Exuberant denialism and magical thinking characterize our response to both emerging viruses and the climate and biodiversity crises—and their root cause.
This is happening all over BC: A forest company burns half the public forest it just chopped down, adding to the climate and biodiversity crises, and quite possibly creating conditions from which the next pandemic will emerge.
THE PREDICTED SECOND WAVE of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be arriving right on schedule although Vancouver Island has so far won a thankful reprieve. The rest of British Columbia, however, is now trending new cases at almost four times the rate at which they occurred in June.
We knew the second wave was coming because epidemiologists warned this pandemic was following the classic pattern: pulsing new infections into the “fertile ground” of previously uninfected populations. Yet, we nevertheless eased up on safety protocols—in some cases outright resisted them—different groups arguing fatigue, boredom, inconvenience, age-related immunity, cost or overblown hoax. And now, to paraphrase Steven Spielberg’s classic horror movie Poltergeist, “It’s baaack!”
Confirmed new cases of COVID-19 were sharply on the rise again by mid-October. Numbers were up for BC, for Canada, for the rest of the continent and for the world. In the United States, a new infection occurred every 1.25 seconds and a death from the virus about every 1.5 minutes, about three times the death rate from influenza last year. In fact, reports Scientific American, back in April the coronavirus became the third leading cause of death in the US, exceeding every cause but cancer and heart disease.
But despite almost 40 million cases worldwide, with new infections hitting 80,000 a day in the US, in this weird alternative universe that BC sometimes seems to occupy, an anti-mask faction was noisily disrupting ferry sailings, menacing concerned public transit passengers, and hassling employees in retail outlets that had imposed mask requirements as a safety measure for staff and customers.
It might seem self-evident that masks are a good idea for preventing transmission—that’s why health care workers wear them in hospitals and your dental hygienist puts one on to clean your teeth—but clearly this isn’t about logic or reason, it’s about emotions and magical thinking.
For the rational, daily increases spiking back to levels that just a few months ago overwhelmed frontline health care providers and triggered unprecedented lockdowns should serve as a sobering reminder that even if we’re learning to cope—for now, at least—we’re nowhere near the end of this pandemic, we’re merely at the end of the beginning.
Infection trends relentlessly upward everywhere: Germany, Italy, Spain, South Korea, Russia, India, South America, the United Kingdom, where hospitals in Manchester and Liverpool are now running out of intensive care beds in a grim reprise of New York and Milan during the first wave.
It’s true that the death curve has flattened as medical research extends our knowledge of drug therapies and clinical practices that seem able to blunt the initial lethality of the coronavirus.
Although, if you’re poor, an ethnic minority, elderly (10.7 million in Canada are at elevated risk because they are over 55) or have an underlying condition (3.1 million of us are diabetics, 2.4 million have cardiovascular ailments and 2.1 million have chronic obstructive lung disease) or one of the many immunocompromised by HIV, chemotherapy, radiation treatment or certain drugs, the chances of dying from the virus and associated complications increase up to 630-fold.
Globally we’re now counting more than a million coronavirus dead. More than a third of those mortalities are in North America.
And if that math takes one aback, so should the explosion of conspiracy theories—it’s a hoax; the medical profession is cooking the statistics for profit; Big Brother is taking away your right not to wear basic surgical masks to protect fellow citizens (this from folks who routinely abide by such infringements upon their freedom as the requirement that you shower before going into a public swimming pool and who wouldn’t dream of yelling at their surgeon for wearing a mask). Then there’s Big Pharma hyping the danger so it can sell you untested vaccines. Bill Gates, George Soros, genetic engineers in China; the scapegoats abound.
Magical thinking about herd immunity ricochets through social media. And the outright denialism—the numbers are false; the virus is less lethal than common flu (indeed it is, if you’re a baby but if you’re over 50, beware!)—more resembles the Middle Ages of miracles and belief in the healing properties of amulets than a century in which science can land robots on passing comets.
The coming economic costs are staggering
Behind the clamour on Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, the actual tabulated cost of the pandemic clicks upward along with the case loads.
Right now, the estimated personal costs to a patient hospitalized with the virus and later discharged from direct medical care to deal with lingering effects is about $4,000, calculates Bruce Lee of City University of New York’s School of Public Health. The math is pretty simple. If 20 percent of the US population gets sick, one year’s post-hospital costs would be $50 billion. If no effective vaccine emerges and 80 percent of the US population is infected, the cost soars to $204 billion says another report from the Reuters news agency.
