The Trouble With Testing Part 1 — “No Responsibility at All”

“The White House is now home to an inattentive, conspiracy-minded president. We should not underestimate what that could mean.” — The Atlantic in a special report on U.S. pandemic preparedness during the July/August 2018 issue

“Anybody that wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is… and the tests are all perfect, like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right?” — Donald Trump on March 6 as U.S. was suffering a major shortage of COVID-19 test kits. 

“I take no responsibility at all.” — Donald Trump when asked if he felt any responsibility for the persistent lags in U.S. testing capability on March 13. 

“President Trump continues to falsely state that everyone who needs a COVID-19 test can get one.” — In an NPR interview conducted on April 2. 

“Two and a half months after the first reported coronavirus case in the US, America still doesn’t have the capacity that it needs to track all cases…” — Vox.

*****

The need for testing during a virus epidemic is directly related to the number of infected persons. If the outbreak is small, the need for testing is also proportionately smaller. And if the outbreak is large, then the need for testing is subsequently much larger.

Ironically, the more testing happens early on, the more cases are identified early on, the more contacts are traced and isolated early on, the more the virus is ultimately contained and the lower the follow-on need for tests. The inverse is also true. The less testing, identifying, and containing of pandemic illness early on, the more tests will later be needed.

A failure to test, trace and isolate in the U.S. early on resulted in a massive COVID-19 outbreak necessitating nationwide mitigation. 1 in 5 people tested in the U.S. are still showing up as positive as of April 20th — indicating that tests are generally still occurring only for high risk persons and not for the broader population. Image source: Our World in Data.

Because less testing, identification and containment means an illness like COVID-19 can expand undetected, exponentially, and with far less constraint. Each failure to respond to this nasty disease pushes us up the scale in the need for a still greater response in the form of testing, isolation, sanitation, and ultimately mitigation. And if leadership is incapable of providing that response in a continuous escalation, then we end up with an ever-expanding disaster. That’s what we face here in the U.S. Because here a national leadership under Trump that utterly lacks responsibility is showing its dramatic incapacity.

A Question of Responsibility

What is responsibility? At its root — response. In a disaster, swift, decisive, and effective response is what it takes to prevent an expanding and uncontainable cascade of harm, economic loss, and loss of life. Without leadership responsibility, a sense of duty to the persons under leadership’s charge and a willingness to answer to others, to positively absorb criticism, to act, to overcome barriers in order to make effective action possible, then crisis and disaster response itself will be set up to fail.

In the context of COVID-19, U.S. leadership failure by a corrupt and incompetent Trump Administration has weighed heavily in loss of life and well-being. Specifically, the Administration’s failure to take the responsibility necessary to provide the tests Americans need has been a critical aspect of this failure.

Test Development Timeline in a Global Context

Unlike South Korea which took swift action and outran global COVID-19 testing capability, the U.S. response under Trump in the form of deploying viable test kits, has lagged it.

On December 30 and 31 of 2019, China and WHO had identified pnemonia-like cases of a new illness. By January 10-12 of 2020, China released the new disease (later called SARS-CoV-2 for the virus or COVID-19 for the illness the virus causes) genome to the world. Within just a few days, German scientists, using SARS-CoV as a reference, had developed a test that could identify a unique portion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s DNA. On January 17, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted the German-based test, published the guidelines for developing the test, and began working with private companies to rapidly produce those tests and distribute them. As other agencies developed new tests, WHO would also publicly provide the new formulas. For example, WHO published China’s test development formula one week later on January 24.

The importance of WHO action at this stage was threefold. First, it provided information on how to manufacture an effective test. In other words, any country could take the WHO-provided information and use it to mass produce its own tests. Like South Korea, they could then independently coordinate with medical industry to get the production chain rolling. Unlike South Korea, they no longer needed to independently develop one. A test formula was now publicly available. Second, the WHO began to manufacture test kits to send out to other nations who requested them. These manufactured kits provided physical samples of the published testing formula — making it easier for manufacturers in other countries to validate and reproduce. Third, WHO served as an agency that mass produced tests. This helped to provide tests to those who were unable to provide for themselves. By March 16, two months later, WHO alone had produced 1,500,000 tests and sent kits out to 120 countries.

