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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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
A climate change of heart
Wednesday March 29, 2006
Even Bush's business allies have seen the light on global warming. But he's dug in.
A BELEAGUERED president stubbornly insists on staying the course even as his staunchest allies abandon him. I'm not talking about Iraq, but global warming.
Here's a case where virtually everybody is acknowledging a weapon of mass destruction — the threat of climate chaos — but still President Bush refuses to take action. When the evangelical community, Bush's stalwart base, called for climate action last month, the news grabbed headlines. But the more important Bush defectors on this issue are some of the world's largest corporations, including British Petroleum, General Electric, DuPont and Cinergy. So, the question arises: Why does Bush persist in his increasingly lonely stance?
The answer may lie in the difference between realpolitik and ideology. Many corporations initially opposed climate action as a practical matter, because of its perceived costs. The Bush administration's opposition seems to derive from its ideological hostility to international treaties and the United Nations on the one hand and environmentalists on the other.
One story from 2002 illustrates the different approaches. A former staffer from an anti-climate-action lobbying group, the Global Climate Coalition, had dinner with oil and chemical company bigwigs at the Palm Too restaurant in New York not long after the U.S. negotiating team walked out of the talks on the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"You'd think that this group would have been jumping for joy," he told me, "but instead, they were sputtering mad because they felt that the move could not have been done in a more politically incompetent way." The last thing these savvy businessmen wanted was a grand gesture that would galvanize the the world against the U.S. Instead, business groups had hoped for the U.S. to stay inside the negotiations, where they could quietly kill action by a thousand cuts.
That approach had already proved successful. For 17 years, industry-sponsored lobbying groups forestalled action on climate change even as scientific alarm mounted. One prong of the attack was to infiltrate treaty negotiations. The lobbyists not only influenced policy, in some cases they wrote it. In one incident in the 1990s, Don Pearlman, an attorney who represented the Climate Council (another vociferous anti-climate-action group), was escorted from the floor of a Kyoto negotiating session after he was spotted writing positions for the Saudi Arabian delegation.
When they were not writing policy for emerging nations, industry groups were insisting that there was no scientific consensus that climate change was an urgent threat. It was a brilliant tactic. The naysayers didn't have to disprove global warming; they just had to create the impression that it was still subject to debate. This left the public feeling that there was no need to get excited until the scientists sorted things out.
Two things happened to change corporate attitudes. The destructive power of extreme weather events has become impossible to ignore (for instance, Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed nearly 35,000 people). Even to the casual observer, the climate system seems to be popping rivets. And multinational corporations couldn't afford to be too out of step with their customers and stakeholders, particularly in the many countries where global warming is viewed as a clear and present danger.
Businesses began defecting from the Global Climate Coalition, which closed up shop in 2002 (noting that the Bush administration had adopted its agenda). And some companies changed positions to attempt green branding or because of the threat of sanctions.
In other cases, however, change came about simply because there was a new boss. That seems to have been the case with General Electric, the ninth-largest corporation in the world. Chief Executive Jack Welch was vocal in his opposition to taking action on climate change, and according to those close to the situation, in 1997 he forced the head of Employers Re, a GE insurance subsidiary, to abandon a plan to join a public/private environmental and climate initiative put together by the U.N. Environment Program. Now, however, under Jeffrey Immelt, GE trumpets the very type of initiatives that Welch squashed.
The changed corporate landscape gives hope until we remember that the climate seems to be changing the landscape that we live on even more rapidly. With carbon dioxide levels already higher than they've been since homo sapiens emerged as a species, we are conducting a science lab experiment on a planetary scale.
India, China and other big greenhouse gas emitters will not do their part unless the United States, the biggest emitter, joins the effort. And that won't happen without presidential leadership. So, President Bush, if the scientific, evangelical and business communities can't sway you, what will it take to persuade you to help halt our lunatic meddling with Earth's atmosphere?
[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.