Statistical wiggle-room notwithstanding, in-hospital costs have been estimated at $35,000 to $45,000 per patient which means that in the US alone, admittedly one of the world’s most expensive systems, pandemic hospital costs are going to run to the hundreds of billions.
There’s a lot more red ink coming, though. The economic fallout from job losses during lockdowns is just now being totted up by accountants. The International Labour Organization estimates initial job losses to the pandemic at 3 million jobs in Canada, 60 million in Europe, 70 million in the US, 45 million in Africa and an astonishing 235 million in the Asia-Pacific region, of which 122 million lost jobs are in India.
Overall, the ILO estimates global job losses at 400 million, with a cautionary note. That total is calculated using the 48-hour work week that’s more common outside the developed world. Use the standard 40-hour work week of North America and Europe and the total estimated pandemic job loss hits 480 million.
The total cost of the coronavirus pandemic will top $16 trillion—that’s equivalent to almost a decade of Canada’s total economic output at current nominal GDP—says a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in mid-October.
The takeaway from all this is that our slackness in preparing and sustaining a serious and comprehensive pandemic response strategy—we’ve had warnings from epidemiologists and virologists about the potential for a lethal plague like this for 30 years now—is going to cost us dearly in lives and money. Whole economic sectors are in shambles because we collectively failed to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.
The airline industry is in trouble as passenger loads collapse. By mid-April, 65 percent of the world’s commercial passenger aircraft had been mothballed. Some major national airlines reported a 95 percent decline in passengers. The restaurant industry is in turmoil as small operators with small profit margins decide they can’t break even as mandated social distancing measures limit tables. Tourism is in trouble from luxury resorts to recreational fishing lodges. Movie theatres are in trouble as apprehensive audiences stay away in droves. Universities that relied on revenue from foreign students face catastrophic declines in enrolment and cash flow.
Even the once-haughty province of Alberta, Canada’s economic powerhouse fuelled by oil exports, has been humbled by a perfect storm of pandemic and commodity price collapse. Accelerated by the economic slowdown, global demand for all oil shrank sharply just at the same time some developed nations began a pivot toward clean energy sources. With a world suddenly awash in cheaper oil, the more expensive oil suffered.
Alberta, where median household incomes for decades exceeded those in Toronto and Vancouver by as much as $30,000-a-year, is suddenly faced with dwindling royalty revenues, a $24-billion deficit and correspondingly severe cuts to services. The diminished expectations appear too much for some to acknowledge, hence the din of outraged blame from some Albertans aimed at Quebec, Ontario, BC, the federal Liberals, the province’s previous NDP government, even teenaged environmentalist Gretta Thunberg—just about anybody makes a convenient scapegoat, it seems.
BC’s damaged forest ecosystems could nurture the next pandemic
If news from the pandemic is depressing, hang onto your hats, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The real takeaway from our coronavirus woes is far worse. It’s this: global warming increases the risk and propensity for more pandemics like this one and possibly far worse caused by emerging infectious diseases.
How does that work?
Harvard University’s School of Public Health explains:
“As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.”
The current pandemic is a classic example. It’s a new virus that apparently hopped from wild bats to us. Yes, that seems to have occurred first in China, but there are implications here, too.
“Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics,” the Harvard experts say.“Deforestation which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide.
“Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs.”
What’s that got to do with us in BC? Well, we’re pretty good at stripping habitat, clearcutting watersheds, flooding entire valley systems, and encouraging urban sprawl. Instead of in-fill and vertical development in a contained urban footprint, we spend billions on highways access to land beyond surburbia and then complain when the displaced deer look for food in our urban gardens.
Mountain caribou, marmots, bats, shrews, sea lions, orcas—more than 70 mammal species in BC—are endangered, threatened or of special concern. Then there are the species and subspecies of birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians and fish, a total of 1,900 at risk of being erased from the province’s collective gene pool even as surviving populations are compressed into shrinking, polluted and fragmented habitat.
When it’s salmon or steelhead or moose at risk, there’s usually a commotion from special interests. If it’s pink sand verbena, badgers or rare butterflies, not so much.
In Canada, a now-25-year-old comparative study found that a square kilometre of forest was cut, stripped or burned every 49 minutes and while BC is home to 6 of Canada’s 11 major forest regions, it’s also the place where up to 2,400 square kilometres of forest a year are logged, 90 percent of it by clearcutting, which is habitat erasure. Those numbers come from the provincial government.
Taken as a whole, the gallery of dwindling habitats and their inhabitants is precisely what the public health experts at Harvard seem to be warning us about when it comes to creating propensities for future pandemics. The last one came out of Wuhan, China. There’s no reason the next couldn’t come out of damaged forest ecosystems anywhere.
