Lessons from the Pandemic about Climate Change

What does the COVID-19 pandemic tells us about climate change?

Below are my deliberately provocative musings on the subject, in no particular order, posted to engage discussion.

These musings are headed:

1. Models are not infallible.

2. Experts can get it wrong.

3. Experts can disagree.

4. The Precautionary Principle  –  No such thing as a free lunch

5. If you can’t trust the WHO in a pandemic, why would you trust the IPCC on climate change?

6. If you can’t trust the Chinese in a pandemic how can you trust them on climate?

7. Global pandemic action versus global climate inaction.

 8. The importance of transparency and sharing of data.

9. Paris is officially dead.

Click read more to read the detail.

1. Models are not infallible.

When dealing with complex subject matter involving lots of uncertainties, unknowns and data gaps, modelling will almost certainly be wrong. That doesn’t make them worthless but nor does it mean they should be elevated to infallible status and acted upon as though they constitute proof of something.

If we can’t get epidemiological models right involving trajectories of months what is the chance of climate models being correct considering they involve substantially greater uncertainty, unknowns and data problems involving trajectories of decades to centuries?

Most epidemiologists I have read in relation to COVID-19 are very open about about the limitations of their models and potential to be wrong precisely because of the aforementioned problem of dealing with lots of uncertainties, unknowns and variable data quality. Epidemiologists seem to be constantly revising their models as they work to plug their knowledge gaps and feed revised model predictions back to government.

In contrast climate scientists tend to understate the uncertainty inherent in their models and rather than revising models (and the the theories and assumptions underpinning them) when they are seemingly wrong they too often resort to revising the data to fit the models or rely on fudge factors to tune the model.

When epidemiologists get the R0 wrong they change it based on better data and revise the forecasts. When climate modellers get climate sensitivity wrong they move the goalposts and maintain (or exaggerate) the forecast (e.g. 2C to 1.5C).

2. Experts can get it wrong.

The pandemic has shown that epidemiologists and health experts the world over have got COVID-19 wrong at one stage or another.

The most famous example is the Imperial College model that forecast 2.2m deaths in the United States and over 500,000 deaths in the UK. Critics have argued this was never plausible but it was the catalyst for UK lockdown policy.

Claims by Australia’s health experts that the health system would be overwhelmed to the point of collapse have proven to be wrong but have justified the nationalisation of private hospitals and cancelling of all elective surgery as well as the draconian lockdowns we are experiencing. Dan Andrews even procured 4,000 ventilators he now concedes Victoria won’t need.

To be fair epidemic models chart a range of scenarios / simulations based on imperfect information and are constantly being revised as stated above. To the extent these models impact policy and behaviour they also have a self-fulfilling aspect to them. This makes it hard to invalidate the models. Moreover, if there is a scenario for every occasion it is pretty easy to claim the model is correct. That is a pretty low bar (and something they share with climate models).

The expertise is therefore more about judgement, i.e. which scenario do we believe to be most probable and hence the basis of policy making. It would seem that at the beginning of the pandemic many experts wrongly believed COVID-19 was not so scary (e.g. WHO likened it to SARS (774 deaths) and advised against travel bans). As the bodies piled up in northern Italy the experts did an about-face and started predicting the Spanish Flu. They were wrong on both counts having underestimated early and overreacted later.

We need to rely on experts but we should never believe that experts are always right (or united in opinion). Moreover, the more insular an academic field of enquiry the greater the danger of groupthink (i.e. all models rely on same parameters / assumptions). The COVID-19 crisis shows experts can get it wrong (and be divided) and instead of trying to manufacture expert consensus policy makers should be encouraging a diversity of expert opinion that hopefully leads to better science and better decision-making.

3. Experts can disagree

Experts can disagree and this is normal in science (and policy making).

During the pandemic, health experts across the world have disagreed over epidemiology models (e.g. R0) ranging from thousands of deaths to millions, over treatments (i.e. the efficacy of anti-virals and anti-malarials), over who and how to test (targeted (symptomatic) versus broad based (even antibody testing), how to record cases and fatalities (e.g. Italy counting deaths with COVID the same as due to COVID, Belgium recording deaths suspected to be COVID related but not verified), the origin and nature of the virus (laboratory/synthetic or wet market/natural), over what the public health response should be (full lockdowns, targeted lockdowns, Sweden (minimal) or something in-between), and the susceptibility of children to the virus, leading to divergence on school closures.

That there is scientific disagreement in a field plagued by lots of uncertainties, unknowns and problems with data is hardly surprising and when this disagreement is engaged with respectfully, critiqued and debated it adds to our knowledge and helps us get closer to the truth faster. That is how science progresses.

