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What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Climate Change

Human beings respond well to a crisis that is familiar, especially if it is also imminent. They don’t do nearly as well when the threat is unfamiliar and still apparently quite distant. Consider our response to the current coronavirus threat.

Countries in East Asia with recent experience of similar viruses (SARS, etc.) immediately responded with ‘test, track and isolate’ drills, plus instant lock-downs if the virus had already gained a foothold in the population.

Other countries, just as rich and well-educated, had the same information, but they still waited several months before taking emergency measures that upset the comfortable routine of their lives. So the United States, Britain and France all ended up with death rates per million more than fifty times higher than China, Korea and Japan.

The same applies to global heating, except that in this case we are all Americans. None of us has prior experience of a genuine climate crisis, and although we have known enough about what’s going to happen to justify urgent action for thirty years now, we have done nothing decisive about it.

We have lots of ‘clean’ technology, but total demand for energy has grown so fast that we are still getting a steady 80% of our energy from fossil fuels. Realistically, this is not going to change much. We are who we are, shaped by millions of years of evolution, and our ancestors didn’t do long-term planning; they had to concentrate on acute short-term problems.

A truly serious response to the climate threat will therefore come only when it is actually starting to hurt. Unfortunately, by then it will probably be too late.

The Earth system – biosphere, atmosphere, the oceans, the rocks, all the components that govern the climate – plays by its own rules. It will absorb new inputs like warming for a long time while changing as little as possible: it’s a ‘homeostatic’ system.

We are still benefiting from this feature now: a full degree Celsius of warming already, and not much to show for it except hotter summers, shorter winters and bigger storms. But when the pressure on the climate system gets too great – reaches a ‘tipping point’ – it is liable to charge off in unpredictable directions at high speed.

‘Non-linear change’, they call it, and we won’t like it a bit. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, will start to die.

THEN we’ll be ready to make great changes to save ourselves, but it will be too late. Human systems will be collapsing under the impact of famines, wars and endless waves of refugees, and besides once the climate hits non-linear change it’s almost impossible to bring it back. We’re stuck with wherever it ends up, whether that new state will support a large human civilisation or not.

How far ahead is this calamity? We probably have at least a decade or two. Will we end all our greenhouse gas emissions in that time? Probably not.

‘Cutting’ our emissions isn’t enough. We actually have to stop all of our emissions before we push the climate system over the edge, and we don’t even know precisely where the edge is.

Every bit of emissions we can cut now gives us a little more time before we reach the edge, but the global population will still be going up and people in the poorer countries will still be increasing their energy use. (It’s their turn; you can’t deny them that.)

So the crisis almost certainly will arrive, and then we will finally be willing to make radical changes. What we will desperately need at that point is more time. That’s why we will need geoengineering.

Geoengineering is not a cure; it is a way of temporarily counteracting the warming caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases, by reflecting a small part of the incoming sunlight in one way or another.

In fact, you could say that it is ‘positive’ geoengineering, as opposed to the large-scale ‘negative’ geoengineering we have been doing for the past two centuries by dumping huge amounts of warming gases into the atmosphere.

When we are finally ready to act decisively on global warming, we will need a window of time to make the changes that are required to preserve this global civilisation and the biosphere it now dominates. Only geoengineering can create that window.

We don’t need to start geoengineering now. It would be wonderful if we never have to do it, but that would take a miracle. We cannot know how long we would have to go on doing it, either: long enough to get the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to a safe level, certainly, which would be at least a matter of decades.

But even without knowing the answers to these questions, we clearly need to speed up research and testing of the various potential techniques for geoengineering now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Cutting…that”)

Trump and the Yellow Peril

It was completely predictable that Donald Trump would try to blame China for the fact that at least 30 million Americans are unemployed and that 70,000 Americans have already died of Covid-19. His polling numbers are down and the election is only seven months away. What else was he going to do? Blame himself?

That’s why we’re now getting the good old ‘Yellow Peril’ defence, fresh from the late 19th century. As a memo sent out by the National Republican Senatorial Committee to Republican candidates put it: “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban – attack China.”

The coronavirus now spreading death across the world certainly originated in China. The Chinese government itself said so, before it started prevaricating after Donald Trump began using China as a scapegoat.

There was at least a week’s delay in late December when officials in Wuhan didn’t report the outbreak to Beijing, fearing they would be blamed for alarmism, or simply for letting it happen. That’s when Dr. Li Wenliang wrote in a private WeChat group: “7 confirmed cases of SARS were reported [to hospital] from Huanan Seafood Market.”

It wasn’t really Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It was a new coronavirus closely related to SARS, which had caused a much smaller but lethal epidemic in 2002. But Wuhan officials didn’t want to believe it, and on 3 January Li got a warning from the local police to stop “making false comments on the Internet”.

Six days later the first person in Wuhan died of what we now call Covid-19. On the same day, 9 January, the World Health Organisation (which Trump now vilifies as ‘China’s public relations agency”) announced that China had reported the emergence of a new coronavirus like those that caused the SARS and MERS epidemics.