When climate change really starts to bite—and it’s nipping at our heels already as the weeks of wildfire smoke that choked Victoria’s capital region so densely last summer should surely instruct us—the coming costs, casualties and inconvenience are going to make the upheavals of the 2020 pandemic look like the good old days.
Consider that if a $16 trillion bill for failing to prepare mitigation strategies for a viral pandemic seems onerous, what will a $530 trillion bill for failing to adequately address global warming seem? That’s the cost estimated as a worst case scenario by research published in 2017 by James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
More conservative estimates of the coming costs of failing to act aggressively to mitigate global warming are scarcely more reassuring.
Citi, one of the world’s leading financial institutions, calculated recently that continuing on the present course could see costs of $72 trillion over the next 30 years. And it warns investors that perhaps $100 trillion in fossil fuel and other assets could simply be stranded by climate change should the public insist on a robust response to address global warming.
Amplifying that, Andrew Winston, writing in the Harvard Business Review, notes the financial implications of climate change for ordinary folk.
A recently graduated teacher in her mid-20s who is prudently contributing to a pension plan will expect a payout in 50 years, he points out.
But if things continue as they have, she’ll be expecting returns on investments that may well be liabilities rather than income-generating assets—Alberta’s oil sands, for example—or real estate investments in what are now prime residential, commercial or agricultural properties that may be sharply devalued or made worthless by rising sea level, increased exposure to hurricanes and tornadoes, or exposure to drought or increased seasonal flooding.
In fact, as another recent piece of investigative reporting for National Public Radio in the US points out, most of us currently invest in real estate with blissful ignorance of the looming risks from wildfire, floods, drought or sea level rise because it’s not in the interests of developers, sellers or regulators to disclose them.
That report found that many millions of people have their life savings tied up in property that’s at increasing risk from climate-driven natural disaster. In the US, for example, easily extrapolated to Vancouver Island, 15 million residential and commercial properties are at significant risk from climate change flooding and another 4.5 million homes from wildfire.
“None of the landlords, real estate agents, sellers, appraisers, bankers or home inspectors the families interacted with explained the risk of flooding or wildfires, because no one had to do so,” reports the NPR investigative team.
“Numbers such as those will grow as climate change makes the Earth hotter and floods and fires get more frequent and severe.”
Mario Alejandro Arisa, writing in Yale Environment, notes that while city planners in Miami and its surrounding districts are planning for sea level to rise about half a metre, current science increasingly points to a rise that will be four times that—close to the depth of your average living room. Such a rise would displace up to 800,000 people, about one-third of the urban and suburban populations in the Miami area.
“Unlike the jet-set owners of high-end real estate,” writes Arisa,“the region’s middle-class residents—who have most of their savings tied up in their homes—face the prospect of generations of wealth being wiped out when the property market inevitably craters in the face of rising seas.
“The science of what is going to happen here—higher seas, increased heat, intensifying storms—is certain. Still the developers, real estate agents and many buyers continue to play a long con against the rising tide pretending that all is well in South Florida, even though some 10 percent of its land area will be under water if the ocean rises just two feet.”
“The coming market shift is inevitable as what’s now valuable seaside property becomes steeply devalued and the value shifts to real estate away from sea level,” Arisa predicts.
BC’s magical thinking fuels climate calamity
It’s been said of our increasingly globalized world of data flows that “here is everywhere and everywhere is here.” Anybody who has taken the effort to download interactive coastal elevation maps of Greater Victoria and the Lower Mainland can see how these warnings have plenty of application in this place.
The same might be said of BC, where premiers from left and right blissfully conclude that when it comes to carbon emissions and global warming, they can have their cake and eat it, too.
Somehow, they persuade themselves that the piper will never have to be paid—at least not on their watch—as they subsidize industries to mow down ancient forests and export them as lumber, pulp, paper, raw logs and sawdust, and to promote short term prosperity through fossil fuels.
In 2011, professional forester Anthony Britneff warned, in a rigorous analysis of statistics so dispersed that one might be forgiven for thinking that obscurantism reigned in a provincial government whose mantra was transparency, the area of inadequately restocked forest lands in BC was larger than at any time in the history of provincial forest management. He calculated it at 170,000 square kilometres.
Meanwhile, dirty old coal is still BC’s leading export. Include oil and natural gas and fossil fuels amount to almost 25 percent of the annual total of provincial exports with plans underway to dramatically expand exports of the very commodities that amplify global warming.
This is something about which our 20-something teacher, frugally putting a bit of income aside each year toward her modest retirement in 2060, might want to start asking her pension fund managers.
