Lessons from the coronavirus about climate change

Summary: The coronavirus epidemic shows science at its best, not perfect but effective. Compare the public health agencies’ response to it with the longer and larger campaign by scientists against climate change. Much could be learned – by the public (climate science is probably beyond internal reform). This could help make a better world.

Woman scientist at work
ID 94929992 © Denisismagilov | Dreamstime.

The coronavirus epidemic and climate change are very different kinds of global crisis. But they have important similarities, most especially that scientists take the lead in both warning the public and recommending solutions – solutions requiring policy-makers’ assent. Both are crises still in motion, with the ending still unknowable. Contrasting the two can provide useful insights, since the response to coronavirus has been a milestone of progress (best so far in history) while the global Climate Change debate has produced global gridlock (with only a few western European nations taking substantial policy action).

Why the different results?

(1) Start at the beginning.

The movement for public policy action to fight climate change hit the big time when climate scientist James Hansen (director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies) testified before the Senate on 23 June 1988 (transcript). He stated the problem, the supporting evidence, and concluded with this.

“Finally, I would like to stress that there is a need for improving these global climate models, and there is a need for global observations if we’re going to obtain a full understanding of these phenomena.”

Unfortunately, Hansen’s advice was not taken seriously. Much money was spent on research, and the IPCC skillfully collated the results. But it was uncoordinated, with scientists focusing (rationally) on career-enhancing findings. For example, countless studies focused on headline-grabbing forecasts about the likely consequences of the RCP8.5 scenario (the worst case used in the IPCC’s AR5). It is either improbable or impossible (see here and here), but its propaganda value is high.

Contrast that with the response to the Coronavirus. There were warnings from local, then national, then global public health agencies. WHO organized communications between scientists so that research was coordinated and information shared – on a global scale. Perhaps most importantly, research priorities were established – based on the path to solutions, not to produce politically useful propaganda. There was nothing like that in climate science.

(2) Self-discipline among scientists.

It takes just one paper to get people excited. Such as “Novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV: early estimation of epidemiological parameters and epidemic predictions” by Jonathan Reed et al., a non-peer-reviewed paper posted on January 24 at medRxiv. Although speculative and contrary to information from the world’s public health agencies, some take it as gospel and have extreme reactions. This is what America’s liberals saw on January 25 at Naked Capitalism – a Tweet sent on January 25 based on that paper (see the thread here).

Tweet by Feigl Ding about coronavirus

The tweet was condemned by scientists and then deleted by its author.

Even worse was “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag” by Prashant Pradhan et al., a not-peer-reviewed paper posted on January 31 at BioRxiv. It claimed to find similarities between the new coronavirus and HIV (the viral cause of AIDS). The word “uncanny” in the title and “unlikely to be fortuitous” in the abstract implied that the authors believed that the virus had been engineered – not evolved. The paper was published on Friday, quickly condemned by scientists, and formally withdrawn by the authors on Sunday.

Contrast that with the climate change debate. Scientists gained fame by making increasingly outlandish predictions of doom. Their peers almost always remained silent. Even worse, activists learned that they could make even wild statements without fear of rebuttal by climate scientists and their institutions. Countless bold predictions were made and proven false by time (examples here). An entire industry bloomed of scientists writing predictions of horrors to come and activists that exaggerated and publicized them.

  1. A look at the workings of Climate Propaganda Inc.
  2. Ten years after Katrina: let’s learn from those predictions of more & bigger hurricanes.
  3. See how climate science becomes alarmist propaganda.

Eventually, activists manufactured their own scenarios, going far beyond climate science. Such as The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink by journalists Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank (2018).

Eventually, climate scientists began to occasionally, quietly push back. For example, following the July 2017 article by David Wallace-Wells in NY Magazine: “The Uninhabitable Earth” (expanded into a book: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming). This went too far, even for climate scientists. Some spoke out, such as those quoted in this WaPo article – and especially this FaceBook post by Michael Mann. His summary…

“The article argues that climate change will render the Earth uninhabitable by the end of this century. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The article fails to produce it.”

But it was too little, too late. A population of believers in the climate apocalypse had been created. The NY Magazine article went viral, becoming their most successful article ever. Imitators multiplied.

And, as night follows day, eventually activists declared their independence: Climate activists attacked climate science.

This is several kinds of corruption, as explained in About the corruption of climate science and The noble corruption of climate science (Plato nailed it).

