For those engaged in the fraught debates over climate change over the past few decades, the use of alarmist models to guide policy has been a familiar point of contention.
Up to a few months ago, life was normal. Well, sort of. In that pre-coronavirus normalcy, the reigning narrative was that of mankind facing assured destruction if we did not amend our wasteful – read carbon-intensive — ways. Short of a drastic curtailment in our use of fossil fuels, we would all perish in the not too distant future.
How distant depended on who one listened to. At the radical end of the spectrum — US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, teenage icon Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion folk among others — gave us a decade or less before we would face the fury of the elements, be they fires, droughts, floods, and other horrors of biblical proportions. The “moderate” position held by the mainstream climate change establishment — ranging from the key multilateral organizations such as the UN’s IPCC to the private sector with oil majors such as Shell and leading environment and social governance (“ESG”) practitioners like Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund BlackRock – held that we had to reach the “net-zero” rate of carbon emissions by 2050 lest the world climate “tip over” to Armageddon.
But then, something happened along the way. Up popped a particularly contagious virus, first in its birthplace in Wuhan, China, and then spreading across the world. In a mere couple of months, the novel coronavirus began to wreak death and economic mayhem, the latter caused primarily by governments panicked into shutting down entire swathes of the economy to “flatten the curve” of infections to avoid health systems from being overwhelmed.
It did not take long after the onset of the global pandemic for people to observe the many parallels between the covid-19 pandemic and climate change. An invisible novel virus of the SARS family now represents an existential threat to humanity. As does CO2, a colourless trace gas constituting 0.04% of the atmosphere which allegedly serves as the control knob of climate change. Lockdowns are to the pandemic what decarbonization is to climate change. Indeed, lockdowns and decarbonization share much in common, from tourism and international travel to shopping and having a good time. It would seem that Greta Thunberg’s dreams have come true, and perhaps that is why CNN announced on Wednesday that it is featuring her on a coronavirus town-hall panel alongside health experts.
In response to both threats, governments and their policy experts habitually chant the “follow the science” mantra. In everything from face masks and social distancing (1 or 2 meters, depending on the relevant jurisdiction) to the duration of lockdowns, governments were “led by the science”. California governor Gavin Newsom told protestors last month “We are going to do the right thing, not politics, not protests, but by science”. In banning the sale of mulch and vegetable seeds and such-like as non-essential, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer proclaimed in a New York Times op-ed that “each action has been informed by the best science and epidemiology counsel there is.”
But, beyond being a soundbite and means of obtaining political cover, ‘following the science’ is neither straightforward nor consensual. The diversity of scientific views on covid-19 became quickly apparent in the dramatic flip-flop of the UK government. In the early stages of the spread in infection, Boris Johnson spoke of “herd immunity”, protecting the vulnerable and common sense (à la Sweden’s leading epidemiologist Professor Johan Giesecke) and rejected banning mass gatherings or imposing social distancing rules. Then, an unpublished bombshell March 16th report by Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, warned of 510,000 deaths in the country if the country did not immediately adopt a suppression strategy. On March 23, the UK government reversed course and imposed one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns. For the US, the professor had predicted 2.2 million deaths absent similar government controls, and here too, Ferguson’s alarmism moved the federal government into lockdown mode.
Unlike climate change models that predict outcomes over a period of decades, however, its takes only days and weeks for epidemiological model forecasts to be falsified by data. Thus, by March 25th, Ferguson’s predicted half a million fatalities in the UK was adjusted downward to “unlikely to exceed 20,000”, a reduction by a factor of 25. This drastic reduction was credited to the UK’s lockdown which, however, was imposed only 2 days previously, before any social distancing measures could possibly have had enough time to work.
For those engaged in the fraught debates over climate change over the past few decades, the use of alarmist models to guide policy has been a familiar point of contention. Much as Ferguson’s model drove governments to impose Covid-19 lockdowns affecting nearly 3 billion people on the planet, Professor Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” model was used by the IPCC, mass media and politicians to push the man-made global warming (now called climate change) hysteria over the past two decades.