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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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Pope Francis in the Lion's Den


Tuesday September 22, 2015


Pope Francis will be the first leader of the Catholic Church to address a joint session of Congress.  Take out the name “Francis”, and that sentence would be the subject of universal rejoicing among Catholics. Instead we get this: “[The Pope ought to] leave science to the scientists,” from former Senator and Presidential candidate Rick Santorum, or this “when the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, he can be expected to be treated like one,” from Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona who intends to boycott the session.

Santurum, Gosar, and many other Catholic Republicans are in a snit because Francis intends to use this opportunity to spread the message of the threat of climate change that he laid out in his encyclical Laudate Si’ earlier this summer. This has led a number of Republicans, who loudly invoke religious authority when thundering on the evils of abortion or same sex marriage, to suddenly become passionate advocates of the separation of church and state. Beyond the amusing theater of politicians trying to pick and choose which Church doctrines they like – “Cafeteria Catholics,” as former Republican representative Bob Inglis calls them – there is the important question of what impact the Pope might have. 

If he’s hoping to change minds, he has got his work cut out for him. In most of the world’s nations, Pope Francis’ acceptance of the reality of evolution and the threat posed by climate change seems nothing more than common sense. When he addresses the Republican-controlled Congress, however, he will be in a chamber where common sense (along with consistency, logic and a sense of proportion) must be checked at the door. A political party that can dismiss as a hoax or conspiracy the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists with expertise in climate is not suddenly going to change its position because a Pope says that he thinks the threat is real.

In the longer run, however, the Pope’s address marks the end of climate denialism as a viable political position. I suspect that many of the politicians venting against the Pope recognize this. It’s clear by now that many of the politicians and organizations that oppose action on climate change have long known that it is real threat, but have used the levers of political power and propaganda to protect profits or funding. Reporting by InsideClimate News revealed that Exxon’s own studies confirmed the threat in the 1970s (indeed one study estimated that a doubling of CO2 would raise global temperatures by 2-3 degrees Celsius, very much in line with current estimates). Exxon, of course, has gone on to fund many of the organizations that spread disinformation about global warming.

Were the Pope only speaking to Congress, politicians might continue to bluster about hoaxes and liberal conspiracies, but the Pope’s message is going out to a billion Catholics around the world, and it is coming from the leader of a faith known for conservative positions on many social issues. As it stands, recent polling done by Pew Research Center suggests that Catholics are in line with Americans on awareness of global warming, but that only 24% of Republican Catholics think it is a serious problem. 
Expect that number to rise as the millions of people the Pope is trying to reach come to their own conclusions by simply looking around their world. In the Arctic, they can see that their world is warming catastrophically, and not cooling as recently trumpeted by the deniers (a claim based on cherry-picking data on variations in seasonal sea ice). In the Mediterranean regions of the world, they can see that droughts are more persistent; in the mountains they can watch glaciers retreat and snow packs thin; and everywhere people can see that once-in-a-100-year weather extremes are coming in packs. These observations confirm the Pope’s message and contradict the denier’s view that everything is fine.
        

Changes in public opinion will put pressure on politicians, but I suspect that what will really tip the political balance will be the growing economic clout of alternative energy. Solar, wind, fuel cells, battery and other energy storage devices are beginning to go viral, and a basic metric for politicians is job creation, particularly in an economy where household incomes have stalled for decades. The growth of renewables offers politicians a way to embrace action on climate change without ever admitting that they were wrong. 
        

So, rather than forcing change, the Pope’s encyclical and his address to a joint session of Congress mark a major inflection point in the protracted and agonizing struggle to address global warming. No one event will bring about change, but the combination of moral suasion by major religions; the undeniable changes in the world around us; the palpable costs of climate disruption; and the emergence of alternative energy as an economic engine of growth, suggest that the deniers’ rear guard actions are collapsing and that the world is mobilizing. The question remains: is it too late?
 

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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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