Reminder: Science works

Miniature globe laying inside medical face mask.

The ongoing failure of our national response to COVID-19 highlights the challenges we face in managing the more complex and seemingly more distant threat of climate change. As anticipated by epidemiologists, premature and un-coordinated “reopenings” in the US have produced a surge in new coronavirus cases. Daily new case numbers have tripled in the past month, surpassing 60,000 for the first time on July 8. The US leads the world in total cases, with 3.2 million, followed by Brazil with 1.8M. Even though the virus came to Europe first—giving us the chance to learn from their experience—the EU has done a far better job of containing the virus than we have (figure below).

Research area

We have more than three times as many cumulative cases per million people (9500) as Canada (2800), France (2600), or Germany (2300)—countries with cultures and systems of law and government which are very similar to ours. Our daily new cases now exceed those in the EU more than ten-fold, even though their population is 35% greater than ours.

These numbers send the clear message that science-based policies work, and that policies which run contrary to science don’t. It’s clear what needs to be done to contain coronavirus, in part because successful examples elsewhere provide a blueprint. And one would hope that a death rate approaching 1,000 per day would create a sense of urgency and purpose. If we can’t execute an informed, coordinated response under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that we’ll do that in the case of climate change, which is a much more complex challenge and which is widely, if incorrectly, perceived to be a more distant threat.

That perception persists, even though climate change is killing people right now, because harms from climate change are difficult to recognize as such. To a great extent, climate change makes existing problems (like hurricanes and wildfires) worse, rather than creating new ones. This means that individual events like hurricanes and their associated mortality can be attributed to climate change only on a probabilistic basis, and even then, only after a careful study has been done. We can say, for example, that the extreme rainfall in Houston from Hurricane Harvey was made 3.5 times more likely* as a result of climate change. This type of attribution makes causation much less clear, even though the harms are just as real. It makes it easy for folks (well-intentioned and otherwise) not to recognize harms from climate change for what they are.

By contrast, even though COVID testing has been limited in the US, there are nonetheless diagnostic tests which make it relatively straightforward to attribute individual deaths to COVID, and to add up the total burden of mortality.

One reason for our ineffective responses to both COVID and climate change is political polarization. This polarization is needless and also unfounded, because we all face terrible consequences. Both of these hazards, in fact, threaten political stability and social order; history provides ample proof of this. Even so, very few people understand how much is at stake.

Woodwell Climate Research Center (formerly Woods Hole Research Center) is working to change all of this:

Most fundamentally, we’re all about “science-based policies,” which means nothing more than operating in a paradigm based upon facts as we understand them, and guided by cumulative human understanding and experience, tested against new evidence as that emerges. George Woodwell founded Woods Hole Research Center in 1985 to be a source of science to inform policy, and recent events show that this is needed more, and more urgently, than ever.

To drive home the consequences of climate change we’re working with McKinsey & Company to illustrate not only the physical manifestations of climate change (extreme weather, etc.) but also its socioeconomic consequences (like water scarcity and migration). Our partnership with Probable Futures is all about conveying these systemic societal risks to broad and influential audiences. This work is an example of what I see as the most important thing the research community can do: to illustrate what the future world will look like. Only by understanding the full ramifications of climate change can we make informed choices about what kind of future we want to live in.

Our work with the Niskanen Center and with the Faith Science Alliance begins to address political polarization by bridging political divides and broadening support for science-based climate policies. We can disagree about what those policies should be, but we won’t get anywhere unless we start from a common, evidence-based understanding of the situation we face. Misguided “reopenings” informed by wishful thinking about coronavirus aren’t working out well, and climate-change denial isn’t either. That’s not going to change.

Finally, let’s not get so accustomed to failure that we cease to believe in the possibility of progress. Every crisis presents opportunities, and it is important to use this moment to go beyond damage control and act to make things better: health care delivery and financing, air quality, infrastructure, transportation… not to mention social justice. We should expect no less, and here at Woodwell Climate we will continue to work to make this happen.

Thank you, as always, for your interest and support.

Attributable Human‐Induced Changes in the Likelihood and Magnitude of the Observed Extreme Precipitation during Hurricane Harvey. 2017. Geophysical Research Letters 44(24).