The gene assay of SARS-CoV provided by Olfert Landt to the World Health Organization in January. This assay would result in an easily producible test that many nations would use to contain their COVID-19 outbreak. Image source: WHO.

Independently, the German firm that provided the first test protocol adopted by WHO was also shipping out tests to other countries. In mid-January, New Zealand, who decided the WHO-published test formula was good enough and the need for more immediate access to tests was greater than the need to independently produce one at home, ordered the Germany-developed kits. The kits were subsequently shipped. And New Zealand was provided with tests ahead of the outbreak that later occurred. In other words — they were prepared. Australia and a number of other countries made the same decision — also ordering their test kits from overseas. Olfert Landt’s firm, the German Agency that developed the first COVID-19 test protocol adopted by WHO, alone was shipping out 1,500,000 tests per week by late February of 2020.

U.S. — All Testing Eggs Slow-Walked into one Trump-Shrunken Basket

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control, a crucial public health protection organ, had long suffered budget cuts and diminishment under Trump. As noted before, each of Trump’s budgets had requested reduced funding for CDC and his attacks on the Affordable Care Act also degraded U.S. disease fighting capability. His removal of Obama’s Pandemic Task Force had cut off a federal limb that could have helped stop the virus in its tracks overseas, but if it did get out could have also coordinated infectious disease response at home and abroad, cut red tape, and sped the availability of materials such as test kits for the U.S. public.

Perhaps as equally pivotal, though, was Trump’s choice of director — Robert Redfield — to head CDC. Redfield, unlike many of Trump’s appointees, was certainly a professional with many years of experience in his field. One who spent 30 years researching HIV and for 20 years served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Redfield was, arguably though, far from a great choice to head the agency responsible for fighting disease in the U.S. He was embroiled in a controversy over an HIV vaccination trial in the 1990s in which he was accused of manipulating data. Redfield has also been criticized for allowing his strong religious beliefs to interfere with his medical views. Peter Lurie from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group expressed this concern about Redfield’s appointment: “What one would get in Robert Redfield is a sloppy scientist with a long history of scientific misconduct and an extreme religious agenda.”

In choosing the controversial Redfield, Trump also passed over Anne Schuchat — a career public servant whose experience dealing with Anthrax in the U.S., Ebola in West Africa, and SARS in China made her an ideal choice for CDC head. In other words, an infectious disease expert with exactly the kind of experience to handle an illness like COVID-19. That’s what the people of the United States didn’t get from Trump. What we got was something that we’ve come to expect from a corrupt and incompetent Administration — at best a political appointee with professional credentials but also possessed of a questionable and often partisan-charged past, at worst the same but with no professional standing whatsoever.

As it happened, on the same day that WHO had published Olfert Landt’s test kit formula on its website, January 17, a sapped CDC in the U.S. announced that it had developed its own preliminary test for COVID-19. They’d decided to work on their own test. This decision was guided in part by regulation — and much of it for good reason. We didn’t want to open the door to fraudulent tests. But it was also a decision that occurred in the context of a global health emergency. And leadership from the top could have worked to ensure the protective needs of regulation were adhered to while still providing back-up options if the CDC-sponsored test kit development occurred too slowly or didn’t produce a usable test soon enough.

In other words, they could have cut red tape to enable medical industry in the U.S. to produce coordinate tests. Like South Korea, they could have called together industry heads and provided organization and guidance. Something a dedicated pandemic response team, had it been in place, could have helped to accomplish. Something a CDC head with novel pandemic chops like Anne Schuchat would have recognized the need for. CDC could have worked to validate those tests in conjunction with its own test. It could have used one of a number of WHO-validated formulas for these coordinate tests. It could have set up teams to work to validate multiple sets of tests to determine which ones were effective. It could have worked to set up contingency surge production if more tests were needed (as happened in South Korea and elsewhere).

The bio of Anne Schuchat — the kind of infectious disease expert that the U.S. is capable of fielding to head an effective pandemic response. The kind of expert the Trump Administration has repeatedly passed over in favor of less effective leaders. Image source: CDC.

