Alberta Politics
Dr. Johnson, second from left, commands the attention of guests at a literary party at the home of the portraitist, Joshua Reynolds (Image: By American engraver John Sartain, after James William Edmund Doyle, published in 1851).

Think what we could have accomplished if we’d concentrated on climate change like we’re focusing on COVID-19!

Posted on March 26, 2020, 2:38 am
7 mins

“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” observed Samuel Johnson, a great wit of the 18th Century.

If you doubt the truth of this aphorism, consider the coverage of the greatest news story of the 21st Century, the arrival on our shores, and everyone else’s at the same time, of the coronavirus and COVID-19, which may be the first disease named by a committee of bureaucrats, at least if you except all those syndromes.

A portrait of Dr. Johnson, engrossed in a book, by Joshua Reynolds, 1775 (Image: Public Domain).

I am not arguing COVID-19 does not deserve either the news coverage it’s receiving or the serious response it’s getting from most national governments — at least the ones that aren’t led by political parties euphemistically known as “conservative.”

As Jonathan Watts wrote in the Guardian earlier this week, “Like global warming, but in close-up and fast-forward, the COVID-19 outbreak shows how lives are lost or saved depending on a government’s propensity to acknowledge risk, act rapidly to contain it, and share the consequences.”

He noted, further, an observation that is near impossible to dispute, that, “on these matters, competence and ideology overlap. Governments willing to intervene have been more effective at stemming the virus than laissez-faire capitalists. The further right the government, the more inclined it is to delay action and offload blame elsewhere.”

Dr. Johnson was a Tory, of course, but that is a variety of conservative no longer found except in headlines. Today’s conservatives are all neoliberals, although that’s not a very helpful designation, as the same can be said of most Liberals, New Democrats and American Democrats as well. But the “conservative” strain of neoliberalism is the most virulent and destructive. But, je digresse.

COVID-19 threatens the lives of a huge number of human beings, even if it is not as lethal to those it infects as, say, the Black Plague or the Ebola virus.

But the main factor, I suspect, in the all-encompassing news coverage this new disease has received is the ease with which it is transmitted and, in an era of international airplane flight, the speed at which it moves.

Dr. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. If a time traveller infected with a still asymptomatic case of COVID-19 had decided to sail from London that year, he or she would one way or another no longer have been infectious by the time the ship had completed the six-week to three-month voyage to New York.

The fact that COVID-19 could spread from China, where it was first identified whether or not that’s where it originated, in about a fortnight has indeed concentrated our minds wonderfully.

Even if the attention-deficient mind of the man charged with leading the United States doesn’t recognize this reality, almost everyone else does, including the people who write our almost instantaneously transmitted news reports today. So, due to the great truth of the phenomenon Dr. Johnson noticed, we are living in a virtual news monoculture, wherein almost nothing else is reported.

Consider then the problem of global climate change, which arguably presents a much more serious challenge to the survival of humankind.

Despite being well understood for decades, its course set out in models that have proved accurate to date, it failed for years to garner any attention at all outside academic circles, and when it finally did it was subject to a largely successful campaign of denial, delay and obfuscation by conservative governments, the fossil fuel industry and others who saw short-term benefits in the present state of affairs.

Indeed, the government of Alberta, which fortunately seems to be taking the coronavirus quite seriously, nevertheless all but created a new industry out of denying climate change — although not a very busy industry nowadays judging by the output of the Alberta Energy War Room, which still hasn’t published a story since March 11.

Like teenagers warned about the common consequences of sex, drugs and rock and roll (which most often include babies, lack of ambition, and eventual deafness), we haven’t paid much attention to the genuinely catastrophic consequences of global climate change because it’s not likely to be felt in a fortnight.

Indeed, our governments’ biggest concern about drugs nowadays seems to be that cannabis sales might fall. Conservatives that a generation ago warned too much pot could end civilization as we know it, have in the face of rampaging COVID-19 declared cannabis stores to be an essential service!

Imagine if we had directed the amount of attention to the problem of climate change we have to COVID-19, once confronted by the prospect of needing a respirator in a fortnight! We might not have solved it, but we would be working on solutions that would help.

Alas, Dr. Johnson’s rule is an inflexible one. By the time we get around to addressing the problem of climate change seriously, we may very well be at the end of our rope.

10 Comments to: Think what we could have accomplished if we’d concentrated on climate change like we’re focusing on COVID-19!

  1. Jenn

    March 26th, 2020

    Green New Deal Now!