(3) Frankness about uncertainties

“The time for debate has ended.”
— Marcia McNutt (former director of the US Geological Survey, then editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, now President of the NAS) in “The beyond-two-degree inferno“, an editorial in Science, 3 July 2015.

The press releases by the CDC and WHO are explicit and specific about the uncertainties in our knowledge about the coronavirus epidemic. As is the IPCC (see the confidence levels for each item in their most recent report, and how many are “medium” or lower).

But in the public debate about climate change, discussion of uncertainties becomes climate “denial.” For example, for several years scientists explored what appeared to be a long pause in global warming. Then research shifted to determining its cause. Hundreds of papers. Yet what the public saw were activists denying this work and condemning as “deniers” those who point to it (examples here). Climate scientists, including the authors of those papers, remained silent.

One other key point: the scientists of WHO and the CDC have conducted their campaign without attacks, let alone smearing, of those experts who disagreed with them (and there are many areas of disagreement). Climate science these days is all about smearing those outside the consensus.

(4) Simple, immediately useful recommendations.

The CDC and WHO reports provide immediately actionable suggestions, a stream of measures to produce incremental progress – each appropriate given the facts at that moment.

The climate science community could do the same. Thirty years ago they could have asked for more funds to do the research James Hanson recommended in 1989, for more money to validate their conclusions (e.g., here, here, and here), to begin a slow conversion away from fossil fuels, to do more research into new energy sources, and to better prepare for extreme weather (whether repeats from the past or from climate change). The result might have been slow and steady, accellerating as knowledge advanced.

Instead, they have done the opposite. They have recommended or demanded massive changes in the world’s society and economy, despite their shaky foundation in facts. As activists’ claims about the future became wilder, the demands became more extreme.

(5) Results from both projects

The public health agencies have strong and broad support. Despite shrill complaints about them by alarmists and extremists, they retain the public’s confidence.

The American public has been subjected to a propaganda barrage about climate change with few precedents in US history. Unfortunately for the activists, we live in a stew of propaganda – and most people have developed a high level of resistance. Gallup’s data as of March 2019 shows the result: a modest increase in concern since 2001 (see detail about 1998 – 2016 here and here – and from 1990 here). But this trend stalled in 2017. These are small results from a vast expenditure of money and effort.

Nobody is perfect. No organizations are perfect, least of all governmental and quasi-governmental organizations such as the CDC, WHO, and IPCC. But they are not all of equal effectiveness, and there are lessons to be learned. But thirty years of history shows that climate science will not reform as a public policy advisor without massive pressure from those funding it.

It’s easy to follow the coronavirus story

The World Health Organization provides daily information, from highly technical information to news for the general public.

Posts about the coronavirus epidemic.

For More Information

Ideas! For some shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon. Also, see a story about our future: Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.

See my series of posts about scientists fighting hysteria during recent epidemics: the 2009 swine flu in America. the 2015 ebola epidemic in America, and the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see the keys to understanding climate change, and especially these debunking our mad policy client debate …

  1. Climate science has died. The effects will be big.
  2. After 30 years of failed climate politics, let’s try science! – A proposal to break the policy gridlock.
  3. The guilty ones preventing good policy about climate change.
  4. Toxic climate propaganda is poisoning US public policy.
  5. A demo showing our broken climate policy debate.
  6. An autopsy of the climate policy debate’s corpse.
  7. Important: A vaccine against the fears that make us weak.

Films about scientists responding to global threats

In these films, we see scientists behaving according to their and our highest ideals.

When Worlds Collide (1959) – The world will end. Scientists band together to warn the world and build an ark to carry humanity to another home.

Contagion (2011). – This shows the progress of a pandemic from Patient Zero, through global devastation, to eventual victory by the world’s scientists.

When Worlds Collide (1951)
Available at Amazon.
Contagion (2011)
Available at Amazon.

9 thoughts on “Lessons from the coronavirus about climate change”

  1. Pingback: Lessons from the coronavirus about climate change — Fabius Maximus website - Climate- Science.press | Climate- Science.press

  2. Larry,

    Thank you, very informative. If I may add, another elephant in the room is the MSM, perhaps that goes without saying.

  3. To what extent (if any) do Chinese voluntary contributions to the WHO potentially create a situation where a rich external donor (like China) begins to dictate the organizations priorities and agenda?

    Is it mistake to assume that the WHO has evolved into primarily a political organization bought and paid for by the Chinese Communist Party?

    1. James,

      To what extent is that just making stuff up? The response to Coronavirus has been successful (so far) beyond anything previously seen in history.

      But there are always those on the sidelines convinced that they could do better. It’s the static that is the ever present background to the news.