Such a layered strategy did not develop at CDC under Redfield as head. At first, and for many weeks after, the decision by leadership was to support one testing regime and then to in a laissez faire way, ignore the fact that other agencies such as FDA ended up using existing regulation to defend it and to (unintentionally) stymie the independent development of effective tests in the U.S. In other words, through lack of response adequate to the threat of COVID-19, Trump’s CDC head put all their testing eggs into one basket.

Making Our Own Unluck

It all could have still worked out. The U.S. could have been lucky. The CDC test could have worked effectively. It could have arrived in time to help stop the virus. It could have arrived in enough numbers to meet the testing need. It could have been targeted to the regions that needed it most. Trump’s Redfield CDC hadn’t increased their likelihood of that success, though. They had greatly increased the opportunity for failure. And given that self-infliction of a worsened set of odds, things did not go well.

Development of the CDC test notably lagged behind the rest of the world. By January 21, the U.S. saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19. It was of a man who’d flown back from Wuhan, China and entered the U.S. on January 15. But it took another week — until January 28th for the CDC to provide its own test kit formula to WHO — 11 days later than Germany, four days later than China, and weeks after South Korea had developed an effective test protocol. Fully two weeks after the virus had arrived on U.S. shores.

It wasn’t until February 5 — fully 19 days after CDC’s first test protocol was announced — that a CDC under Trump had shipped 200 test kits to more than 100 public health labs across the U.S. These tests were enough to test 60,000 – 80,000 people if the kits proved effective. By the same time, WHO had shipped 250,000 tests that had already been validated. Globally, on February 5, confirmed cases had risen to above 28,000. In the U.S., 12 cases had been confirmed with cases springing up Washington State, Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, and Arizona. Given what we know about COVID-19, actual numbers were probably already much greater than these early confirmations indicated.

The virus had arrived on U.S. shores and CDC had scrambled to send out these test kits. But the test deployment would ultimately prove to be seriously problematic. The trouble with these U.S. tests ended up being four-fold. First, that they had not yet (by February 5) been validated and many would later prove useless. Second, there weren’t enough to meet demand. Third, many came too late. And fourth, test kit distribution was not targeted or weighted to the regions of highest need. Why the U.S. CDC response was so much slower and so poorly coordinated compared to those of other nations has not fully been explained. Nor has it been fully explained why many of the tests that CDC ultimately provided would fail. But this failure was arguably a major reason why COVID-19 would break out to such a great extent in the U.S. Why the U.S. would experience the worst first wave outbreak of this novel deadly illness. Because what ultimately happened was a serious failure to contain the illness once it reached our shores. To perform that detection, contacts tracing and isolation that was proving so useful in places like South Korea.

So by early February, CDC had shipped out about 200 test kits to public health labs across the country. Each kit contained enough material to test between 300 to 400 patients. But because kits were evenly distributed, places with much higher populations, places like public health labs in New York City which would later experience a devastating outbreak, only received enough testing material to test between 300-400 patients at that time. That’s 300-400 tests for a public health lab serving a city of 8.4 million souls.

According to a report from Kaiser:

The kits were distributed roughly equally to locales in all 50 states. That decision presaged weeks of chaos, in which the availability of COVID-19 tests seemed oddly out of sync with where testing was needed.

Another problem was that the test kits that were shipped out often proved faulty — lacking critical components that hobbled kits ability to produce results. So from February 5 to mid February — for about ten days or so — public health labs across the country were put in the position where they needed to validate CDC test kits. And, in most cases, the validation of a useful kit did not occur. By mid-February only about six public health labs had access to reliable tests. But the Trump-appointed CDC director Robert Redfield was at the time entrenched, defending those tests. He insisted that CDC had developed a “very accurate test.”

Global distribution of COVID-19 cases on February 20, 2020. Image source: World Health Organization.

At this point the official number of cases stood at 15. But we know that those numbers were growing unchecked. Mainly because the CDC test kits would prove inadequate. On February 24th, U.S. confirmed cases had jumped to 53 and health experts were saying that community spread was happening in the U.S. On the same day, The Association of Public Health Laboratories sent a plea letter to the FDA asking if states could develop their own testing protocols independent of the CDC. In a few days, FDA reversed its previous position of defending CDC tests as a national standard and allowed states to begin producing their own tests. By February 29, after 43 days, the CDC tests had only been used 472 times. An astonishingly small number compared to the 60,000 to 80,000 that the original test kits should have represented. The U.S. confirmed case total stood at 68. But hundreds more people had already been infected by the illness in the U.S. We just didn’t have much of a way to know who or where because the CDC-backed testing regime ended up being so abysmal.

