Pebbles Preceding an Avalanche: COVID and Climate Change

Since the pandemic began, I’ve heard people discuss it as a microcosm for climate change. It’s global problem that can be addressed in a number of pretty straightforward ways, but greed, paranoia, and bigotry stand in the way of doing that, and so vast numbers of people just have to die. I think it’s a good comparison, and I think it’s one that can be of further use here. When the pandemic first started killing people, a lot of our information about the death toll came from indirect data. Some of that was looking at shipments of urns for cremated remains, which far exceeded the official death numbers from Wuhan, China. Some of it was looking at hospitals running out of beds, or morgues running out of space. Some of it was by looking at the total number of dead people by any cause, and comparing that to what happens under normal conditions.

In any case, these millions of deaths from COVID-19 didn’t happen all at once. Multiple waves, multiple variants, different communities responding in different ways – but as the months passed by, the scale of what was happening, plus all the other factors that affect disease mortality, meant that even the low death rate we’ve heard so much about added up to a lot of death.

The same is true of climate change.

Food prices rise a little, and a few thousand people die, scattered around the world, who wouldn’t have died otherwise. The global temperature has risen by an amount that would be barely noticed beside daily local temperature fluctuations, but over time, heat waves have gotten longer, and stronger. More days of lethal heat means more people dying, again disbursed around the globe. Most climate change deaths are unlikely to make headlines because they’re generally so spread out in both time and space. Take this recent example reported by Radio Havana Cuba:

Ecuador, March 28 (RHC) — An unusually long, intense, and destructive rainy season in Ecuador has left 52 people dead and more than 100 injured, officials have said.

In addition, more than 27,000 people were affected by flooding, landslides, and building collapses over the past six months, according to the National Risk Management Service.

Every one of Ecuador’s 24 provinces was affected — with the exception of the Galapagos archipelago, 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) off the coast, the service said.

It said exceptionally strong and prolonged downpours had damaged or destroyed more than 13,000 acres (5,400 hectares) of farmland, as well as 6,240 homes, schools or health clinics.

A January 31 flood and landslide in the capital city Quito, caused by the most torrential rainfall seen in two decades, left 28 people dead and 52 others injured.

Scientists say climate change is intensifying the risk of heavy rain around the world because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

The image shows several rescue workers carrying a stretcher up a steep road covered in mud and debris. You can see bits of cinder blocks and other construction material strewn around, as well as marks and splashes from the flood.

Really, the story’s not much different from one about a tornado, hurricane, or wildfire hitting an area. Each of these events is almost the same as they would have been in a slightly cooler world. Maybe only a couple people die who wouldn’t have, but it’s the same with the slow accumulation of heat from greenhouse gases, or the slow rise in sea levels.

Going back to the pandemic metaphor, we’re in the early stages still – maybe March 2020? We’ve got rising numbers, but they’re still low enough that some people can claim it’s no big deal, and those desperately seeking comfort might believe it. Just as we knew then that it would get worse, because of the science, we also know that climate change is going to get worse, and I very much fear it’s going to have a similar pattern of escalation. We’ve been getting those first few deaths, scattered around the world, but the numbers are increasing, storm by storm and heatwave by heatwave, and they’re increasing all around the world. At some point soon, the changes to the climate are going to exceed our capacity to respond. Just as hospitals were overwhelmed, so too will the various other systems that make up our “civilization” begin to get overwhelmed.

That is not, however, a prophecy of inevitable doom. Just as with COVID-19, the fact that we know that in advance means that we also have the ability to increase the capacity of those systems.

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  1. says

    My take-away from the pandemic (and other developments) is that the system is a lot less stable than it pretends to be. I wonder if the whole world is really like Russia’s military; a hollow shell, stuffed with propaganda.

    The US is teetering on the brink of both a civil war and an economic bubble. Russia is falling to pieces. The EU is holding after Brexit, but is likely to face a lot of trouble both from internal disagreements and the transition to a more militaristic outlook. China looks stable from the outside, but I’m starting to seriously wonder about them, too. Apparently, their military is a lot more corrupt than I gave them credit for.
    So, that’s four major power blocs that will have to scramble just to stay in business and that’s before we add the next pandemic or a crop failure from climate change. Interesting times, as they say.

  2. says

    One other system of our civilization that will be stressed is diplomacy – our ability for nationalists to live with eachother. Let’s hope the nationalists don’t add nuclear winter to the climate disruption.

  3. says

    Fair points all, especially about diplomacy.

    I’m uncertain about China. There’s so much propaganda about them from all sides that finding the truth is like trying to find clean air downwind from a tire fire. In terms of looking at their internal stability, my focus tends to be on the kinds of things that make life decent for people who just want to live their lives.

    They seem to have no problem building good infrastructure, and doing it fast. They also have no problem destroying lives and communities that might be in the way. They also seem to have a pretty good deal for the elderly – everyone’s retired by 60, and there seems to be plenty to do. I’d say the way they deal with ethnic and cultural minorities is pretty close to everyone else, which is to say bad.

    I don’t know much about their military, but I’ve seen little evidence that the people feel a need for big changes at this stage, outside of Hong Kong. I also think their approach to foreign policy, with soft power, is going to turn out to be far better for long-term stability than what folks in “The West” have been doing.

    All that said, global warming is going to change a lot of equations, and I’ve very little idea what China is doing by way of preparation and adaptation.

  4. climateteacherjohnj says

    I’m sharing this on the Mastodon Social network within the ‘Fediverse’. PZ Myers already posts there regularly. I’d love to see this column and more Freethoughts Blogs so, considered yourselves invited.
    We’re largely refugees from the corporate algorithms of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg. Decentralized on volunteer servers, everything you post is read by your followers, and theirs, not bubbled or sold to some corporation.
    Thank you for this succinct and to the point article!

  5. says

    John, would you be willing to give me a link? I dabbled in Mastodon when it first came out, but from my memory I’d have a hard time finding specific communities.

    I’ll look into rejoining Mastodon (and probably Diaspora and Ello if they’re still around) in the near future, thanks for the recommendation!

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