So there was at least a week when Chinese officials at the local or national level had the information and hesitated to publish it, partly because they weren’t sure yet themselves. But only two days later Chinese scientists published the full genetic sequence of Covid-19 so that researchers everywhere could start working on potential treatments and vaccines.

Other East Asian countries that had experience of SARS understood the seriousness of the WHO warning and promptly began diligent testing, tracing and isolation of infected persons. As a result, they never had to go into lockdown (South Korea has had 250 deaths; Taiwan had 6). China did a partial lockdown, but is now up and running again.

But then the real delay happened, and it had nothing to do with when China reported the disease. The point is that Western countries did nothing serious about the pandemic for an astonishing TWO MONTHS after that.

Trump boasts that he banned travel from China to the United States early, but in fact the United States was the 41st country to declare such a ban, on 2 February. And it was a very leaky ban, affecting only non-US citizens. Another 40,000 US citizens and permanent residents flew in from China during the next two months, many not being checked for coronavirus at all.

Italy started locking down some municipalities in the country’s badly hit north in late February, but no European country went into national lockdown until 9 March. The United Kingdom waited a further two weeks after that, until 24 March. The United States never did a national lockdown, but most states had social distancing policies in place by early April.

Those even longer delays explain why the UK and the US are on track to be the two countries with the highest Covid-19 death rates, but why did they all wait so long. Why weren’t they at least setting up comprehensive testing, tracing and contacting systems and making more ventilators and protective clothing back in January? Did they think they were exempt?

That’s probably what they did think, and their people are now being punished for their governments’ arrogance. But Donald Trump’s attempt to shift the blame for a huge US death toll and a looming economic disaster onto China is utterly cynical and false. The problem wasn’t a week’s delay in China; it was a couple of months’ delay in America.

If it should turn out that the first human infections with Covid-19 were due to a leak from the Biosafety level 4 Wuhan Institute of Virology, not at the Huanan Seafood Market in the same city, it changes nothing. BSL4 labs (there are around twenty in the world) routinely work with dangerous viruses, because otherwise we’d never develop defences against them.

An accidental leak from a BSL4 lab would be a rare and very serious mistake, but that’s probably not what happened in Wuhan, and in any case it’s clear that no hostile intent was involved. The US national intelligence director’s office has determined that Covid-19 “was not manmade or genetically modified.”

That will not stop Donald Trump from scapegoating China, even at the risk of causing a new Cold War. Never mind the fate of the world. It’s the fate of Trump’s presidency that’s at stake here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Other…again”; and “Trump…at all”)

Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has run afoul of the language police. Last Thursday he publicly called the ‘coronavirus’ that has already killed 0.000013% of the world’s population the ‘Wuhan virus’. When challenged about this criminal violation of linguistic propriety on Friday he just said it again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was shocked.

I know how Pompeo must feel, because my innocent suggestion that we call it the ‘Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus’ got an equally hostile reception. It broke the WHO’s rules on naming new human infectious diseases.

The WHO guidelines, issued in 2015, say that names must avoid geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), people’s names (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), species of animal or food (swine flu, monkey pox), cultural or occupational references (legionnaires’ disease), and terms that incite fear (e.g. ‘fatal’ or ‘epidemic’).

So you may die of it, but nobody’s feelings will be hurt. COVID-19 may be boring, but at least nobody will think it has anything to do with China. In reality, however, everybody knows that China made a mess of this.

First of all, the age-old Chinese cultural tradition of blaming the messenger, reinforced by the Communist Party’s very hierarchical structure, delayed public acknowledgement that there was a dangerous virus active in Wuhan for several crucial weeks.

Dr Li Wenliang, the first person to raise the alarm about a viral outbreak on social media, was warned by the police not to spread rumors. (He died recently after being infected with COVID-19.)

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, admitted last month that he had delayed taking public action to slow the spread of the virus – like banning Wuhan residents from travelling elsewhere for Chinese New Year, for example. Why? Because local government had to get permission (from Communist Party headquarters) before fully disclosing information about the virus.

Secondly, the Chinese version of the internet is now seething with stories about how the United States developed the virus in its secret labs and deliberately planted it in China. There are conspiracy theorists everywhere, but in China the hundreds of thousands of censors who man the Great Firewall instantly take down posts that deviate from the official line. They aren’t doing it this time, which tells you all you need to know.

Indeed, while the Chinese Communist Party initially accepted that the outbreak began in China, denial is growing even in official statements. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian complained last week that by calling the outbreak ‘China virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ “and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare.”

Zhao insisted that no conclusion has been reached on whether the coronavirus originated in China, and the Chinese military’s online portal Xilu.com recently published an article claiming that the virus is “a biochemical weapon produced by the US to target China.” But behind all the bluster and denial, China is actually doing the right thing.