March Explosion

In the race between testing to track the illness and COVID-19’s in-built imperative to grow beyond our control in the U.S., the virus was winning. It had gotten a big head start of about a month and a half.

By early March, as the number of tests in the U.S. was finally starting to expand, in large part due to rapid production of tests within states and independent of the Trump-hobbled CDC, U.S. confirmed case totals were rapidly shooting upwards. On March 7, confirmed U.S. cases had hit 435. Redfield on the same day noted about the CDC tests: “We found that, in some of the states, it didn’t work. We figured out why. I don’t consider that a fault. I consider that doing quality control. I consider that success.”

By the end of March the U.S. COVID-19 case total would be the largest in the world. This would necessitate a nationwide lockdown as containment failed risking hundreds of thousands of deaths. Image source: Worldometers.

In one more week, confirmed cases would multiply nearly sevenfold — hitting 2,770 by March 14. Tests were finally starting to work and be produced in larger numbers. But for the U.S., a new worrying statistic was starting to become evident — the number of positive cases per test was notably high. In total about 1 out of every 4-5 people receiving a test were testing positive. This was due to the fact that the primary location for U.S. testing was hospitals and emergency rooms. The U.S. did not have widespread dedicated test facilities like South Korea. So most people who got a test were already very ill. All of this was an indication that the U.S. barely understood even the tip of the COVID-19 iceberg that the country was slamming up against.

By March 21, the number of COVID-19 cases had again exploded — hitting 24,345 or nearly ten times their number from the prior week. States such as Washington, New York, and California were testing thousands of people per day now. And a disturbing understanding of the U.S. disease curve was starting to emerge. A model produced by the Imperial College in London projected that as many as 2.2 million people in the U.S. could die if the U.S. did not move strongly to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Moving To Mitigation as Virus Outruns Containment in a Big Way

Unlike testing, contacts tracing, and isolation, mitigation involves serious constraints on activity within the impacted regions. In effect it would mean lockdowns or stay at home orders for much of the nation. A kind of freeze placed on society and economies in order to reduce mass loss of life. We say reduce, because the mass casualty event for the U.S. had already gotten well out of the bag. Tens of thousands would already lose their lives as a result. The question now was between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands or millions along with a smashed U.S. hospital system.

By March 31, U.S. cases had again exploded to nearly 190,000. Even more tragically, already more than 4,000 souls had been lost due to the virus. A Trump Administration that had promised to provide 27 million tests by that time had only seen the U.S. testing 1 million. And a good portion of these tests were provided not by the CDC or the federal government under Trump, they were provided by states who were forced to scramble to fill the yawning vacuum of a failed federal testing, contacts tracing and isolation response.

Most U.S. states now have more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases. Many now have more than 10,000 cases. The U.S. total will likely near 1 million by the end of April. This massive outbreak has forced large scale mitigation in which most states remain under stay at home orders. Image source: CDC.

Now states would have to step in again. This time to provide the mitigation necessary to prevent about 2.2 million deaths across the U.S., California’s Gavin Newsom issued a stay at home order on March 19, New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, made a similar order just a day later on March 20th, Washington State’s order came on March 25th, Maryland’s own stay at home order began on March 30th. By the end of March, fully 42 states had issued a stay at home policy. A policy that would remain in place for many weeks to come. Containment had failed in a dramatic way. Testing still lagged well behind the need. People who wanted tests still couldn’t get them. And as U.S. COVID-19 case numbers climbed toward 1 million in April, testing would continue to lag the need for it in most places.

The result was a full-on move to mitigate COVID-19’s spread. But the failure to provide enough tests would still haunt the U.S. And a new issue with testing would emerge as debates on how to restart a hobbled U.S. economy in the presence of a widespread and terrible virus that had wafted its way into all corners of our nation would again emerge. Sadly, this debate would continue to include a tone of irrational defiance to advice provided by experts and to the larger threat posed by a deadly and as yet incurable illness from the Trump Administration and its political supporters.

