The exponential failure of doing nothing

December 11, 2020 Earther

For the past few weeks, the COVID Tracking Project’s graphs have haunted my Twitter feed with growing regularity. If you, too, are online, then you’ve probably seen them.

The data collected from across the U.S. has shown a disturbing uptick of covid-19 cases in spring, a bigger hump in summer, and an uninterrupted sheer mountain of cases still on the rise as we enter winter. Hospitalizations have followed a similar trajectory and now, deaths are set to do the same. We’ve reached the point of comparing daily covid-19 death totals to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in an apparent attempt to snap people out of their reverie and accept that this is a humanitarian crisis.

Staring at the covid-19 charts bears a shocking resemblance to a chart etched in the mind of many a climate person. The Vostok ice core captures the past 800,000 years of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The spike at the end is humanity’s doing. These jagged graphs point to unprecedented systemic failures to address the crises we face—and efforts of a select few people to preserve those failures and profit off them.

For the decade-plus I’ve worked in climate, the Vostok ice core has been something I’ve looked at in wonder and terror. Even before the core was drilled from the icy sheath of East Antarctica in 1998, policymakers knew the risks of loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. So did the oil, gas, and car companies as well as utilities that drove the spike. Yet they chose to lie about it.

Once those lies were out in the open, instead of holding them to account and decoupling the economy from fossil fuels, the world has only grown more reliant. That status quo has locked in a dangerous assault on the climate that allowed humans to flourish, and now we face a race against time to wind down emissions before the atmospheric carbon dioxide spike grows any higher.

This climate suffering has largely been masked to the public, though. Republican leaders and the aforementioned companies have sown doubt, creating a false sense of debate around climate change that allowed members of the public to either tune out or just let their partisan lenses determine their views. The media has also largely left the public blind to the role climate change has played in making weather disasters worse, though that is slowly changing. The warning of the Vostok ice core has blared like a foghorn in an empty harbor.

What’s most excruciating to me about the covid-19 graphs, then, is that the pandemic has followed the exact same playbook. The charts tell the same story of what happens when you have virtually no coordinated response and turn a public health crisis into a front of the culture war that allows the wealthy to accumulate ever-greater piles of money while people suffer and die.

Just under the hood of the covid-19 infection data is a nation absolutely decimated even as a light at the end of the tunnel starts to come into view with a vaccine. At least 200 hospitals hit capacity this week and nearly half of all ICU beds that are filled have coronavirus patients in them, according to the Department of Health and Human Services data. The hospital systems in multiple regions are at or near breaking points. Writing for the Atlantic last week, Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal put it this way (emphasis added):

“But ominous no longer fits what we’re observing in the data, because calamity is no longer imminent; it is here. The bulk of evidence now suggests that one of the worst fears of the pandemic—that hospitals would become overwhelmed, leading to needless deaths—is happening now. Americans are dying of COVID-19 who, had they gotten sick a month earlier, would have lived. This is such a searingly ugly idea that it is worth repeating: Americans are likely dying of COVID-19 now who would have survived had they gotten September’s level of medical care.

The crush of exponential failure is hardly limited to hospitals. The humanitarian tragedy can also be seen in spikes in hungerpoverty, and theft of essentials like baby formula. The collapse in city and state tax revenue is also leading to a cratering of public services like mass transit. An even worse eviction crisis is on the horizon. All this while, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and the 648 other billionaires in the U.S. could cut every American a $3,000 check and still be wealthier than they were at the start of the pandemic.

Despite clear signs of economic suffering and rising inequality, the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has failed to advance a meaningful relief package after the CARES Act’s extra benefits and protections expired in August. One hangup is McConnell wanting to give blanket liability to shield companies from being sued over coronavirus infections. Including that in any relief package would, of course, lock in more of the status quo that has allowed companies to get rich off the pandemic even as more and more workers have fallen ill.

Even the compromise $908 billion relief proposal that a bipartisan group of senators negotiated is wholly inadequate and would entrench the gross inequality rather than fostering a full recovery, according to a recent analysis. It’s better than nothing, of course, but it’s not enough to stop the suffering. The president, meanwhile, is tweeting conspiracy theories and will surely be headed to a golf course this weekend.

What the covid-19 and Vostok ice core data show, then, isn’t just data about public health or atmospheric carbon dioxide. Instead, they show the utter failure of capitalism that has concentrated power and wealth in the hands of the few and entrenched Republican minority rule that has no regard for human life. The status quo has failed all of us, and people are dying because of it.

It’s why we must change tracks on both covid-19 and the climate crisis, to flatten the curve of death and suffering. In a memo published this week, economists Mark Paul and Adam Hersh estimate it would take $3 trillion to $4.5 trillion in relief to build the economy back. The atmospheric spike will take decades or even centuries to meaningfully reduce emissions owing to the long life of carbon dioxide, but that doesn’t make action any less urgent. Research has shown we can tackle both crises together—in fact, we must.

Read on Earther.