  4. Pingback: Classes from the coronavirus about local weather alternate – All My Daily News

  5. Been thinking about this for a couple of days. Yes, you have the same doom and gloom media hysteria in both cases. But the underlying situations are very different, and the social movements just below the media hysteria are also very different.

    Perhaps the most obvious difference is the timescale – we shall know whether coronovirus is going to result in a global pandemic, and if so how bad, in a month or so. Whether global warming results in disaster is going to take decades to become visible.

    Another significant difference is the media and institutional stance on action. In the case of a potential pandemic, as you point out, we know pretty much without controversy what to do and how to do it, have experience to go on, and have learned from it and are doing it. We also know it will be effective – we have a clear path and experience. You isolate, you develop a vaccine, you find drugs. The connexion between the problem and the measures proposed is indubitable and clear.

    In the case of global warming none of this applies. Many of the measures demanded by activists (and notice that there are none of these in the case of coronavirus) will obviously have no effect on the supposed problem. That is, they will not reduce local emissions, and if they did would not reduce global emissions. Sometimes they are also simply impossible to do at all. An example would be the latest UK proposals to ban all ICE engined cars and replace them with electric. Doubt if it can be done at all, and if it could be, the grid would not stand the strain. And if it could, you cannot erect enough wind and solar to deliver enough power. Hopeless. And the advocates also at the same time want to ban gas home heating. As a trade unionist said, there are probably not enough qualified plumbers in the world to replace all the heating installations in the country by the proposed deadline. And even if there were, there likely wouldn’t be enough available hotel rooms to house them while they did it!

    With the virus, the emphasis is on practical measures with known efficacy. It is actually about controlling the disease.

    With global warming, I have increasingly come to the conclusion that its not about warming, not about the science, its about advocating irrational policies to assert one’s identity and righteousness. The movement, as opposed to climate science the discipline, is no longer about doing anything effective. The attraction of the measures proposed is the feeling they arouse.

    And so we have, in the latest UK example, a bunch of people go into a Cambridge college quadrangle, dig up the lawn and take it in wheelbarrows to a nearby bank branch. Barclays, if you ask. Why Barclays rather than HSBC? Don’t ask!

    What effect will this have on global warming? Don’t ask that either.

    1. “What effect will this have on global warming? Don’t ask that either.”

      Henrik- sadly, the opposite is more likely to become the question. My concern, and my surprise that it hasn’t happened in a big way yet (maybe it has and i missed it?) is rather that the statement becomes:
      “How did global warming CAUSE coronavirus, and thus the spread of such”!
      I am just waiting to see it…

      As a scientist, the entire global warming advocacy industry shames me, disgusts me, and irritates me that science has become so politicized by the progressive left that the most outlandish and ridiculous assertions become fact, and cause for alarm. A recent paper stating that with an increase of 2degrees C, we can expect to see massive increases in homicides and violent crimes. Such idiocy could only exist in blighted minds- if this was the case, then one might expect such a massive increase in those crimes from April to July as spring turns into summer. However that simple common sense example is dismissed from the minds of “science” writers everywhere. I would also add, as it has been pointed out by others, that an additional several degrees might be salutary. As is well known, people do not often move to the arctic to enjoy their winter breaks, they fly south to warmer confines to enjoy the sun and the warmth. Far more than a measly 2 degrees C, but still such common sense eludes a large part of the doomsday seeking progressives who continue to write such gibberish as fact.

  6. This is what the World Health Organization’s document actually say on addressing public health issues (ex: vaccination):

    “11. Underline scientific consensus
    Research in the area of climate change shows that the belief in a scientific fact increases when consensus is highlighted [60][30]. However, identifying a scientific consensus requires a thorough understanding of the specific area of interest and a layperson will not gain that knowledge all by himself [61]. Therefore, highlighting the scientific consensus in public is a powerful tool to transfer essential scientific knowledge and increase belief in a scientific fact, especially when presented in a simple and short message [62][63].
    Underline scientific consensus with regard to vaccine safety and efficacy.”
    https://cijepljenje.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/How-to-respond-to-vocal-vaccine-deniers-in-public.pdf

    They therefore recommend doing what climate science communicators (ex: John Cook) and climate scientists already do. So you can stop misusing the work of the WHO and other public health organizations in your attempt to support your pre-determined contrarian narrative on climate science.

  7. Pingback: Jeff Jacoby: I’m Skeptical About Climate Alarmism, But I Take Coronavirus Fears Seriously - The Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF)

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