(UPDATED)

Up next: It’s Everywhere Now — COVID-19 A Global Viral Wildfire

 

 

Growth Shock and Our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation and Adaptation, or Harm

Climate change, a topic that once was the purview of scientists and academics, has now become a central issue in today’s political and social discussion. The primary reason for this shift is the emergence of increasingly abnormal, damaging, and severe weather events that have come with greater and greater frequency to plague the world’s cities, states and nations. Tornadoes have devoured entire towns, hurricanes have become more numerous and powerful, freak hybrid superstorms are now a serious risk, 100 year flood events have become commonplace, wildfires are now endemic, causing damage in the billions of dollars annually, and immense country-spanning droughts now range the globe.

A secondary reason for our growing awareness is that it is becoming obvious that the world’s ice sheets are in rapid retreat even as sea levels are on the rise. Nine out of ten glaciers are in decline. The great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland lose hundreds of cubic miles of ice annually. The resultant sea level rise driven by this melt and by thermal expansion of the oceans puts entire cities, states and nations into existential crisis. By the end of this century, practically all of south Florida may be little more than a shrinking archipelago. Some Pacific island nations are planning their inevitable evacuation to places like Australia, New Zealand, or the continents. Almost all coastal cities will be forced to expend significant monies and resources over the next century if they are to have any hope of warding off the rising seas and more powerful storms. An effort that, in the end, may well prove in vain.

It is a slow motion disaster movie script that plays before our eyes now, almost weekly, on the evening news. And there are many, many events that the mainstream media does not cover, likely due to the fact that it has become saturated with stories of this kind.

Growth Shock and Climate Change

Unfortunately this rising climate change emergency is just one aspect of a larger crisis of civilization-wide Growth Shock. Growth Shock is a dangerous condition brought on by a combination of our inexorably expanding global population, our over consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources, and the damage to our environment via carbon pollution that results in climate change. These three forces are all enabled by a great human limiter — Greed — which has been institutionalized in so many of the world’s corporations and is deeply imbedded both explicitly and implicitly in the world’s political systems and ideologies. So to solve climate change, we will also have to do much better at solving the problems of overpopulation, dangerous and violent methods of resource consumption, and the underlying disease of human greed.

To this point it is worth considering a statement from the ground-breaking sustainability work The Limits to Growth:

“If a society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then that society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and optimize for short term gains. In short, that society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.”

I have also just completed my own work on the issue entitled Growth Shock: Tragedy and Hope at the Limits of a Finite World which will see electronic publication within the next two weeks.

Here is the cover image, brilliantly rendered by Matthew Friedman, in which the Vitruvian Man (representing the unsustainable and exploitative structures of humankind) seems to have grown too big for his own good and struggles unhappily against the globe’s confines:

Growth Shock Cover Art

The roll-out for this work will proceed over the next two weeks and it will be managed in such a way as to responsibly redistribute proceeds to charitable causes that, in my view, have been most effective in working to reduce the harm caused by Growth Shock and the related climate emergency (more on this later).

In any case, as climate change is one of the four forces enabling Growth Shock, we have come to a time where we are compelled to make choices and act in ways that prevent further harm through mitigation, to attempt to adapt to the growing nightmare that is now upon us, or to make the choice to fail to act and therefore increase the degree and velocity of harm coming down the pipe.

Mitigation

The obvious and worsening climate emergency that we are now just starting to experience has galvanized a growing cadre of grass roots organizations and individuals dedicated to the cause of preventing as much of the coming damage as possible. These advocates of mitigation believe that strong action now has the greatest chance of reducing future harm. And their efforts and advocacy are based in the sciences. With extreme weather and damaging events ramping up at 400 ppm CO2, the situation is bound to be far worse at 450, 550, 700, or the 900 ppm CO2 predicted under business as usual by the end of this century. Mitigation advocates are clear in the understanding that the less CO2 and other greenhouse gasses we emit, the less dangerous the ultimate crisis will become.

