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May 13, 2020

The Elephant That Is in the Airport

A humbling experience.


The poster in the foreground of the nearly empty airport is about C19, the elephant which is clearly in the room. Apparently no one had time to change the poster in the background which identifies climate change as “the greatest challenge of our time”.

I blame it on the drug companies. If only they’d been as good at marketing as the renewable energy industry, every hospital in the world would’ve been overstocked with protective equipment and ventilators long before the pandemic hit. If we spent what we spent on the ethanol boondoggle and subsidizing electric cars for rich people on pandemic preparation, we might have had templates for diagnostic kits, therapeutics, and vaccines ready before C19 came out of the bat cave. We needed an Al Gore of plagues.

It’s not as if we didn’t have early warning. There was H1N1; there was avian flu; we worried about Ebola, but it has been too ruthless in killing its hosts to be a successful pandemic. Bill Gates warned that pandemics were the greatest near-term danger to our civilization and even put 100s of millions of Gates Foundation money into preparation. But we weren’t ready; weren’t nearly ready.

Ironically the pandemic has done much more to reduce CO2 emissions than climate change treaties, incentives, mandates, and angry 17-year-olds at the UN. Emissions were flat last year before the pandemic; they are, of course, way down this year, far below even the most optimistic assumptions used in climate change models. The scenario where large numbers of us simply stop driving and flying were not modeled; who would’ve thought…

That’s where the humbleness comes in. We really don’t know as much as we think we do about our future; nor do we control it nearly as well as we think we do. Even with the world fully focused on this pandemic, the models of its likely spread are consistently wrong on  both the upside and the downside. We don’t know why New York City was hit as hard as it was and why even more crowded Mumbai has (so far) not been. We are only beginning to learn that infections in China and the US and everywhere else may have started long before they were detected. We don’t know why some people seem to super-spreaders. We have no idea whether C19 will come back with a vengeance this fall, even where it appears to be waning. We don’t know why the irresponsible partying in Florida during spring break didn’t lead to traceable outbreaks wherever the partygoers returned to.

 At least four lessons from this rant:

  1. Pilots are taught never to focus on a single threat or a single instrument to the exclusion of everything else in and around the plane, sure way to fly into the ground when a lightbulb malfunctions. Letting the threat of climate change overwhelm consciousness of all other threats was poor public policy.
  2. Models are of much less use than a non-mathematician would think in projecting the course of mathematically chaotic phenomena like disease or climate or the economy. Models are a tool for understanding through simplification; but not all complex interactions can be simplified usefully.
  3. “Listen to the science” is a guide but not a panacea. Climatologists (and those who fund them) will tell you that climate change is the elephant in the room. Epidemiologists (and those who fund them) will tell you we should focus solely on disease. An asteroid could smash into earth – it’s happened before. In a democracy, political leaders must balance the warnings and the threats and the limited resources available and make choices. In a democracy we must chose smart leaders.
  4. When everyone is looking in one direction, look the other way. Otherwise you could get your pocket picked.

See Also:

Good News: This is the Last Viral Pandemic

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

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