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Sun’s corona? Virus? Earth in 2100? 

“…this short-term threat [COVID-19], to a small percentage of humans, is being treated as a crisis — all hands on deck. Meanwhile, the existential threat to humans, plants and animals is all but ignored. SUVs keep humming, developers keep cutting trees, coal continues to be mined and oil gets subsidies.” — “Boston Gail” commenting in the New York Times, 3/6/20

What’s the difference between the COVID-19 epidemic and global heating? And what do they have in common?  

Let’s start with an obvious similarity. Both are disrupters. They can kill thousands, or potentially millions of people, and wreak havoc with the social order and the global economy. 

The principal differences between these crises are the speed of their development and the thoroughness of their destruction if they remain unchecked. The COVID-19 epidemic is like a spring flood, rushing across continents, leaving a wake of devastation before it quickly recedes. Global heating is like a great, deep river. It moves more slowly but more powerfully, inexorably cutting its swath, then enduring for centuries. COVID-19 will do its damage, but likely leave civilization basically intact. Global heating could mean the end of civilization. 

But despite these differences, both emergencies should be met with similar coordinated, global responses to minimize their impact: and as I write this, neither is being appropriately addressed. 

That, counterintuitively, means that there could be a silver lining to the mess that has been made of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. For despite all the chaos and suffering the botched response is causing, it’s possible that we can at least learn some lessons about how to prepare for the next, possibly even more deadly pandemic and the rapidly approaching tipping point for runaway global heating.

The principles for an appropriate international response are twofold, and straightforward. One, we are all in this together. Two, forearm when forewarned. 

Nation states are artificial constructions based on historic accidents. And while national boundaries encourage much boasting and chest thumping on the part of some homo sapiens, they are not recognized by pathogens, which easily pass through them.

So, while travel restrictions might have a minimal effect on the spread of viruses, we delude ourselves if we think closing borders will keep us safe. Unless not one single individual — whether he or she is a diplomat, merchant, scientist, smuggler or returning citizen — is allowed to enter a country, border closings are largely ineffective. 

It is also entirely counterproductive to defund or disempower institutions such as the World Health Organization. Tasked with identifying disease outbreaks that could spread from their point of origin; helping countries, especially poor countries, contain those outbreaks; and coordinating international response when there is global transmission, such bodies are critical to defending ourselves. Strengthening them and coordinating with them, as opposed to adopting a go-it-alone attitude on a planet where everything and everyone is connected, is our best hope for mitigating or eliminating pandemics. 

Forearming when Forewarned

Which bring us to forearming when forewarned. Whether the threat is one of a fast-moving pandemic or the quickly approaching tipping point for global heating, it is essential that we have well-planned mitigations in place before the disaster is upon us. 

The tepid, belated and ultimately disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect case in point. Permanent skeletal emergency-response teams that are designed to be scaled up quickly are requisite for any nation’s security. Such groups can keep tabs on threats, advise their governments as to when and how to respond, and ramp up responses as needed by quickly putting the appropriate organizations and specialists to work. Also, adequate emergency supplies of equipment, food, drugs and so on must be stockpiled. In short, countries, many of which spend enormous sums on military preparedness, must recognize that humble viruses, dying oceans and global heating are every bit as dangerous as alien armies. 

COVID-19 will cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Next time, we might not be so lucky at our ecological house. 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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