Mitigation and preventing future harm, therefore, must rely on a combination of efforts. Rapidly increasing renewable energy development will be needed to replace a large enough portion of fossil fuel use to sustain life support systems for the planet’s 7 billion human beings. This will involve a politically difficult replacement of fossil energy sources with clean sources like wind and solar as well as the regulation and eventual elimination of carbon emissions altogether. A more efficient use of space and, over all, more efficient life styles will also do much to prevent damage through both reducing energy and materials consumption. Such a transition will be difficult under current economies that are designed to endlessly increase the consumption of materials, labor, and resources all while funneling wealth to the top of social systems. These social and economic structures dangerously enhance the level of damage we cause and so must be challenged and called into question if we are to make much head-way.

To this point, a large shift away from the massive agribusiness of meat farming may well be needed. Today, more than 65 billion livestock are estimated to be held in states of captivity far more brutal and intolerable than even the worst-treated of human criminals. The lifespans of most of these creatures is doomed to a tortuously short 1-4 years and the unspeakable suffering many experience during their times as livestock animals is a black scar of atrocity born by our race.

An estimated 40% of the world’s grain crop goes to supporting this terrible and inhumane manifestation of food industry. Further, the lion’s share of the 30% of human greenhouse gas emissions attributed to human agriculture is based in the meat industry. As such, our industry enhanced dependence on harming animals for food and materials is likely to have to be greatly abated as part of a comprehensive climate change mitigation action. In any case, the amoral practices required by industry to produce such high volumes of meat render it ethically as well as physically unsustainable.

A true comprehensive mitigation will also have to redefine current paradigms of growth and wealth generation. Economic systems will have to become less focused on short term gains and concentrating wealth at the top and more focused on long-term prosperity and survivability through a more equal sharing of and access to more limited resources. The exploitative paradigm of pure capitalism has failed and failed again. This is largely due to the fact that pure capitalism tends to demand all responsibility be placed on the less fortunate and successful masses as the more fortunate are enabled to behave as little more than privileged anarchists. To mitigate the social shocks that are inevitable during a climate crisis and to reign in the massive, excessive and abusive over-use of resources by the wealthy, more responsibility must be demanded from the most privileged members of societies. Wealth compression, therefore, is an effective tool in reducing the harm caused by an over-consumption of resources at the upper rungs of civilization where some members consume more than 100,000 times the resources of a subsistence farmer and about 3,000 times the resources of a person living in today’s middle class.

Since the levels of exploitation and consumption that have enabled climate change to run rampant are encouraged and required by today’s neo-liberal and globalized brand of capitalism, this manifestation of capitalism must be reigned in, caged and defanged if we are to have much hope of mitigating the larger crisis of climate change.

Adaptation

Since we missed our chance to mitigate much of the damage from climate change by about 30 years (we’d have been much better off if we began rapid CO2 reductions, sustainability and wealth compression efforts in the 70s and 80s), a massive effort to adapt to the changes now set in motion will probably be necessary. It is likely that we’ve already locked in many decades of increasingly severe weather, and, likely, centuries of rising seas. Ultimate sea level rise based on the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere will probably terminate at between 15 and 75 feet higher than the current day (rising at between 5 and 15 feet per century). These changes are probably locked in now even if we halt all CO2 emissions today. But, more likely, our best realistic hope is probably to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels at around 450 parts per million, which would result in higher-end damages being locked in for centuries.

As a result, if we are to continue to have powerful, resilient civilizations at the global and continental levels, then we must do serious work to make those civilizations more resilient. Entire cities may have to be moved or surrounded by increasingly tall flood barriers. New port systems will have to be devised to cope with changing sea levels. Architects and engineers will have to alter building and structure design to deal with more vicious storms and weather conditions. Farming will have to become more adaptive. The world’s agricultural systems will have to do more with less. Most likely, humans will have to rely more on grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts (which are more efficient ways to transfer energy and nutrients to the human body) and far less on meat (also a mitigation as described above). We may need to expend resources to ensure that our fellow living creatures, which provide essential life support services, do not become extinct. In short, what damage we cannot prevent via mitigation, we will have to learn to adapt to. As such, human civilization will probably need to take more responsibility in both defending itself and the natural world from the harm that is now coming.