Why is it that medical and biomedical experts can respectfully disagree and debate one another during a pandemic, but in the field of climate change, debate is shut down in favour of a groupthink consensus and academic bullying?

How is that in one field of science which is characterised (as stated above) with high uncertainty, lots of unknowns and variable quality data, academic divergence is the norm, and in another with the same characteristics  consensus is the norm? What does this say about climate change?

4. The Precautionary Principle  –  No such thing as a free lunch

The COVID-19 crisis is a classic case of the precautionary principle in action. The policy measures put in place have been justified by the worse case scenarios of epidemic models forecasting mass deaths and hospital systems in collapse.  These scenarios have been hyped up by an alarmist media presenting such scenarios / predictions as established fact.

Part of the problem stems from politicians abdicating responsibility for decision-making and hiding behind health experts as human shields. These experts have nothing to gain and everything to lose from underestimating the epidemic. No-one wants to be blamed for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.

This leads to experts relying on a precautionary approach as an insurance policy. If the situation turns out to be a lot less serious they will still be credited with saving lives and no one will blame them for the cost because that was outside their area of expertise / responsibility. They will also still have job. Governments will shirk the cost issue by saying they relied on the health experts showing hundreds of thousands of lives being lost. It is an accountability merry-go-round.

However, there is no such thing as a free lunch and the precautionary principle approach to COVID-19 has resulted in far more draconian measures in Australia than were arguably necessary, coming at an astronomical cost (social, economic and political). A major problem of a precautionary approach carried out in silos is that it undervalues the trade offs of actions by over weighting the risk.

The resort to the precautionary principle also justifies draconian climate policies based on worse case scenarios lacking in evidence (and logic) and also coming at huge cost that no one wants to admit (e.g. “the cost of inaction is worse”) or own . COVID-19 should serve as a reminder to the public that there is no such thing as a free lunch and precautionary climate policies will also involve catastrophic waste and despair made worse by the fact that unlike the COVID pandemic there isn’t even a viable precautionary solution.

5. If you can’t trust the WHO in a pandemic why would you trust the IPCC on climate change?

The neo-liberal (in international relations terms) notion that the UN (and other international institutions) are independent actors working altruistically for the global good has been blown to bits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The conduct of the WHO and its complicity with China throughout the pandemic has demonstrated what realists have always known, i.e. international institutions are not independent actors, but instead reflect the interests of great powers in the international system.

China has effectively bought the WHO through its belt and road initiative. It uses this funding not only for strategic assets, on a loan to own strategy, but also because the easy money (and corruption) buys a lot of UN votes ensuring a Chinese puppet can be elected President of the WHO.

The blatant capture of the WHO by China is a a huge wakeup call. If you can’t trust the WHO in a pandemic crisis (its competence, integrity, or political neutrality) you probably shouldn’t trust the IPCC about a climate crisis. Follow the money.

6. If you can’t trust the Chinese in a pandemic how can you trust them on climate?

The COVID crisis also demonstrates why should not trust a communist dictatorship to act truthfully, transparently or ethically, much less put global interests above national interests even in times of an international crisis.

If we can’t believe China about infection rates, how can we believe their carbon accounting? If we can’t trust China to reduce the spread of a virus, how can we trust China to reduce the growth in CO2 emissions? If we believe China has captured/corrupted the WHO how do we know it hasn’t captured/corrupted the IPCC? If China will prioritise national interest in a health crisis, why won’t China prioritise national interest in a climate crisis? If we don’t believe China action/excuses in a pandemic why would we  believe China action/excuses on climate change? If we can acknowledge China is trying to exploit the health crisis geo-strategically (i.e. South China Sea military manoeuvres) and geo-economically (belt and road and coercive threats), why will it not exploit climate change in the exact same way?

China has repeatedly shown it will aggressively pursue national interest above global interests throughout this crisis. As the world’s largest emitter of CO2 (hence amongst the most to lose) and the single biggest contributor to the growth of emissions over the past 3 decades, not to mention the largest beneficiary of industry transfer from first world nations (benefitting from “developing nation” status), decarbonising their economies to free riding “developing nations” such as China, and underpinned by UN climate agreements, on what basis can the international community reasonably expect China to be serious and interested about reducing its emissions especially if it that entails a geo-economic or geo-strategic cost?

7. Global pandemic action versus global climate inaction

The COVID-19 crisis has resulted in pretty much a worldwide imposition of tough policy restrictions on economies and people, including the closing of borders and the banning of global and domestic travel, not to mention the suspension of democracy.

The world moved in concert, in a period of weeks, without a UN declaration or resolution (in fact in spite of the WHO), much less a conference of politicians, bureaucrats, experts, activists, billionaires, celebrities, the global media elite and Swedish schoolgirls. They just did it. They believed the threat was real, imminent and dangerous and so they acted.