Just as we collectively turned a blind eye to the lesser viral outbreaks of ebola, SARS and bird flu—all dry runs for the pandemic that was sure to follow—we now sleep-walk toward the far greater menace of economic, political and social disruption that will arise from climate change.
The gloomy omens of what’s coming—and the same exuberant denialism and magical thinking that characterize our response to the inconvenience of pandemic—are everywhere.
Drought-stricken California, Oregon, Washington, BC and Alberta have been swept by fires that are radically configuring the forest cover we take for granted. It’s the same in Siberia and Australia.
In BC, Washington, Oregon and California fires have consumed more than 40,000 square kilometres of forest lands, whole communities have been razed and more than 100,000 people evacuated—one in 10 Oregon residents had to leave their homes. At one point last summer, 500,000 people, 25 percent of Oregon’s population, were on immediate evacuation alert.
And it looks like this is just the start. MunichRe, one of the giant capital pools that underwrites insurance companies, gloomily concludes after analyzing 50 years of insurance data that climate-induced risks from intense storms, relentless droughts, blistering heatwaves, flooding from heavy rain and snowfall events, coastal marine inundations and vast wildfires are all steadily trending upward with uninsured losses now almost doubling insured losses.
Here on the West Coast, from California to Alaska, fires ripped through forests stressed by 15 years of drought and the insect infestations that have inevitably followed progressively warmer winters brought by global warming.
Sea ice in the arctic is thinner than it’s ever been in human memory and getting thinner by the year, altering global geopolitics as the militaries of countries above the Arctic Circle begin their strategic moves to take advantage.
While maritime shipping magnates and admirals salivate over the opening of Arctic Ocean sea lanes that shorten the distance between Europe and Asia, the melting permafrost vents methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide.
Further south, glaciers that feed the rivers carrying meltwater to big prairie cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Regina are losing mass faster than winter snowfalls can replace it. But Alberta has a plan. It’s about to spend $815 million to expand and modernize irrigation of its southern dry lands which sprawl in the rain shadow of the Rockies. It will use water from where? Oh, yeah, those disappearing glaciers that serve as fresh water banks for the dry summers.
The balmy September just past turns out to have been the hottest since science began keeping records 140 years ago. Of the 10 hottest Septembers recorded, all have occurred since 2005 and the 7 hottest were recorded over the last 7 years with each September hotter than the previous year.
This puts the pandemic year of 2020 on track to be one of the hottest years, perhaps even the hottest, since global records began, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US. Two cities in the American southwest, Phoenix and Palm Springs, had more than 145 days of temperatures over 100 degrees by this fall.
Research published in the journal Science, which combines weather observations with tree ring data from the last 1,200 years, suggests this drought, amplified by global warming, has the potential to last 400 years or more.
The last time there was a megadrought in southern California, the social disruptions were brutal as otherwise peaceful Chumash cultures dwelling on the coast suddenly found themselves warring to control increasingly scarce water and food resources.
Brian Fagan, editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, chronicles the drought and its social impact in his book The Long Summer: “Chiefs vied for control of territory and resources. They fought one another for food as hunger and malnutrition stalked their villages. At the same time, permanent water supplies shrank dramatically…The droughts created a new social reality…”
The archaeological record, he says, confirms that reality. Anthropologists studying skeletons from pre-contact village cemeteries discovered a disturbingly sharp increase in the number of head injuries inflicted by clubs and stone axes (circa 700 to 1150 CE).
“Warfare was not an innate propensity of the Chumash or somehow an outgrowth of their culture; it was a response to environmental conditions,” Fagan writes.
Here on the BC coast, the archaeological record finds an abrupt and long-lasted period of village fortification from Victoria to the North and there were fortified sites at key fishing locations from the Fraser River estuary to the canyons above Yale, where massive stone walls can still be seen.
Was this, too, sparked by competition for scarce resources in a time when climate change up-ended patterns of expectation? Is something similar on the books for us?
Every society assumes it stands at the pinnacle of achievement and that there’s no going back.
The builders of Mayan pyramids, of Angkor Wat’s elaborate temples, of the great baths of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley and of the Akkadian palaces of Mesopotamia doubtless thought they were the culmination of progress. Until climate change intervened and they weren’t. Their monuments were left to be reclaimed by wilderness and drifting sand.
Perhaps what we should most learn from the trials of our present pandemic is the peril of not paying attention and of indulging ourselves in self-absorbed denial and the wishful thinking that leaves us unable to acknowledge and address the much greater potential calamity that’s barrelling towards us.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.