Harm

With carbon pollution already reaching dangerous and excessive levels, any choices that do not mitigate (prevent) or help adapt to future climate change result in an increasing degree and velocity of harm. These choices include climate change denial — which not only insanely disputes the basic physical science behind the effect of greenhouse gasses on Earth’s climate but also ignorantly attributes current increasingly severe weather, temperature and sea level rise to a scientific ‘natural variability’ that denial proponents, purposefully or through blatant stupidity, misrepresent and misunderstand. This is not to confuse those who are understandably scared by the force that is climate change and have succumbed to the natural, though in this case irrational, human response to withdraw from and avoid danger. Political climate change denial seeks to exploit this natural human response for short term political and economic gain and, as such, must be viewed as anathema. Human denial and avoidance of harm, however, is a basic instinct-driven response that must be rationally addressed. In the case of harm caused by climate change, the only rational way to avoid it is through mitigation and adaptation. Denial of the physical forces of the universe unleashed by human over-consumption and institutionalized greed, on the other hand, is little more than a withdrawal into the realm of wishful thinking. Denial, in both cases, causes inaction and paralysis, enables the continuation of business as usual, and, therefore, increases harm.

To this point, any efforts to slow down or reduce mitigation efforts also increases the velocity and force of the harm now rushing toward us. Pressures to slowly mitigate and gradually adapt may seem rational at first, but result in a less tenable future long term. Responses need to be measured, organized and swift — like the emergency procession to lifeboats aboard a sinking ship. Irrationally clinging to damaging systems for as long as possible amounts to playing fiddle on the deck as the critical time to find a place aboard a lifeboat trickles away.

Depression is another natural human response to challenges that far exceed the scope of an individual to overcome. In this case, social depression over climate change has manifest in a form of doomerism that clings to the notion that any action in the face of a growing crisis is futile. To the doomers, I would like to say this:

If there is even a small chance that mitigation and adaptation will bring us through the crisis, then shouldn’t we pursue all efforts and make that likelihood as great as possible? What if the British and the French had simply given up in the face of what, to them, must have seemed an invincible German military juggernaut during the early days of World War II (in fact, their early denial that a problem existed at all set up the conditions for this terrible war in the first place)? To the doomers I would say that the more we fail to respond, the worse the crisis becomes. And a crisis always seems most insurmountable at its start and just before creative response is initiated. Though it is true that many civilizations have failed in the past when confronted with problems that are similar to ours and that climate change, especially, tends to crush civilizations by creating problems that are outside of its ability to evolve and adapt, failure to respond almost always ensures collapse. We may argue now that response is too little too late, but we really won’t know unless we’ve expended all efforts. And so all efforts are, therefore, entirely moral and appropriate.

Lastly, a number of entrenched special interests are heavily invested in harm. These include the world’s fossil fuel companies, the industrial meat industries, a number of investment banking firms that support and profit from such activities via financing, and a large supply chain of industries that produce products based on these activities. Since the resources and profits of these industries are, in part, shared with broader society via the stock market and through the production of cheap, easy to access, goods and services, many states, cities and individuals are also, wittingly or unwittingly invested in harm. As such, a turning away from harm will require conscious choices on the part of individuals, cities, states and industries to not only divest in stock portfolios that profit from harm but also to actively change behavior, methods of consumption and materials use. As we begin this process, entrenched industries and individuals that profit from harmful and exploitative activities are likely to dig in and fight every step of the way. They will attempt to deny us product choices via legislation and market dominance even as they attempt to pretend that harm coming from their practices is both natural and inevitable (directly or indirectly enhancing denialism and doomerism). This institutionalized, irrational and entrenched manifestation of human greed represents the center of gravity of harm coming from human systems and, if we can address it, it is likely that both denial and doomerism will fade.

Considering Moral Responses

In the end, any action that delays or prevents a swift, encompassing, and organized response to climate change increases the level of harm that we are in for. Such a choice, whether conscious or not, is essentially amoral in that it reduces civilization’s chance to survive an emerging existential crisis. A choice that eventually results in an escalating level of damage and loss of lives and livelihoods.

So we’ve come to a tough pass and these, whether we realize it or not, are our choices:

1. To prevent and mitigate harm.

2. To do our best to adapt to the harm that is coming.

3. Or to increase the degree and velocity of harm by failing to act.

My best hopes are for your courage to make the just choices for the sake of you, your family, and for all of us. This is our responsibility to ourselves and each other. And the time to act is now, now, NOW.