Climate inaction on the other hand has been the norm for over 30 years ever since the establishment of the IPCC in 1988. Despite 5 assessment reports (each one years in the making and involving thousands of scientists representing an alleged consensus) and dozens of global conferences, not to mention  Al Gore movies and tours telling us the planet is going to die if we don’t do something in the next few years (also take a bow Tim Flannery), nothing of substance has happened.

A pandemic threatens to kill a couple of million people and the world acts. Climate change we are told will destroy the planet, killing billions and the world has done next to nothing. What does this say about the robustness of climate science, the urgency said to exist, and the feasibility of renewable energy and battery solutions?

Action speaks louder than words.

 8. The importance of transparency and sharing of data

The COVID-19 crisis is a fantastic example (with the exception of China) of countries, organisations and individual scientists sharing and disseminating data and research, all cooperating to try and find a vaccine or treatment for the virus.

It hasn’t mattered that research papers were peer reviewed, fully controlled experiments, replicated and validated and so forth. Moreover, they didn’t hide behind paywalls or FOI requests. It was driven instead by a desire to get information out quickly and hence try and fast track a solution that would save lives. COVID-19 scientists have collaborated and cooperated on an arguably unprecedented scale.

Access to climate data on the other hand almost always involves FOI requests and a fight to the death with scientists to get them to hand over data underpinning their work and findings. The climate-gate emails were particularly revealing in this regard, revealing the extraordinary lengths many notable (i.e. IPCC authors) climate scientists went to in order to shield their data from independent scrutiny (arguably knowing it was bogus – i.e. hide the decline).

The COVID crisis has shown the irrelevance of peer review and the degree to which self-interested gatekeepers actually hold back the progress of science and perpetuate politicised science (including in the COVID case the political censorship of Chinese scientists trying to do the right thing). The corruption of the peer review process pertaining to climate change and its censorship of research critical of the political consensus has been known for years. The COVID crisis shows why it should go and with it the IPCC.

9. Paris is Officially Dead

Just like the GFC killed off the Copenhagen (“Hopenhagen”) climate negotiation in 2009 the coronavirus has now killed off the Paris Treaty (already pretty much dead but surviving “Weekend with Bernie” style by Green theatre). With the global economy forecast to hit Great Depression levels no government is going to pursue emission abatement at the expense of jobs and growth.

Hence, this COVID-19 is a litmus test for Green claims about future jobs and wealth generation of renewable investment. If Green investment is the future of jobs and growth we should expect to see a lot of Green stimulus coming out of the pandemic (which can match to outcomes). However, if there is a decline in renewable investment we know the claims are false and governments and merchant banks have been lying about it for years.

Expect Greens to lobby hard for stimulus dollars in the wash up of COVID-19 with all sorts of claims about investment, job creation and economic growth. While I expect Australia to fall for it (in part) I expect the rest of the world will deliver a fatal blow on the Paris Treaty.

Follow the money.


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29 Responses to Lessons from the Pandemic about Climate Change

  1. Cpt Seahawks

    When 10 people only are allowed on a 1000 square m bowling green in WA, but three greens can be open? That is a social gathering of 30 people.
    And yet of course, 250 people can be on 1000 square m of beach in WA.
    I’m confused by the cavity minded Government gnus and clock watchers.

  2. Spinner

    There is a major threat that will arise out of Covid-19 and the actions now undertaken by Governments around the world. It is already under way. Many of the restrictions imposed on the population and backed up by their enforcement authorities and selective health expert recommendations, are perhaps just a training exercise on how far they can go to enforce their ideology. If they continue to promote that we have nearly reached the point to save the planet or have just a little time left, you can see them easily switching to saying you cannot drive your car except every third day, or never if air quality falls below their “danger” mark. It is already being suggested with a proposed per kilometre charge in Victoria on road travel under the guise it will assist congestion reduction or raise money to cover the explosion of debt( see less CO2 ). The experts are already on board with that one. Victoria are also floating, with again expert support, the idea of a compulsory tax on housing ( land tax ) to replace a voluntary charge with a compulsory and never ending one, also under the guise of needing money for spending after Covid-19, rather than reducing crackpot and inefficient spending and irresponsible borrowing from the future. Very easy to blame climate change from now on for draconian policies.
    Will the Victorian catch cry become “Do not drive to play golf / fish / visit because you are killing the planet”?

  3. Bruce of Newcastle

    We’ve also seen science and medicine heavily politicized this century, especially by the Left. So now you have to check carefully what an “expert”‘s politics are plus the detail basis for whatever comment or recommendation they are making.

    The amazing political opposition to the use of hydroxychloroquine is an example of how corrupted this has become. In the past you could expect medical experts to recommend such a medicine on the basis of the data, without fear or favour, but now just mentioning it can get you banned in some quarters. This new craziness is alarming and horrifying – people certainly will be dying right now because of the Left’s hatred of all things Trump.

