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Guest Editorial

The (Sometimes) Reality Of “I Told You So”

by Richard A. Lovett

 

When I was young, I was a creature of summer. I loved the sun, the heat, the long, long days you get north of the 45th parallel, where I’ve spent most of my life, where sunset lingers after 9 p.m. and dawn comes way before you want to wake up. Birds chirping in your window at 5:00 a.m.? Where are the earplugs?

Then suddenly it would be August, and with fall looming, I’d long for a way to drag my heels, slow the clock, and bask in the sun just a little longer.

Not so today. I currently live in Portland, Oregon. We had a day last June that hit 108°. That would be hot in Yuma, Arizona. Here, it broke the all-time record. But it wasn’t a record that lasted very long. The next day hit 112°. The day after that, 116°. And this was in June, less than a week into official summer. Freak meteorological conditions? Yes. But we’ve had those before. Last time a heat wave like this happened, in 2009, Portland got something like 102°, 105°, 106°. This was the same weather pattern, but 10° hotter. Not to mention, in June.

*   *   *

By August, we were dealing with another problem: smoke.

Wildfires are something the American West has always seen, but in recent years giant blazes spreading palls of smoke over hundreds of miles have become an annual event. My love of summer has turned into a prayer for the smoke-killing rainstorms of fall. Who cares if I’m cold and damp and can’t bask in the sun? At least I can breathe.

And here’s the point: ever since I was in high school, more decades ago than I like to contemplate—back before even the first Earth Day—the warnings were already out.

In the late 1960s, a geophysicist named Joseph O. Fletcher cautioned against the rising tide of carbon dioxide emissions in a white paper called “Changing Climate” put out by the Rand Corporation (not exactly a group of mushy-brained feel-gooders). “Other factors being constant,” he wrote in the dry terms of such publications, “CO2 from human activity could cause important changes of global climate during the next few decades.”

Nor was Fletcher the first. Ten years earlier, a young researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography named David Keeling convinced astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii to install instruments to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The result is the Keeling Curve: the world’s most definitive record of the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the past 64 years, from a little under 320 parts per million in 1958 to 420 parts per million today.

But even Keeling was building on the work of other scientists. All the way back in 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for other work, argued that if we burned enough fossil fuels to double the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide from its then level of 295 parts per million, that would be enough to warm the globe by an average of 5°C (9°F).

It’s an estimate that is at the high end of today’s predictions, but not off the charts. And, rather amazingly, Arrhenius made it using nineteenth-century atmospheric science, generations before today’s detailed global climate models and the computers needed to run them. Even if he didn’t nail it, he got close enough to recognize a looming problem, long before anyone else was thinking about it.

Not that any of these scientists were prescient enough to predict Hurricane Ida, staggeringly hot heat waves, or the drought that has rendered so much of the American West so dry that news services spent much of the summer of 2021 introducing people to the concept of pyrocumulonimbus storms: fire-driven thunderstorms so intense that they can inject smoke into the stratosphere and set off smoke detectors in high-flying jetliners hundreds of miles away.

But the basic point remains. It’s not like we weren’t warned. It’s more like being on an airplane flying at 12,000 feet, heading toward a 14,000-foot mountain range, with the ground controllers telling the pilots, first calmly, then with increasing urgency, to gain altitude, change course, or otherwise do something. When the pilot does nothing, then crashes into a mountain, why is anyone surprised?

*   *   *

The same applies to COVID.

I’ve spent much of my life hanging around public health scientists. There are lots of things they worried about, but in the realm of infectious disease, the big one wasn’t some exotic disease like Ebola. It was a repeat of the Spanish Flu.

Most of us these days know the story. The Spanish Flu had nothing much to do with Spain other than that neutral Spain was willing to talk about it while other countries, mired in World War I, initially tried to play it down. It most probably began as a bird flu, exacerbated by dismal weather conditions on the Western Front battlefields that kept millions of soldiers in close quarters with infected ducks whose migration patterns had been messed up by the war.1

Not that where it came from is all that important. What matters is that it came, with devastating results. My grandmother was a freshman at the University of Iowa at the time, and remembered the campus being under quarantine with students confined to their dorms, except to attend classes. Even so, medical facilities were so overwhelmed that the gymnasium had been turned into a makeshift ward for critically ill students.

In other cities, there were mask mandates and even anti-mask protests, with San Francisco having a home-grown Anti-Mask League that carried on large-scale events.

Some cities fared better than others, with the difference turning largely on how seriously they took the pandemic and how willing their governments (and populaces) were to take swift action. Philadelphia, for example, was slow to react, and saw 748 deaths per 100,000 residents (that’s 0.748 percent) in the first 24 weeks. St. Louis, which reacted more aggressively, saw less than half as many (358 per 100,000), mostly after it thought it had beaten the pandemic and briefly got too complacent.2

Sound familiar?

