We all like to speculate about the “big one,” whether it’s earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or pandemics. For example, a CNN story begins, “The chances of a global pandemic are growing — and we are all dangerously under prepared.” It reports conclusions by a panel of international health experts convened by the World Health Organization and World Bank. The date? Sept. 18, 2019.
Last March, a Washington Post podcast discussed “the pandemic warnings that were ignored.” In April, another CNN article reviewed “25 missed pandemic warning signs,” citing scientists, journalists, politicians and organizations who “saw the looming threat.” It featured a photo of President Obama and Dr. Anthony Fauci being briefed on pandemic preparations — in 2014.
Yet we’re relatively lucky. Scientists on four continents have developed vaccines with unprecedented swiftness, and the pandemic is starting to come under control. Still, many people continue to resist vaccination, putting others at risk. Some simply don’t believe it’s happening. Others, for a variety of reasons, don’t trust the vaccine.
Media, both social and “news” outlets, fan flames of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, or FUD. They undermine science. Whom to believe? That choice is personal. Meanwhile people continue to die.
The pandemic will come under control eventually, until the next big one, which will again be anticipated and ignored until it happens. The big one I worry about is different, but related. Our environment affects global health; COVID-19 came from a single Chinese market selling wild animals farmed for food.
My “really big one” has no point source; its sources are ubiquitous. That one will outlast any pandemic. The unfathomably big one is climate change. Like the pandemic, warnings have been clear, abundant, and, until recently, largely ignored by shakers and movers. Global warming has been increasing since before it was first recognized in the early 19th century. Further research has demonstrated how the “greenhouse effect” produces climate change.
Is this alarmist? Evidence suggests not. For the pandemic, scientific cooperation throughout the world is taming the virus with a much-needed, quick technological fix. Global warming is not amenable to such fixes. There is neither a single source for this problem nor a quick, single solution. We can’t stop it with a needle.
Generations of scientists have amassed evidence that accumulating carbon-based gases heat the atmosphere and change our global climates. Concerns today are broader and more comprehensive than 55 years ago, when I first began studying environmental issues. We have for centuries wreaked direct and ancillary damage on the environment that supports us — agriculture, natural resources, water, air and climate.
Burgeoning knowledge since then has provided better understanding of environmental problems. We can describe them more clearly and recommend solutions. What’s preventing those solutions is government and industry decision makers, who either ignore or deny facts. I remember the tobacco industry’s deceptive smoking gun: “Nine out of 10 doctors prefer Brand Z.”
Today’s opponents of fact are more dangerous and more sophisticated. Their shenanigans have been documented in books like “Merchants of Doubt,” “The War on Science,” and “Dark Money.” The FUD sown, the uncertainty reaped, demonstrate why it’s so hard to convince people of the significance of climate change.
Scientists share their research openly but cautiously, lest they be accused of sensationalizing findings. In contrast, corporations, politicians, lobbyists, publicists and advertisers peddle lies and half-truths designed to undermine scientific evidence. With a simple click we can share that disinformation; few of us fact-check.
Yet bright spots are appearing. In 2019, “the largest statement in the history of the economics profession” endorsed a carbon dividends framework to reduce fossil fuel emissions. In response, the House of Representatives drafted the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. The Palouse Citizens’ Climate Lobby website, http://cclpalouse.org, provides detailed information about it.
So my “big one” is climate change, and it’s not alarmism; it’s based in science and reason. I care about my planet, my country, my family and friends who will have to deal with it. I probably won’t.