wrong to try and apply deterministic reasoning to probabilistic situations.