Not that COVID is the Spanish Flu redux. Thankfully, it’s not quite as deadly. As I write this, COVID’s death toll in the U.S. hit 200 per 100,000, over the course of its first 18 months. In its two-year progression, the Spanish Flu killed about 675,000 Americans, out of a population of about 105 million. That’s 640 per 100,000, making it about three times more deadly.

But still, we were warned. It had happened before. And we were nevertheless caught off guard.

*   *   *

What does the traffic controller say when the plane crashes into the mountain it refuses to climb over?

What does the climate scientist say when fires rage, crops fail, and hurricanes become ever fiercer?

What does the public health researcher say when people and governments just won’t do the things science shows are needed to keep medical facilities from being so overwhelmed with COVID cases that if you are unfortunate enough to get cancer or be in a car accident, there may not be enough room for you in the hospital?

One of the most tempting answers lies in the title of this editorial. “I told you so.”

It’s the frustration of the expert who just can’t seem to get the message across. But the only person for whom that is useful is the expert, needing to blow off steam. However good it might feel to say it, it does nothing to solve the problem.

Which raises the question: why does this happen? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

The first question is easier. Partly it has to do with the difference between the timescale of our lives and that of the things the experts study. As an extreme example, suppose you were told that the Sun would go nova 1 billion years from now, but that it could be prevented if everyone today chipped in $10 to an anti-nova research fund. Would you contribute?

And if that sounds absurd, we face a similar problem with earthquakes. There are parts of the world where enormous earthquakes are known to recur every five to ten generations. There are ways to protect against them—for cities they involve reinforcing bridges and buildings, and for residents they involve laying in a month’s worth of food, water, and other supplies—but none are cheap. And if yours isn’t the generation hit by the earthquake, it’s wasted money, as far as your own life is concerned, even if you can afford it.

Another problem is the presumption of normality. In disaster movies, people are often depicted as screaming and running around in mindless panic. But that’s not what tends to happen in real disasters. Some years ago, I was at a science meeting where researchers discussed this in the context of earthquake warning systems, which can detect seismic events dozens or hundreds of miles away and relay information to people in the path of the impending seismic waves up to a minute or two in advance of what is about to hit them.

The problem with these warnings, the researchers said, isn’t that they’ll produce widespread panic. To the contrary, it’s that even as things start to go bad, people cling to the presumption of normality. They don’t instantly panic. Instead, they have trouble grasping that something bad is heading their way, now, and are slow to react.

You can see this in videos of mass disasters. When a shooter opens up on a crowd, people aren’t sprinting madly in all directions. Often, they are walking, or jogging. It’s like they know something is wrong, but are not yet fully engaged in just how wrong it is. You see the same thing in places about to get hit by tsunamis. Until it’s too late, too many people aren’t moving as though their lives depend on getting as far up and away as possible, now.

This presumption of normality also makes us slow to react to dangers that extend over the course of months, years, decades, or centuries. Today was normal; this week was normal; this year was normal; the past decade was reasonably normal—so what’s the big deal?

*   *   *

One of the most interesting examinations of this I’ve found comes from an organization called RVTS East in one of the most disaster-free countries in the world: Norway.3

It starts by noting that our brains, under threat, are biologically wired to scan our surroundings, looking for the source of the threat. But that doesn’t work if the threat is something we aren’t adapted to deal with, such as climate change or flying toward a 14,000-foot mountain range we don’t believe is there. Threats like that simply aren’t as immediate as a lion or sabre-tooth tiger. Even a tsunami might be too academic for the most primal parts of our brains to deal with quickly enough. As for climate change or COVID? Forget it. It’s not a predator on the verge of eating us for lunch in the next thirty seconds.

The solution, the Norwegians suggest, starts with looking realistically at the risks, well before they materialize, whether they be of terror attacks, tsunamis, or storms like Hurricane Ida. “Those who have training education, or experience in handling dangerous situations react most efficiently,” the Norwegians write.

They are talking specifically of preparing for short-term disasters like terrorist attacks or tsunamis, where taking even a few moments to think about what to do if the unthinkable happens can be all that’s needed. At one level, it’s nothing more than what we’ve all been taught about having smoke detectors and a fire-escape plan.

But it also means investing enough time and energy to separate the science from the anti-science. Otherwise, our dying thoughts might be, “Damn, they told me so.”

 

Footnotes:

     1 “The Impact of a Six-Year Climate Anomaly on the ‘Spanish Flu’ Pandemic and WWI.” Alexander F. More, et al, GeoHealth, 4(9), September 15, 2020, https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2020GH000277.

     2 “How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic.” Nina Strochlic and Riley D. Champine, National Geographic, March 27, 2020.

     3 https://v1.psykososialberedskap.no/en/uncategorized-en/reactions-to-danger/.

 

Copyright © 2021 Richard A. Lovett

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