In Hot Water with COVID and Climate

An oft-told story in the world of climate change considers the behavior of frogs in hot water. Put a frog in a pan of hot water and it will jump out. Put a frog in a pan of water and slowly heat it and the frog will remain to be cooked in place. As a scientist, I’ve always wanted to test these predictions, but my childlike admiration of frogs has kept me from doing so. It may be a myth, but Al Gore and others recite the story frequently with regard to the human response to climate change. When the problem is distant and slow to materialize, humans choose to stew in their own juices.

We have learned something more about this human response during the past month. COVID-19 is a nasty, highly contagious disease that could kill a large fraction of those who get it. The U.S. populace jumped into a pan of hot water in early March. Following initial narcissistic denial, even the genius-in-chief felt the hot water from the science and from the wise counsel of Anthony Fauci from the National Institutes of Health. He was late in advising us to jump out of the pan, now imposing restrictions on behavior and on our economy that one could not dream of a year ago. The President now claims that if only 200,000 die from COVID-19 in the United States, that will be a success story. If only we had acted sooner.

For COVID-19 and climate change, scientists don’t make up the scenarios. In case of COVID-19, a long history of epidemiological studies describes the transmission and infection of diseases in novel populations of organisms. The science commands immediate and drastic actions to avoid the consequences of the plague and the flu of 1917-18 that killed vast numbers of people. In time, science will bring us a vaccine that will keep COVID-19 at bay. This was not the time to cut funding for research and response for public health.

Similarly, for climate change, past observations of our planet in response to changes in carbon dioxide levels inform predictions of what to expect in the future. We’ve had much time to respond, but opted not to do so—even mocking the scientists who have offered the warnings. Now, as the consequences of a warmer climate unfold before us each day, we have little time to choose a course of action. The winter of 2019-2020 was the warmest on record. What we face in climate change is roughly equivalent to what we faced with the first appearance of COVID-19 in the nursing home in Washington about a month ago. We delayed action then and now feel helpless to the consequences.
Whether for an acute impact like COVID-19 or a long-term impact like climate change, policy decisions must be based on science, and scientists must be brought into the highest levels of government to inform policy. The health and economic consequences of our late response to COVID-19 are felt by all. Similar consequences will be felt in our late response to climate change.

It’s time to jump out of the hot water.

(The) Economist. 2020. Winter is not coming. March 28, p. 77

Robinson, S.A. and others. 2020. The 2019/2020 summer of Antarctic heatwaves. Global Change Biology

Schlesinger, W.H. 2017. When science informed policy. Biogeochemistry doi:10.1007/s10533-017-0317-x

3 thoughts on “In Hot Water with COVID and Climate

  1. Bill:

    I have a question for you and your readers. With so many cars and trucks off the road, and so many vehicles and planes and boats not operating, so many factories and businesses shuddered, what happens to the CO2 concentration, H2O concentration, particulates, and cloud cover during this shutdown period. With less traffic, has less dust etc. kicked up into the atmosphere, fewer particles for the formation of high clouds due to air plane contrails? Is anyone taking notes, monitoring gases, particulates, opacity, air masses, cloud cover, upper air turbulence, heat sources like cities, etc? How will this actual data affect existing global warming or climate change modelling upon which so many political decisions are being made by legislatures? This makes science fun. Just some thoughts.


  2. Amen, Dr. Schlesinger – I wholeheartedly agree. Forgive my simplistic question in trying to find some good news amid the bad. Do you think that these months of reduced engagement with society will temporarily lessen our environmental impact enough to make a measurable difference? Perhaps the fact that we are driving less, many businesses are shut down and not running machinery that pollutes, we’re cooking at home (so hopefully less food waste), etc — could these forced behaviors for a period of months give us any environmental benefit? Or at least data to show the impact of reduced pollution, albeit a microcosm within the overall climate change trajectory? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Both this comment and the last suggest that we may emit less carbon dioxide as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown and lower economic activity. This is most likely to be the case, and past studies have shown direct correlations between the level of economic activity and carbon dioxide emissions. Remember, though, that unless carbon dioxide emissions are zero, the amount in the atmosphere will not decrease; its just that the rate of INCREASE will decrease. I also expect fewer airplane contrails in the upper atmosphere, which may reduce the degree of regional warming.

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