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Imagining a Post Pandemic World

How might a post-pandemic world look and feel? Let’s imagine a creative team at a New York City advertising agency pitching a campaign in 2050 for a new perfume (more than most products, perfumes are sold by attaching to the dreams and aspirations of their times).  The Big Apple, ...

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Afterword to the softbound edition.


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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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Time Warp on Climate Change


Thursday August 28, 2014

 

In yesterday's New York Times, there were two articles on climate change. The first was a front page piece about how President Obama will try to end-run Congressional paralysis on dealing with climate change by seeking to update the existing Kyoto treaty in ways that commit nation's to targets to reduce green house gas emissions. Then there was an article by Justin Gillis discussing a new UN report that outlines dire predictions for climate change, which is being circulated a month before the organization meets to forge an agreement on climate change. This triggered a distant memory: seventeen years ago, the UN was also about to convene to try to agree to a climate treaty, and seventeen years ago I published an op-ed in the New York Times that offered a simple idea to break the impasse. Think about that: seventeen years ago, people were frustrated by the global community's inability to deal witht the threat. And what has happened since? The rate at which greenhouse gasses are accumulating in the atmosphere has nearly doubled. Oh, and Obama's outline for an agreement repicates some elements of the approach I proposed back then.

Here's the op-ed:

 

Here's the text of that op-ed. It's astonishing how little the basic debate has changed even as the threat has become so much more dire and imminent:

 

 If global warming were a Communist plot, there would be a treaty to combat the peril by now. Instead, only two months before representatives from industrial and developing nations are scheduled to meet in Kyoto, Japan, to agree on steps to counter the threat of climate change, it is becoming ever more clear that five years of negotiations have produced little that is meaningful.

 In a last-ditch attempt to develop an American consensus on action, President Clinton plans to hold a White House conference on Oct. 6. Given the prospects of the Kyoto treaty, it is time to consider creative alternatives for reducing the so-called greenhouse gases – byproducts of combustion – that are linked to climate change. A solution outside the framework of the negotiations for the Kyoto agreement may be the only way to resolve the impasse between economically advanced nations and those that are trying to catch up.

The industrial nations that account for most emissions cannot agree among themselves on a way to address global warming. They are reluctant to commit to freezing or reducing emissions, mainly because of concern about the possible economic costs of such actions. Meanwhile, countries with emerging economies worry that curbs on emissions will imperil economic development.

Yet nobody wants to admit total failure, particularly since with every passing year, new information emerges about climate changes, underlining the risks of human tampering with the atmosphere. The latest surprise is new evidence that climate changes may not be gradual, but more rapid and extreme. The reason for such flips isn’t clear, but most scientists recognize that the more carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere, the more likely that the climate will change.

What to do? Earlier this year, a delegation from the European Union may have inadvertently offered the kernel of a solution. The delegates proposed that the world’s nations commit to a 15% reduction from 1990 levels of greenhouse gases by 2010. It was a cynical suggestion because the Europeans knew the United States would never accept those terms. It was also hypocritical because Europe has an easy way of achieving greenhouse reductions: inviting the former Communist states into the European Union.

 As they modernize their antiquated, coal-fired industries, Eastern European nations like Poland and Hungary will be making significant reductions in the emissions that cause global warming. By bringing these nations into the European Union, the economically mature countries of Europe could more than offset their own increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

But the idea of linking industrial and emerging economies offers a way out of the impasse that has paralyzed the talks on global warming. Why not divide the world into three giant regions and hold each to an agreed-upon target for reducing greenhouse gases that the regions could achieve any way they want?

 North and South America could be one region, the slice of the globe from Northern Europe (including Russia) through Africa could be another, and Asia and Oceana could make up the third. With industrial powers and emerging economies in each region, countries could trade emission rights and share new technologies.

This plan could also help solve a knotty political problem. By shifting responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases from individual nations to a larger unit, no country would need to fear being placed at an economic disadvantage by a climate treaty. The goals for each region should be different since the biggest reductions in greenhouse gases will come in the modernizing economies of the former Communist states, while developing nations, especially in Asia and Latin America, will have more difficulty limiting emissions.

  Rewards for success and penalties for failure could be based on regional tariffs. That’s a tricky concept in an era of free trade, but no one has proposed a better enforcement alternative for the treaty being negotiated now.After years of talk about a solution, the problem of global warming looms every more ominously. It’s time for a new approach.

That last sentence was true seventeen years ago. That it's still true today is pathetic -- and tragic.

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Short Take

Relaxing COVID-19 Restrictions will Kill, not Save, the Economy


 

[This is a more developed version of the previous Short Take}

Those who want to relax mandates on self-isolation and social distancing to save the economy have got it exactly backwards. Reopen society too soon, and we risk destroying the economy as well as public order and our shaky democratic institutions. The reason comes down to two words: supply lines.

 Supply lines for necessities such as food are already under stress. Those going to grocery stories encounter random instances of empty shelves and vegetable bins. Smithfield Farms shut down a South Dakota plant that supplies roughly 4% of the pork in the nation after over 500 of its workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Other giant meat processors such as Tyson have also shut down plants for similar reasons. Farmers in the West are having trouble finding workers to harvest the crops now reaching maturity in the fields. And even if they manage to get the crops picked, farmers are out of luck if the truckers fail to show up, or the flow of packaging for their products get interrupted. 

Right now, these disruptions are episodic, but that should be concerning because we haven’t even seen the end of the first wave. What we have seen is that vital front-line workers such as nurses, doctors, EMT’s, and other first responders have had trouble finding protective equipment and maintaining morale. Some have staged walkouts over the dangerous conditions, and these are workers with a sense of mission.

By contrast, for most of the hourly-paid workers who keep supplies made, distributed, and sold, their work is a job that pays the bills. It would be appropriate if society recognized that they played a vital role, but mostly these workers encounter demanding bosses, monotony, and surly customers. If sick, they are not going to work – nor would we want them too. And they are not likely to risk their lives if going to work exposes them to contagion.

Disruption of one link, e.g. the trucker that delivers food the last mile, could halt a supply chain. COVID-19 is a threat to every link. Should a second wave hit before there is a readily available, cheap and effective treatment, it’s a very high probability that many supply lines will be disrupted and filling the gaps could easily overwhelm the nation’s businesses. 

Even today, on the evening news, we see images of vast caravans of cars lined up to get supplies from food banks. Imagine two weeks of empty shelves in the stores that feed our cities. How likely is it that civil order could be maintained in that situation? Will people suffer in silence if they realize that they can’t buy food for their kids because our leaders reopened the economy before a treatment was available because they wanted to prop up the stock market (which is how it will be portrayed)? If we want to look analogues for what life is like once supply chains break down, they’re readily available today in cities like Mogadishu, Kinshasa, and Port au Prince. 

 Thus far, the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic seems to be a mélange of Boss Tweed, Don Corleone and Inspector Clouseau. For the next act, the administration has a choice: Churchill, who bolstered British morale during the London Blitz, or Pol Pot, who sacrificed millions of his countrymen for a bad idea. Let’s hope those around Trump can convince him that the cure for the disease is the cure for the economy.
 



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