  2. Murphy

    March 26th, 2020

    It’s pretty clear that the COVID-19 outbreak does not show “how lives are lost or saved depending on a government’s propensity to acknowledge risk, act rapidly to contain it, and share the consequences.” There really is no getting around the fact that this bug spreads rapidly but there is scant evidence that this quality makes it more dangerous than the other pathogens that kill a half million people every year by inducing pneumonia in the elderly and infirm. The WHO sounded the freakout alarm when there were 150 cases outside China, and this after Western media had been screeching for a month about the Chinese failure to manage the bug. As soon as the Chinese acted, they were pilloried by the usual suspects for being “authoritarian”. This is a big ol’ fat smelly psy-op, on a scale that matches the geo-stratetic economic wreck that was taking place this fall.
    One hundred attacks on the Afghan National Army in two days by the Talibanos last week, nineteen years into the War to Save Freedom from the Mountain-dwelling illiterates. Ever wonder how a major insurgency lasts eighteen years without a major power sponsor? The NLF in Vietnam were receiving everything they used from China and the Soviet Union, and the US Air Force was going gang-busters to interdict this traffic for over ten years. Anyhow…
    Climate change is not being addressed because that particular instability is a function of the speculative financial economy. The virus panic is a tactic to inculcate people with a particular set of perceptions. The panic let’s us blame the elderly and infirm and those who don’t listen to the benevolent people in our neoliberal (proto-fasct, n’est-ce pas?) while the super bail-outs get fired up again.
    The Drumpf is the greatest tool that the Empire could have dreamed up. The list of significant defecits dislayed by this guy is too long to go into in any depth, but he lies, he’s ignorant, he’s stupid, he’s lazy, but more than anything he is massively egotistical and insecure. He operates in a realm in which every single, and I mean every, person is a professional liar. But he’s too stupid to understand that the lying is part of the job, so in order to show us all how clever he is, the Drumpf spills the beans. As a professional hustler, he understands that most people are being deceived by their betters all the time, but he doesn’t get that his current job principally involves shoring up those lies. So every so often he says something that is painfully, obviously true, as opposed to his usual misinformed gibberish. Because any sentient creature knows that Drumpf is relentlessly dissemblingling, no resonable person can accept what the Drumpf says, ever. It works perfectly. His semi-literate, bewildered base embrace anything that comes out of his face, and his opponents reject it all. On the rare occasions when Drumpf is correct, which he more or less seems to be in his “views” on the bug, he’s rejected outright by the entire corporate media machine, with the exception perhaps of Fox.
    The Chinese got painted into a corner by world opinion driven by western corporate media, and being the Chinese, played ball and locked down the equivalent of two Canadian populations. It’s similar to Putin pretending that the fantasy claims about Syrian NBC weapons were true and then intervening to eliminate the imaginary supply before Obama could launch a full-blown war to topple the Syrian government. The Russians did the same thing in Kosovo when NATO was pretending that their herion-trafficking islamist terrorist KLA allies were being genocided by the New Hitler®. The Russians said that they would join in to prevent the 27-person genocide and seized the Pristina airport to the gnashing of teeth among NATO warlords.
    I watched Ken Burns’ program “the War” years ago. At one point a former US serviceman is interviewed who goes on at great length about the revelations of a captured German about the German plans for a Nazi-occupied USA, right down to how Connecticut would be managed. No such training program ever existed in Nazi Germany. The guy’s tale is a complete fabrication from whole cloth. The initial Nazi war aims in 1939 were to seize parts of Eastern Poland, in the face of a Soviet Union that had been trying to form a military alliance against them for five years. The Nazi plan in 1940 was to force a settlement with Great Britain. By August of 1941, two months into Barbarossa, the German losses and delays at places like Smolensk ended any rational plan for victory over the Soviets, and the deal was sealed by the third week of December outside Moscow. Yet in the twenty-first century, a “progresive” media entity like PBS was more than happy to promulgate a bizarre, second-grader fantasy about just what the War was all about. We live in a fantasy-world created at the behest of the people who gave us the richest class of people in all of human history. Pharoahs in all but name.

  3. Rob Dresser

    March 26th, 2020

    Well put, Dave. My fear is that we’ll emerge from the other side of this pandemic in a weakened and destitute state. If we couldn’t fund a meaningful climate change effort, including a transition to clean energy, before the pandemic what chance is there that we will be able or willing to muster the funds afterward? Canada is in this for probably $200 billion, all in. The US has, as we’ve seen thrown $2 trillion at COVID-19 (in its own perverse fashion).

    Compounding this is the deadline we’ve been given to cut emissions by half by 2030. The virus will stop enough production to create a temporary GHG decline but there’s a real chance we’ll enter some catch-up mode as the contagion abates. I don’t know how we’ll meet the 2030 challenge especially as we were not on track before the virus became a household name.

  4. Just Me

    March 26th, 2020

    The strength of denying Climate Change is that if you can get enough crackpots and lunatics together, presumably lead by a well-financed pro-fossil fuels lobby, they will make enough noise to cause distraction and doubt in the minds of those who are uncertain where to stand on the issue. This goes back to the example of the people living close to a leaking dam. Those who live near the dam can clearly see the leaks, but those further up the valley doubt that there are leaks at all. Of course, if they live so far up the valley that when the dam does break, they will be spared the disaster, while all others perish.

