Rugged Individualism is on Display in the Covid and Climate Crises
Evan Mills, Ph.D.
The roots of the climate and Covid-19 crises are intertwined.
Fifteen years ago I wrote with colleagues at Harvard Medical School about how climate change fans the flames of infectious disease. While it’s fortunate that no direct links between Covid-19 and climate have yet been detected,* broad social and political parallels are on display as the world barrels toward 45 million cases and 1.2 million pandemic deaths. The similarities range from the power of individuals to cause (and solve) big problems to the dirty war on science, designed to distract.
Both crises are global, and demand a coordinated response. Neither viruses nor carbon dioxide respect geographic and economic borders. Both disproportionately impact lower-income and non-white populations. Both fuel social unrest. Both curves need to be not only flattened, but bent back towards zero, ideally through the efforts of good leadership and empowered citizens. Magical thinking won’t put either genie back in its bottle. Procrastination and half-measures only amplify the impacts and delay recovery.
Both crises are existential. Climate change also kills, with an estimated 150,000 annual deaths today, projected to rise to over 500,000 within the next few decades, and to potentially many millions by the end of the century. Bill Gates has noted that by the end of this century the death rate from climate change will be five times that from this pandemic, and within just twenty years the economic impacts will be like having a pandemic like our current one each and every decade.
Both have passed dangerous tipping points with little more than a yawn from America’s Republican leadership — a bunch of rugged individuals — who see smaller government as the ‘solution’ to both problems and thus abdicate responsibility.
These calamities demonstrate our interconnectedness, vulnerability, and sub-par resilience. They reach into every corner of the economy and daily life, often in unexpected ways. Disrupted supply chains and overwhelmed healthcare infrastructure are prime examples. We have seen a confluence of climate extremes and the pandemic as the heatwaves, hurricanes, and mega-fires of summer compromise cardiovascular and respiratory health, making people more vulnerable to Covid-19 and thus further burdening hospitals. Healthcare is already being rationed. Inevitable climate-related extreme events have made it all the harder to contain the pandemic in the general population and among first-responders. While state governments point out these connections, the rugged feds remain silent. It’s frighteningly easy to imagine mass evacuations morphing into super-spreader events.
We can do better. The resiliency benefits of collective-mindedness may be contributing to why most Asian and Western European countries have fared better than us. Infections and mortality rates in the U.S. place us mostly among developing countries, but without the excuse of less advanced medical infrastructure. The U.S. death rate of 69/100,000 stands in sharp contrast to that of Germany (12), Australia (4), or Japan (1).
One difference in the U.S. stands out: staunch me-against-the-world individualism, epitomized by a narcissistic leader in the form of President Trump setting a bad example for many citizens. Yet, it’s also true that success, and survival, will come down in part to how individuals handle themselves.
Less rugged individuals often feel powerless in light of massive threats. Some point to big-bad factories, jets, and power plants as pollution-belching climate villains, but a third of energy-related greenhouse-gas emissions actually come from homes and cars, and our individual consumption of goods and services drives much of the rest. It was uplifting to see that, thanks to individual choices during the pandemic, energy use temporarily plunged and brown skies turned blue again. In the same way, social-distancing is key to curbing the spread of Covid-19 infections. The rub is that individuals — at home and in their workplaces — underestimate their influence and are reluctant to endure relatively minor inconveniences today to avert far worse consequences tomorrow. Compounding the problem, humans (especially Americans, it seems) are quicker to go for reactive after-the fact fixes (vaccines or seawalls) than for far easier and less disruptive preventive measures (wearing masks or switching off a light).
The U.S. debacle provides a textbook example for how not to respond to these crises. We have a stunning 20% of global Covid-19 infections despite only 4% of the world’s population. Similarly, we release a disproportionate 15% of all global greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the U.S. is home to such high rates of infection and climate-change denialism.
Our rugged leaders are not the only ones to blame. But they have certainly made hay. They are weaponizing the Covid-19 crisis as a pretext for reversing climate commitments and other environmental rules. The U.S. has rolled back vehicle emissions targets, climate change adaptation efforts, and other environmental policies at precisely the moment when responses could be strategically focused. For a refreshing counterpoint, witness Germany and France’s acceleration of the transition to electric cars and other green initiatives to help restart their economies. The World Economic Forum sees the links and The International Energy Agency has outlined many such win-win opportunities, once again dispelling the myth that environmental protection and economic growth — or recovery — are mutually exclusive.
