When to Pull the Emergency Brake?

Important announcement: COVID-19 is a deadly and extremely contagious disease, which will kill hundreds of millions of people unless we manage suppress it. Please cooperate with the authorities, follow the instructions from health professionals, and avoid unnecessary contacts with other people. Social distancing is important!

The actions currently being taken worldwide to stop the spread of the coronavirus can best be compared to pulling the emergency brake on the world economy. Interestingly, the same governments that refused to sacrifice even the tiniest amount of economic growth to save the environment, are suddenly prepared to implement a complete lockdown of public life, costing trillions of dollars and causing a global recession. It is important to understand why.

The argument for implementing drastic measures against the coronavirus is compelling: If we fail to stop the spread of the virus early, we will lose control of the situation and there will be nothing left to decide. Even if stepping on the brake now will not necessarily solve the problem, it might at least buy us some time to think about what to do next. Currently, it is not clear whether the spread of the virus can be contained.

The same argument can be made for stopping global warming and environmental destruction. If we wait until the polar caps have melted and a large amount of species have gone extinct, there will be very little left to decide. At that point, we will run out of sensible options and will simply be struggling to survive by reacting to disasters as best as we can. It would make a lot more sense to act now.

One important difference between the coronavirus and global warming is the time scale. People are dying from the virus today and the full extent of the disaster will become obvious within a couple of months. This makes the problem politically relevant. With climate change, most people have the feeling that the problem is not urgent and that we still have plenty of time to act.

Bengt Ekerot and Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman

Unfortunately, I believe that there is a more fundamental reason for our different reactions to climate change and the coronavirus: a primeval fear of death. Most people are concerned about the future of their children, but they are simply terrified by the idea of contracting a deadly virus. It is difficult to think rationally in the face of death.

The global pandemic caused by the coronavirus will be over in 1-2 years. Despite the current drop in greenhouse gas emissions, the struggle to stop climate change and to decarbonize society will have to continue. Whether we like it or not, society’s response to Covid-19 offers some important lessons for the future:

  • People a mainly motivated by fear.
  • Drastic political measures are possible in the case of an emergency.
  • If scientific models give you early warning of an impending disaster, it makes sense to act quickly and decisively.
  • Never listen to economists when they talk about global challenges.

Less than two weeks ago, some economists were still warning against spending too much money on fighting Covid-19. Apart from the fact that no economist has ever understood exponential growth, they always seem to overestimate their ability to predict the economic consequences of disruptive developments. It simply does not make sense to extrapolate if the entire society sinks into chaos and anarchy.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon is all too familiar in climate politics. When William Nordhaus claims to be able to predict the economic consequences of 4°C of global warming, he is either mad or almost criminally ignorant. We all know that the uncertainties in such a prediction are large enough to render it meaningless. Nonetheless, it serves as a convenient excuse for inaction.

The economy emerging from the coronavirus pandemic will have to be much more sustainable and resilient than the one we have today. This will not be possible if we only focus on maximizing GDP.


PS: If you really want to understand exponential growth, here is an excellent cartoon.

2 thoughts on “When to Pull the Emergency Brake?

  1. Stating that COVID-19 could kill millions of people if unchecked is a gross exageration, since mortality is mainly found for people over 75 years, 75% of them men and longtime smokers, with other concurring illnesses.Please visit http://www.worldometers.info, a wiki information page in real time covering all 180 countries.
    Underdeveloped countries, where population over 65 years of age is very rare and smoking is not popular will be very little affected in terms of deaths. Then you have the outstanding case of Taiwan, a developed country and very close to Wuhan/China, which by enforcing rigorous contamination control already from Jan 1,2020 has so far the worldwide best record in taming COVID-19. For the moment hospitalized patients in highly contagious countries represent 0,1% of population, e.g. 1.000 ppm, and death are about 100 ppm.
    Taking the population of G-20 of 1 billion people, we could get up to 100’000 deaths as a rough estimates of casualties by the end of 2020. Let’s check this estimate by December 2020!
    Hugo Wyss

    1. I am also tracking the development and it currently the number of dead is increasing by 12% per day, meaning that the will be more than 1 million dead by mid-May. The estimate by Imperial College was 2.2 million dead in the US and 0.5 mio. in the UK. Since we are already at 12000 dead and the number doubles in less than 8 days, we will hit 100’000 by April 11. This is serious.

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