Folklore, superstitions and ‘old wives’ tales’ abound in every culture, but beliefs about the power of’jinbu’ are unique to China, and explain why eating specific wild animals plays a major role in traditional Chinese medicine. The exotic meat ‘fills the void’, allegedly enhancing sexual performance in men and beauty and fertility in women.

Yi-Zheng Lian, former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, noted in a recent Washington Post article that eating bats, thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, is said to be good for restoring eyesight. Bile and gallbladders harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone, or snakes and bulls’ penises for the impecunious, are for erections.

Small wild animals are often the intermediaries that transmit the new coronaviruses to people. The ground-up scales of pangolins supposedly cure cancer and asthma, but are also implicated in passing the Wuhan virus to human beings. Palm civets, suspected of having transmitted the SARS virus to humans, are said to cure insomnia when stewed with snake meat.

China’s ‘wet markets’ sell a wide variety of these animals– and they often sell them live, because that supposedly makes the ‘jinbu’ stronger. China is not the only source of new viral diseases, but it certainly produces more than anywhere else. Yet in all the previous epidemics, the Chinese regime did not dare to shut down the trade in wild animals. Popular belief in jinbu was just too strong.

Now it has finally done it. Late last month all the enterprises breeding wild animals were shut down permanently, markets have been forbidden to sell them, and even eating them has been banned. They’re closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, you might say, but it will help a great deal in the future.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Dr Li…COVID-19″; and “Yi-Zheng…erections”)

Is the ‘Devil Virus’ a ‘Black Swan’?

China officially went back to work on Monday, after an extended two-week Lunar New Year holiday, while the authorities struggled to get the spread of the new coronavirus under control. But a lot of Chinese are not going back to work yet, and the spread of the ‘devil virus’ (as President Xi Jingping called it) is manifestly not under control.

This virus has already killed over 800 people – more fatalities in two months than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002-03 caused in seven months– and it’s accelerating. The last few days have seen more than 80 deaths a day, and the death rate in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, the point of origin of the disease and still its epicentre, is now 4% of those infected.

The death rate is still only 2% nationally, but infections elsewhere are generally more recent than those in Hubei province and may not reflect the final death rate. And it’s still spreading fast within China: four large cities in Zhejiang province on the coast are now also locked down.

Significantly, President Xi is no longer claiming that he is “personally commanding” the anti-virus fight. If this is going to be a complete disaster, somebody else should take the blame, and the man in charge of the national campaign against the virus is now vice-premier Sun Chunlun.

Well aware that he is now the designated fall guy, Sun immediately visited Wuhan and declared that the city and country now face ‘wartime conditions’. Waxing full-on hysterical, he warned: “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.” But mere rhetoric won’t save him if the epidemic goes nationwide.

It probably will: the two or three weeks that were wasted after the virus was first detected cannot be recovered. But the enforced holidays, travel curbs and lockdowns, belated though they are, may still limit the spread of the virus beyond China.

Or maybe not, but even if the virus is largely contained within China the risk of financial infection is high. High enough, in fact, to qualify as a potential ‘black swan’.

A ‘black swan’ is an unforeseen event that has a huge impact on the normal course of events. The SARS epidemic in 2002-03 was a black swan: it knocked about two percentage points off China’s economic growth that year. However, that epidemic did not cause a global recession, because back in those days China was only a small part of the global economy.

Now the Chinese economy is the world’s second-biggest. It takes up four times the space in the global economy that it occupied in 2002, so a 2% fall in Chinese economic growth translates into at least a half-percent hit to the entire global economy. Which would not be a big deal if the global economy was in good shape, but it isn’t.

Indeed, twelve years after the 2008 sub-prime financial crisis the global economy is still in the intensive care ward. There has been no return to the pre-crisis high growth rates, and interest rates, except in the United States, are still at rock-bottom. That means the banks have no room to cut the cost of borrowing and stimulate demand if the economy is starting to tank.

This applies in particular to China itself, where the banks have been forced by the government to finance huge amounts of unproductive investment as the regime continuously ‘primed the pump’ in order to ward off a recession.

It worked, in the sense that the loans financed a further orgy of construction that has now equipped the country with 100,000 km of under-used expressways and four half-empty 60-storey apartment towers at all four corners of every major intersection in each of the country’s hundred biggest cities. China was the only major country to avoid a recession after 2008 – but it left the banks staggering under a mountain of bad debts.

By now China has a Potemkin economy where the official economic growth rate is 6% a year but the true number, as measured by electricity use or megatons of freight carried by the railways, is between 2% and 3%. Knock 2 percentage points off that and you have no growth at all – and a crisis of survival for the regime.

That would be the biggest black swan you ever saw, but remember that the lies and official incompetence that surrounded the Chernobyl disaster played a big part in making the Soviet public ripe for regime change a few years later. Could the coronavirus have a similar effect? It’s not likely, but it is conceivable.

The immediate and short-term deaths from the Chernobyl melt-down amounted to sixty people. The Wuhan coronavirus has killed a dozen times as many Chinese citizens already.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“The death…down”; and “It worked…debts”)