Global Warming Enhanced Drought Continues to Ravage US, Likely To Persist at Least ’til Spring

drmon_dec11

When greed’s involved, it’s very, very difficult to get people to pay attention to facts, much less do the right thing — even when it’s in their own long-term best interest. And so a massive climate-change induced drought continues unabated and with almost zero hint of pursuing the only realistic climate solution — reducing fossil fuel emissions — from the nation’s or the world’s major governing bodies.

As of Tuesday December 11, 2012, more than 62 percent of the continental US continued to suffer from a drought that emerged more than 10 months ago. This year’s summer crops were hard hit, causing rising prices in world grain markets and sparking growing concerns about world food prices. Now US winter crops are also under the gun with Plains States showing between 40 and 65 percent of their respective crops in poor or very poor condition.

Around the world, crops are also being influenced by extreme weather resulting from climate change. Serbia is suffering major crop damage from drought and 30% of UK croplands went unplanted as a result of severe weather. These added impacts come on the back of poor Russian harvests (drought-related) and crop disruptions in India due to irregularities in the monsoonal season.

Back in the US, conventional forecasts show wide-ranging drought persisting until at least March. The result is that US winter crops will almost certainly also suffer losses, further worsening the world’s already bad food situation.

droughtoutlook_Feb

The problem doesn’t fully resolve, though, until we take a look at the long-range climate models which show US drought conditions continuing to worsen as fossil fuel emissions ramp up and global warming feedbacks kick in throughout this coming century. In the end, the desert southwest gobbles up the breadbasket.

One would think a wholesale drying out of the nation’s heartland over the next few decades would be something that would spur a rush to reducing fossil fuel use. One would think this, especially, after a global warming enhanced Sandy ravaged the US East Coast about a month and a half ago. But this demonstration as prelude to how vulnerable our extremely valuable coastal cities have become to global warming induced sea rise and storms seems to have fallen on mostly deaf ears.

Though a few valiant democrats have repeated the call of this blog and others to observe the real threat — The Climate Cliff — and not posture over a contrived threat — The Fiscal Cliff — intransigence among the vast body of government and media remain. Just today, a ridiculous New York Times op-ed heralded a new age of US prosperity through increasing oil production. The article, entitled American Bull, describes how a new US National Intelligence Council (NIC) report shows the US will enter new age of prosperity by extracting more oil and gas. The article’s author, Roger Cohen, unfortunately fails to mention that the NIC report also showed an extreme risk for powerful climate change impacts. Neither Cohen nor the NIC report directly link fossil fuel emissions and ever-increasing damage to the climate. A somewhat vast oversight when your farmland is currently withering and when your cities are teetering at the brink of a rising and increasingly stormy ocean. Cohen, in his postulation for American prosperity in the face of such events may as well have entitled his piece American BS.

New oil and gas resources might be cause for some optimism if climate change were a non-issue (as oil special interests and people with their heads in the sand continue to pretend) and if the extraction of such resources weren’t so darn expensive. Marginal oil in the US is now 90 dollars per barrel and rising. Marginal gas is 5 dollars per unit. Huge numbers of drilling rigs are required to get at the Earth-baking stuff. Ten billion dollars in subsidy support in the US and more than 500 billion worldwide goes to ensuring that the hard to reach carbon keeps flowing out of the ground and into the atmosphere (In contrast, less than 90 billion dollars goes to funding solutions to climate change — wind, solar, energy storage and electric vehicles). Now, oil companies are calling for, multi-trillion dollar, geoengineering and climate change adaptation adventures to help defend against the increasing damage caused by global warming. How can anyone talk about prosperity in the face of these rising costs? When will someone wake up and realize that maintaining fossil fuel addiction is just too darn dangerous and expensive?

As these special interest mad hatters continue their Alice in Wonderland tea party at the brink of disaster, the heartland continues to dry, the northern ice cap continues to rapidly melt, the seas continue to rise at an increasing rate, the storms continue to intensify, and the world’s food situation grows worse. The simple solution is this: ignore the greedy, cut fossil fuel emissions, move to safer technologies. Stop being stupid.

Links:

http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

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