The best of the worst cases.
Author’s note: This is the second in a series of updates compiled over the last four years on climate and environmental news. The first entry was from August 2019; this one skips ahead to this May. About once a week after this, we’ll post another entry, to remind you what was going at the time, and what the consequences of ignoring the climate crisis are likely to be.
Covid-19 is not going to wipe out the human race. In the worst-case scenario I’ve read about so far, 90% of everyone on Earth gets infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and 40.6 million die. That is a horrible scenario. But how many fewer deaths would be less horrible? As Susan Rice asked of President Trump’s optimistic take on the possibility of only 200,000 Americans dying of covid-19: “In what circle of hell is 200,000 deaths a ‘good outcome’?”.
In the meantime, while you have been distracted by staying home, trying to educate your kids, or fighting for your inalienable right to infect your neighbors and co-workers with deadly illness, a more catastrophic threat to the human race has continued to boil along in the background. I mean climate change.
In the best-case scenario of the effects of climate change, according to one painstaking estimate, about 300 million people in this century are likely to die premature deaths from hunger, disease, increased poverty, wars (over for example water disputes and population displacement), excessive heat (“Today, about 30% of global population experiences deadly heat for over 20 days per year. By 2100, this will rise to 48% if greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced”), severe storms, pollution, and changes in the ocean (including rising sea level and water chemistry affecting the atmosphere and fishery resources). That’s the best case.
In the worst case, in which we do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 30 million people a year could die from climate-change-related causes over the next century. And just to be clear, this is the worst case that is well within a range of possibility of happening, not the theoretical worst case in which greenhouse effects hit a trigger point where Earth flips suddenly into a climate similar to that of Venus, where the average atmospheric temperature is about 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not impossible. It’s just very unlikely. So far.
So the covid-19 pandemic is one circle of hell for humanity. But climate change is another, deeper, longer-lasting, more pervasive circle being engineered in Cocytus as we speak. If the possibility of death in a pandemic has brought you around to believing in facts instead of Fox News pundits, here’s some of what’s been happening while you were wondering when your local Chinese restaurant will reopen:
- 2020 is already on track to be the warmest year on record, according to NOAA.
- Europe’s average temperature for December through February was 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit above the 40-year average, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service.
- A study published this month found that extreme humid heat has more than doubled in frequency since 1979. Extreme humid heat — defined as a temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or higher during certain occurrences of high humidity — is scientists’ phrasing for the point at which heat and humidity become life-threatening to humans.
- Another study published in April found that “occurrences of heat extremes will increase … from 45 days a year to 78 days in a year (by 2050). … Joint events of both extreme heat and extreme (particulate matter pollution) will increase in frequency by 175% by 2050.”
- And a study published last month found that even tiny increases in particulate matter pollution are “associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”
- Last month the EPA discarded new regulations on emissions of particulate matter.
- The EPA has rolled back automobile fuel efficiency standards to allow U.S. cars to emit about 1 billion tons more carbon dioxide than under the previous standards, and hundreds of millions of tons more than allowed under standards in Europe and Asia.
- In mid-April, the Trump administration weakened regulations on the release of mercury and other toxic metals from oil and coal-fired power plants by changing the way dangers are estimated.
- Good news: Carbon emissions are sharply lower during the pandemic. Bad news: It will not make any difference whatsoever to the climate change that is already under way. If such reductions were permanent, then the effects of global warming would probably be in the best case scenario (see above), and some of the worst disasters likely to take place in the 2100s would probably be softened.
- And just in case you’re still not clear on President Trump’s disposition to science in the public interest, remember that he: cut off funding to the World Health Organization in the middle of the worst health crisis in 100 years; fired an experienced government scientist responsible for developing a coronavirus vaccine; appointed his son-in-law who has no experience in public health issues, nor any scientific background at all, to lead his coronavirus task force; encouraged people and state governments to flout his own guidelines for pandemic safety; announced several dates for “reopening the economy” which were completely made up and had nothing to do with scientific data or reasoning; and in a thoughtless, off-the-cuff comment that lacked the scientific understanding of a 9-year-old, suggested that ingestion of household disinfectants might cleanse the human body of the coronavirus. What the hell.
It’s not so much the deaths from covid-19 or climate change that are worrisome; everyone dies. It’s the suffering that goes with them. The shutdown protesters, the climate change deniers just seem impervious to suffering that is not theirs. To the intensity of it for each person who’s sick or hungry, for each family member, nurse or doctor who has to watch. The scale of that suffering.
Science did not get us into the covid-19 pandemic, but it can get us out. It did provide the tools that got us into the climate crisis, and now it’s the only way out. Come hell or high water. Or both.