And our leaders do their best to twist public opinion, and prey on the public’s lack of science literacy. In these strange times, partisanship seems to drive beliefs and behavior more so than facts or body counts. Worshipers of small-government have long grumbled that Aunt Columbia and Uncle Sam should stay out of their lives when it comes to climate policy. They are grumbling anew in the face of the pandemic. It is heartbreaking that even slightly earlier government action on Covid-19 could have saved tens of thousands of lives. Leadership by example (face masks anyone?) could play a key role, yet President Trump’s contrarian behavior deliberately confuses and misdirects. He desecrated the White House itself by calling his and his guests’ defiance to wear masks a “peaceful protest”. The Oval does not have a monopoly on hipocricy; many local “leaders” have excelled in setting bad examples in their dining and travel habits.
Enter the war on science. Trumping facts with beliefs, disdain for and suppression of science have enabled the pandemic to spiral out of control. The same behavior underpins the so-called “climate debate”, serving only to hamstring efforts to get in front of the problem. In both cases, quackery, disregarded preparedness plans, procrastination, blame-shifting, and disinformation have thrown sand in the gears and allowed the threats to snowball, requiring unnecessarily herculean measures to contain them. Skewed economic analyses exaggerate the costs of sound responses (be they energy efficiency improvements or prudent sheltering in place) and ignore or downplay the costs of inaction (be they weather-related disasters or the more draconian measures that will be required if we relapse into a second wave of infections). And all the while, ideologically-driven media outlets amplify misinformation, steering the public and its leaders away from the facts and into harm’s way. The same advertisers who were filling Fox News’ coffers during climate disinformation campaigns continue to do the same under Covid-19 — mostly insurers, no less; they should know better (and many of their colleagues claim that they do).
Conspiracy theorists in the Trump Administration traffic in deceptions that climate change and the pandemic risks are exaggerated, if not outright hoaxes. Self-centered and oh-so rugged truth-twisters wield the same playbook fancied for decades by climate change deniers. They recycle cheap tactics like conflating anecdotes with data, tilting at straw-men, and cherry-picking facts that support arbitrary beliefs. They muzzle and bully institutions, experts, government officials, and, indeed, entire agencies. They falsify data and undermine monitoring efforts. As we saw in previous administrations, which substantively altered peer-reviewed climate reports, the Trump administration tampered with CDC scientists’ assessments of Covid-19 risks.
Meanwhile, as noted by Thomas Friedman, during the pandemic our rugged leaders are pushing citizens to play Russian Roulette with their lives in the name of “liberation” from the tyranny of face masks and sheltering-in-place, while duping them into amplifying disinformation via social media. The President endangers and causes infections even among his own staunch supporters.
Lest there be any question about our president’s appreciation for science, he endorses doctors who warn of illnesses from “demon sperm” and conspiracies to incorporate “Alien DNA” into medicines. Coming back to Earth, perhaps the essential insight — and key parallel between climate change realism and Covid-19 realism — is the false dichotomy that solutions are contrary to economic prosperity. As Dr. Fauchi eloquently states, individuals must take “responsibility for [themselves], but also a societal responsibility” that their actions affect everyone adversely … and that ”there has been this unusual and unfortunate mindset of there’s public health measures and getting the economy back, and these are two opposing forces…”. Prudent individual measures for getting out of these messes are actually “a vehicle or a gateway…not the obstacle”.
Sadly, for Covid-19 and climate change alike, the public is being misled and injured by the hubris of fact-averse leaders and peddlers of pseudoscience. The good news is that while one form of individualism has gotten us into these messes, choices inspired by a bolder form of enlightened self interest can get us out. That’s good news, particularly since our current leaders won’t do it for us.
Hope lies in individuals recognizing the power of self-determination, tempered with recognition of our interdependence. Untethered skeptics must surrender to science for the building blocks of solid decisions. Empowered individualism will support solutions in today’s leadership vacuum, while today’s rugged individuals are just puppets kicking around a cold campfire while cursing the bitter grounds at the bottom of their coffee cups.
* In August 2021, new research from biostatisticians at Harvard University showed that 20% of the Covid-19 cases (and a higher percentage of deaths in some areas) in the American west were linked with compromised respiratory health resulting from climate-linked widfires raging in those areas.
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Evan Mills is a retired Senior Scientist formerly with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Research Affiliate with U.C. Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, and co-author of several reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. He collaborated with Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment on an early assessment of climate change impacts on public health, including infectious diseases. He has over 300 publications in the energy and environment field. The views expressed here are his own.