    The problem with the Coronavirus pandemic (I have recently learned that COVID-19 is the disease but not the virus itself, which is commonly called Coronavirus.) is that its presence is not in doubt. In fact, it’s moving through the community with enormous speed. Deserted streets, shuttered businesses, packed hospitals, busy health care workers, and the rising body count are proof enough that no one can afford to doubt that it’s real.

    But there are those who still try.

    The accounts of people in Florida and elsewhere in the US, living their live blissfully, believing that Coronavirus is just another liberal plot is part of the dark comedy that is Trump’s America. They are convinced that the pandemic has been inflated out of all proportion by the liberal MSM, for the purpose of ushering is evil democratic-socialism. They believe this because, Foxnews, One America Network, conservative talk radio, the pulpits in the megachurches, and Trump tell them it is so.

    The laughable part of this unfolding farce is that Trump is promoting that this will be all over by Easter Sunday. On that day, which Foxnews commentators have dubbed ‘Resurrection in America’, there will be no need for social-distancing or any other preventative measures. The skies will clear, the air made pure, and the megachurches will be packed. The imperfect vessel that is Trump will, with the guiding hand of all Mighty God, restore the moral America that the Obama years have soiled. Yep. Those who were spared are the truly moral; and those left dying waiting for a spare ventilator are the immoral waste of liberalism and the ‘Chinese Virus’. Praise Trump.

    At the risk of sounding morbid, I’m cheering for the virus. Maybe once its full destructive power is felt over and over again, sparing no one, then maybe — just maybe — no one will ever mess with the notion of a well-funded and responsible public health care system again.

  5. Dave

    March 26th, 2020

    I am not that optimistic about the corona virus, but a bit more optimistic about climate change. There is a general weakness in human nature that many ignore or do not take seriously enough serious threats that are not urgent, particularly when difficult political and personal action is required. It is only when the urgency becomes more apparent that many people become more willing to act.

    We dithered about the corona virus in early March, when more decisive action might have been more effective and now it is really to late. We can’t really stop it any more, just perhaps slow it down and reduce the number of people affected.

    The fortunate thing with climate change is that at least we have more than a month to react and take decisive action. It seems recent extreme and catastrophic weather events are getting the message across to more people that this really is a serious problem. As voters become more concerned, politicians respond – at least the smarter ones do. Hopefully we will not waste the time we still have to deal with this

  6. Political Ranger

    March 27th, 2020

    The irony here is that this disease itself is the greatest aid to reducing climate change. We must remember that climate change is but a symptom of that most epochal pandemic of all, the spread of the human beings. Simply removing several million humans from existence on the planet will improve conditions for all other life forms.

    The tens of millions of barrels of oil that are not being consumed everyday because people are staying home, because countries are not allowing flights, because first-world economies have shuttered to a halt, is the best thing that has happened to the planet in a long, long time.

    It is perhaps the height of hubris to suggest that the effort to contain the climate change problem will be harmed because people are not focused on it. People are the problem. People consuming stuff are the problem. Doesn’t matter if the consumption is for a good purpose or a bad purpose, way too much stuff is consumed by way too many people.

    From the global environment point of view, less people is a good thing. Less people consuming stuff is an even better thing. Herein lies the only true solution to ‘our’ climate change problem.

  7. Just Me

    March 27th, 2020

    Judging by Tyler Shandro’s recent behaviour, one wonders how much longer he’s going to last.

    The reported incident between Shandro and his wife with a doctor, who happened to criticize Shandro on social media, reveal much about the UCP’s mindset. Cornered, their aspirations now under threat, thanks to some spectacular turn of events, they are lashing back with a fury that is unbecoming for public officials. Worse, based on emails submitted to the media, where Shandro made open threats to various parties, presents a tipping point where the UCP may have its first political casualty. Considering the appearances of impropriety are glaring, to put mildly, there is no doubt that Shandro must do the right thing and resign. Or, Kenney has to take him out. At this moment, we will have to see who has the courage.

    My suspicion is that both are too cowardly.

  8. Abs

    March 27th, 2020

    Well, someone’s at the end of his rope. Right, Tyler Shandro?

  9. Magda

    March 27th, 2020

    Slightly off-topic but I’m taking bets that Shandro gets fildebrandted before much longer. He has crossed the line into becoming a non-asset to Team Jason. 5…4…3…2…

  10. Jim

    April 5th, 2020

    It may have the opposite result if this goes on for several months, at least wtih the current plans like the green new deal and other similar ones. After spending months confined to small apartments with ones freedom of movement limited who would agree to making this permanent? Given that so much has been shut down it would be interesting to see what the CO2 numbers look like and what effect these lower numbers have on climate change.


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