Betting Against the House

The COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about how our society recognizes and mitigates systemic risks. What does this tell us about addressing climate change?

Bleached animal bones near Winnemucca Dry Lake - photo: Bob Tregilus CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (7/10/2020)

Our destabilized global climate and the COVID-19 pandemic raise questions about how our society recognizes and mitigates systemic risks. The question I ask is: “Why didn’t we do more to mitigate this risk by maintaining strong public health systems and then activating early and aggressive responses?” Did we know the odds in advance, or was this pandemic truly a surprise? How do we reconcile our personal experiences with a consensus of experts, who often get it wrong? What does this tell us about the risks posed by climate?

A truly global disease pandemic was more likely than not to occur at some point in the 21st century. Regional epidemics occur with enough regularity. In the last two decades, the 2002-2004 SARS virus epidemic, the 2008-2009 H5N1 bird flu, and the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak are proof that epidemics are normal. What makes these epidemics so different from the current pandemic? Apart from many biological differences, the U.S. responded to earlier epidemics in a focused and coordinated fashion from the earliest moment. These American initiatives were not merely acts of charity or goodwill, but were also a form of self-defense. Following a halfhearted response, any of the earlier epidemics might have become a critical pandemic at the scale of COVID-19.

Over twenty years, these three epidemics (potential pandemics, as I would say) produced six years of elevated risk for our public health, but they never commanded the full attention of Americans. While the individual risk for one type of viral outbreak in one region is low, we should not limit our view to the local context. Consider that any regional epidemic around the world, at the scale of SARS, H5N1, or Ebola, is a serious risk to our safety and prosperity. Indeed, this level of threat has occurred somewhere in the world 6 years in a 20-year timespan, or 30% of our recent history. To presume there will be no regional epidemic in some future time is nearly like playing Russian roulette with two bullets instead of one.

So what use is past experience and expert consensus in guiding our shared decisions? The U.S. had not experienced an Ebola epidemic on our soil in 2014 when we supported west African countries. COVID-19 is often called a “novel coronavirus” because it is novel to human hosts. If we had no experience with these specific events, and they were not predicted by epidemiological experts, should we still believe their consensus opinion when they advise early and decisive responses to a regional epidemic? Similarly, should we seriously consider the body of climate science, despite the fact experts can’t pin down the next climate disaster with any confidence? Emphatically, yes. We must pay close attention to the body of scientific information developed through a consensus of experts. Some of them will disagree, most will be incorrect on certain details, and they will never make reliable predictions about the future specific to a place and time. Despite the chaotic appearance of the scientific process, the direction of scientific consensus is the indicator we need to invest our resources toward mitigation of a rising threat.

Applying this thinking to seismology, I have very low expectations of earthquake forecasters. When I learn that seismologists reach a consensus about a large and unstable fault near my home, it’s time to prepare for an earthquake, whenever it comes.

What does this have to with climate change in Nevada? A large body of scientific research suggests that climate risks are already high and rising over time, especially in Nevada. My personal intuition once told me that major natural disasters are unlikely to affect me, but this isn’t true. In 2018, the largest wildfire in state history, the Martin Fire, burned an area 5 times the size of Las Vegas in Humboldt and Elko Counties. In the same year, the Sugarloaf and Range 2 Fires burned up to high elevations that had not burned for 100 years. All three fires continued active fire behavior at night because of abnormally high nighttime temperatures for those elevations.

The 2018 fire season was not a random outlier. Climate scientist Park Williams studied wildfires in California from 1972-2018 and discovered that increases in temperature across the state resulted in a five-fold increase in annual acres burned and an especially an eight-fold increase in the extent of annual acres burned in timber forests during the hottest months of the year.

Increased fire extent in Nevada forests at higher elevations will significantly degrade Nevada’s air, water, and soil. Most Nevadans live downstream from a high-elevation forest ecosystem that is warming up and burning down. If we don’t preserve our air, water, and soil, the viability of Nevada tourism, agriculture, and grazing will suffer permanently.

What is the risk of a record-breaking fire in Northern California or Northern Nevada that compounds Nevada’s pandemic challenges? What is the risk in 2021 or 2022, when a record-breaking wildfire might knock down Nevada tourism during its eventual recovery from the economic fallout from COVID-19? Maybe it is “just” 10 percent or 20 percent. A risk which feels low at a single time and place does not mitigate the overall disruption resulting from extreme outlier wildfire events. After experiencing the excruciating economic and social effects from the greatest pandemic since 1918, we need to be honest about what a worst-case scenario looks like for Nevada’s climate and do what we can to stop that from occurring.

Although climate disruption will not affect the entire world with synchronous effects (as only a virus can), different geographies will have significant effects from a warming climate. In various ways, the damaging effects will accumulate to significant levels.

We don’t have an effective model for the response to climate disasters. Many countries have implemented effective testing, tracing, and isolation before the availability of a vaccine. It is not easy, but it can be achieved. During a climate disaster, we evacuate those people who are in danger of immediately dying. The long-term effects are not being addressed. Globally, we have no refugee plan for large populations displaced by rising sea levels, desertification of agricultural areas, or lethal heat and humidity.

Instead, we need to focus intently on mitigation of climate change, especially by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Responding to crises and adapting to the baked-in climate impacts cannot substitute for mitigation. Suffering multiple climate disasters does not afford our communities with any kind of resilience or herd immunity against continued disasters.

Each day that passes without climate action, we bet that we can get lucky and avoid another deadly wildfire. Continuing the status quo increases the risk of climate disruptions above and beyond the recent years of abnormal wildfire activity. We can’t call this a “new normal” state of affairs until net greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced to nil. We can properly act upon the consensus of earth and physical scientists and mobilize to make the world safe for generations to come.

Much of the technology we need to reduce emissions is already available, and more is under rapid development. When you raise your voice, Congress will respond with policies that preserve health and well-being for you and future generations. You can join Citizens Climate Lobby. We are advocating for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a plan that will cut 40 percent from U.S. emissions over 12 years, and 90 percent by 2050. Stop betting against the house. 

Michael Collins
Nevada State Coordinator, Citizens’ Climate Lobby
CCL Reno Sparks Chapter Member