In late 2019, a disaster began to unfold that no one could have predicted. Except for, of course, everyone who did. Although the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19 seemed to catch the entire world by surprise, a new, upper respiratory disease that kills thousands or even millions has been a topic of discussion for decades.
A framework for how to deal with pandemics was created in the United States as early as the 1960s. The framework involved recognizing a pandemic, developing a vaccine, and managing other aspects of the response in a timely fashion. Before this, pandemics were generally reacted to once they were a serious problem. It was thought that reacting before it became an issue might save lives and suppress pandemics before they became overwhelming.
This framework was followed up in 1977 by an interagency task force involving members of the CDC, Department of Health, and many others to strengthen the plan and form a better pandemic response. This would become the first official pandemic plan, only to be reshaped again in 2009.
Just months before the Covid-19 outbreak began, federal agencies held a mock drill called “Crimson Contagion” for handling a pandemic very similar to Covid-19. The mock drill revealed many problems with our pandemic response capabilities, including insufficient funding and the inability of hospitals to keep up with demand.
Despite 42 years of pandemic plans and drills like Crimson Contagion, nothing was ever done. All of the recommendations by scientists and those directly working on the pandemic task force were never acted on.
A similar problem
Climate change awareness also began decades ago. Scientists hired by oil companies predicted rising atmospheric co2 levels with surprising accuracy, as early as the 1970s. This was widespread knowledge within Exxon, Shell, and other fossil fuel based companies long before it gained media attention.
Although it might seem like climate change has only been acted on in the past few years, countries were concerned back in the 1970s. The first international response to climate change came in the form of the International Panel on Climate Change being formed in 1988. Their purpose was to help keep policy makers updated with the latest science on climate change.
This also means that as early as the 1980s, the people who would define the laws of nations around the world also knew about climate change.
Similar preparation times, similar outcomes?
Active preparations for dealing with pandemics and climate change happened within the same time period. We have had several decades to refine our response to these threats, yet when Covid-19 hit most of the world floundered.
Some countries, such as Brazil, outright dismissed Covid-19, leading to the deaths of 200,000 people. Others, such as the US, fumbled at the start with a slow response that lead to the highest death counts in the world and a nation that is still struggling today.
A few nations mounted a swift response, and those countries have benefited greatly from their choices with few to no cases in their country. These include countries such as New Zealand with no native cases, and Australia which has fewer than 300 infections across the entire country.
It’s not government officials themselves who can entirely be blamed (or in some cases praised) for success or failure. Quarantine fatigue and other factors such as the politicization of the pandemic lead to everyday citizens ignoring guidelines or thinking the pandemic was just a hoax.
Although we have yet to reach the same critical mass as the pandemic when it comes to climate change, we can see this response mirrored in the response from countries and citizens alike. If we are to avoid a slow response before it is too late for climate change, it’s well past time to think about why this happens.
Humans are notoriously bad at gauging risk
Humans shine at making snap judgment calls in intense situations. When the house is on fire, most people are adept at getting everyone to safety, calling the fire department, and minimizing damage. This type of response is handled by a primitive part of our brain called the amygdala, and it’s rather good at handling this job.
Our world has gotten more complicated than putting out fires or responding to other immediate threats. We live in a world filled with threats that are in the future. The ability to respond to future threats is something unique to mammals, and is handled by the neocortex.
The neocortex is relatively new compared to the amygdala, and it doesn’t always get things right. It’s how we know to have a first-aid kit ready in case you are injured at home, and why we have things like insurance.
Unfortunately, it’s not that great at planning for long term problems. In fact, the farther off into the future a problem is, the more the average person tends to underplay its threat.
A few millenia ago this worked fine. Cavemen knew to avoid areas where dangerous animals lived, and to gather extra food for winter months. They didn’t need to worry about anything that went beyond a loose gathering of families. Certainly not world or even national affairs.
Our brain’s evolution has not caught up with the pace of our technology, or the effects of a globalized world. This brings us back to the two catastrophes that we are currently handling simultaneously. The pandemic, which could take months or years to get under control, and the climate, which we must control in a few years or risk no longer having that option.
No amount of preparation will help unless we act
Even the countries that did the best in the pandemic scrambled a bit at first. The countries that did mount a swift and strong response however, are living a relatively normal life now. Those that did not are still suffering thousands upon thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Unfortunately, climate change won’t be isolated to a single country that conducts itself well. It will take a global operation, and that means convincing some 200 countries that climate change is a direct threat, happening now.
Without change, pandemics like Covid-19 will become more common place, as will unlivable places around the globe, extreme weather, and other problems associated with climate change. We need an organized response, and the cooperation of everyone, for the best possible chance at mitigating the current climate crisis.
How we handled the pandemic may well be a glimmer of how well we handle climate change, and that’s not at all promising.