Covid-19 schools us on weather, water, and climate: a first cut.

Whatever our place in life – where we live, whatever our relationships, our work, our culture, our circumstances – Covid-19’s school is in session, providing stern but valuable instruction, in ways that are broadly similar, but also in some respects diverse, even unique.

A quick example. This past week’s Washington Post web site featured a David Ignatius piece entitled How the coronavirus is changing how we think about warfare. The lead:

Even as the novel coronavirus pandemic nears its peak, defense analysts are beginning to assess how the global spread of this deadly disease should change how we think about warfare.

“This has exposed some genuine gaps in military planning and readiness, as well as vulnerabilities in our national preparedness,” messaged Derek Chollet, a former assistant defense secretary who is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund. “The silver lining is it will force us to fix some things and prepare in a way we have needed to do for years.”

Certainly, covid-19 has had a “demonstration effect,” several analysts said. It shows how suddenly the global economy can be brought to a near-standstill by a new pathogen whose origins, transmission and effects are still murky, more than three months after the initial outbreak in China.

“Our form of democracy is vulnerable in the extreme. And any adversary who failed to notice would be brain-dead,” messaged Graham Allison, a leading strategist and a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The piece goes on to touch on bio-warfare; the vulnerability of human warriors versus drones and other autonomous systems; the impact of declining economies on defense spending; the need to rethink legacy approaches to national security; the need for better surveillance of bio-threats. Mr. Ignatius closes with this statement:

But the pandemic’s spread wasn’t so much a failure to anticipate the danger, but to execute policy effectively. [Emphasis added.] President Trump was catastrophically slow and disorganized, but Wall Street financial markets, military leaders and even public health planners also didn’t respond presciently to early warnings from China

Hmm. Covid-19 is changing how we think about warfare. 

The April 11-17 print issue of The Economist argued that covid-19 is accelerating three pre-existing trends in global commerce: the uptake of digital technologies such as e-commerce, digital payments, remote working, etc.; decreased reliance on zero-inventory, just-in-time global supply chains; and corporate bulking-up and increasing reliance on cronyism. 

Hmm. Covid-19 is changing how we think about the economy. 

What is covid-19’s message to the weather, water, and climate community?

Bright people have been quick to give this some thought

To dig a bit deeper: Daniel Wilkinson and Luciana Tellez Chavez see evidence that covid-19 has destroyed the momentum that had been building toward acting on climate change during what had figured to be a pivotal year.

Mona Sarfaty and Richard Carmona note that covid-19 has demonstrated the danger of ignoring experts and data; they frame climate change as a slow-motion public health emergency. 

The World Economic Forum argues that the pandemic highlights five actions we should take to deal with the climate change crisis: rethink risk; listen to global perspectives; make people the top priority; trust experts; make a cultural shift.

These perspectives provide only the merest hint of the thought that’s out there. (If you’re reading this, chances are good you have your own, even better ideas. Hopefully, you’re not keeping them to yourself.)

Two closing thoughts to add to the mix:

The urgent always has the edge. The ringtone from the cellphone – heralding a facetime moment, an incoming e-mail, a text, an alert – is a siren song inviting us to step away from the big task we’d been pursuing. This tyranny of the urgent, first articulated by Charles Hummel in a little booklet published in the 1960’s, has for years been a staple in time management courses in both the religious and secular worlds. Each generation struggles with the challenge. The fact is, we live on a planet that does its business through extreme events[1]. And extremes are a fractal, like so much else in nature. The covid-19 crisis distracts us from the climate change problem. But, as we were forcibly reminded just this past Monday, for those in the path of an oncoming tornado (or even survivors needing shelter in the aftermath) the tornado holds full sway. Momentarily, covid-19 concerns themselves are put on hold[2]. Then, in the shelter, our toddler suddenly starts sobbing uncontrollably. The tornado recedes into the background. And so on.

For years, some in the developed world have clucked tongues about the developing world’s preoccupation with the short time horizon – feeding children, earning a dollar, just surviving, for another twenty-four hours – to the exclusion of longer-term challenges (not just climate change, but education, infrastructure, governance, and other concerns). Even in-country, domestically, the world’s rich see the world’s poor in that same light. It’s not surprising that populist politicians seize on this to label climate change a preoccupation only for the elite. 

But covid-19 has for the moment proved a bit of a leveler. The rich start out better positioned to face the health challenge, but nonetheless are confined to home and denied agency, and now long every bit as much as their poorer counterparts for a “return to normalcy.”  Here in the United States, for example, environmental concerns that had looked to be front-and-center in the 2020 elections have been sidelined by health and economic woes. Public- and higher education have been hollowed out. Frailties and dysfunction in infrastructure and governance have been exposed, all in a matter of weeks.

The problem goes deep. The challenge is common to every sector – national defense, the economy, climate change. That World Economic Forum piece frames it as the need for a cultural shift: 

Many aspects of the COVID-19 response are similar to the types of changes we need as part of a comprehensive climate-change response. What is interesting is that many necessary shifts just require a change in culture. For example, neither the surge in cycling and expansion of bike lanes in Bogota as citizens avoid public transport, nor the coronavirus work-from-home experiment, have required any new technology, but instead have relied on new thinking.

It is clear that we have many of the tools to make major advances in addressing climate change; what we need now is the political will to apply them.

Much remains uncertain about what the world will look like when we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fundamental societal changes we are witnessing may well offer us a final chance to avoid a climate catastrophe.

In reality, however, our problem goes a bit deeper. We need more than new thinking. We need more than a cultural shift. We need more than new values. It is our very nature – the way we’re wired to think and act – that needs fixing.

Something to ponder until summoned by the next text message.


[1]A major theme of LOTRW and the book by the same name.

[2]My own organization, the American Meteorological Society, had issued a statement on tornado sheltering guidelines just four days prior.

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