  4. Nob

    People were voluntarily cancelling flights and holidays like crazy even before official travel bans.

    Compare that to the airlines reluctance to release unambiguous numbers of private customers paying optional green surcharges (statistically, none, I’d guess) and you see what people really care about.

  5. alans

    re “experts” a drip under pressure ?

  6. Leo G

    Paris is Officially Dead

    But beware of self-worshipping zombie climate change officials.

  7. Chris M

    Politicizing of test results – eg Italian study 90% success rate with Hydroxyquinine yet if you read US mainstream media you would ‘know’ it is not only useless but dangerous and that the expensive new Remdesiver drug that Trump didn’t say much about is ‘so promising’ at 31% positive results.

    You could die from fake news.

  8. MikeS

    Time scales may be a factor. With COVID the bodies either will or won’t start piling up within weeks. Officials’ actions get graded fast which makes evasion and outright fabrication highly and embarrassingly visible.

    Something similar happened with Y2K. There was always going to be an end date when the pundits’ claims would turn back into mice and pumpkins. Of course, non-eventuality could still be claimed to be proof of success.

    Climate change has the marvelous quality of being at an unknowable and untestable distance down the road. Plenty of opportunity for career spanning hand wringing, profit and no ‘dead’ lines.

  9. I’m confused by the cavity minded Government gnus and clock watchers.

    In Victoristan, it’s illegal for one person to go bush into an area that’s hundreds of square kilometres of wilderness and you’re the only person within 50-100 kilometres of someone else.

  10. davefromweewaa

    Saving the planet is the means not the end. It’s the way that spivs like the Turnbull and Photios families will go from millionaires to billionaires.
    We need to purge the Libs (and Nats) of planet savers!

  11. Roger

    Models are not infallible.

    In fact, models are invariably wrong, to a greater or lesser degree.

    They require interpreting and evaluation.

    They are not an augur.

  12. yarpos

    “Something similar happened with Y2K. There was always going to be an end date when the pundits’ claims would turn back into mice and pumpkins. Of course, non-eventuality could still be claimed to be proof of success.”

    Non eventuality could also be claimed to be proof of years of work to make it so. Such is life in IT infrastructure, providing services to legions of swiping and mouse pushing numpties that take it for granted and think it always keeps working because magic.

  13. yarpos

    “In Victoristan, it’s illegal for one person to go bush into an area that’s hundreds of square kilometres of wilderness and you’re the only person within 50-100 kilometres of someone else.”

    Being wilfully ignorant I think. Its not the one person just existing in the bush (and its very rarely one) its the travel, its accident risk, its rescue and all the other related movements it may trigger. I guess we can make our own risk assessments on the likelehood of any of that happening, but that doesnt matter when you have elected people and given them that power. Although I disagree with the extrent of the lockdown , its totally understandable that they have to be simple and wide ranging to stop things (to some extent ) being matters of opinion or a myriad of exceptions. I’m guessing everyone thinks they should be able to d their special thing because (insert justification here , and it will be alright).

  14. H B Bear

    Mouse pushing numpties? Hey watch it that’s my career you’re describing.

  15. yarpos

    I seriously doubt the general public will make the climate links that the readership here does. Its a valid argument but the public doesnt get the whole climate issue and the uselessness of grid level wind and solar, so making linkages is a stretch I think. I expect the Green Blob to roll on relentlessly for a while yet.

    The area that interests me is how China will comes out of this and if the world will follow up on its talk of caution and disengagement. How China will react to that over the next decade will interesting and possibly not in a good way.

  16. yarpos

    “Mouse pushing numpties? Hey watch it that’s my career you’re describing.”

    Term is stolen from a guy I used to work with who in the early days of PCs saw that people would become deskilled and turned into the aforementioned. All that was before the mind numbing impact of Smartphones on the world. He was a seer.

  17. Being wilfully ignorant I think. Its not the one person just existing in the bush (and its very rarely one) its the travel, its accident risk, its rescue and all the other related movements it may trigger.

    Based on that philosophy, no one should be allowed to go bush at any time, because the risks will always be there.

  18. Roger

    Based on that philosophy, no one should be allowed to go bush at any time, because the risks will always be there.

    Lessons learned from the pandemic!

    Stand by for permanent diktats in Victoria re bushwalking post-lockdown.

  19. stackja

    Close all parks. Dismiss all park bureaucrats. Next summer more natural burn offs will occur. Urban areas will be shrouded once again in smoke.

  20. tombell

    9. Paris is Officially Dead

    with respect I would contend for the opposite position. the bureaucrats to Western governments are overwhelmingly Green/left wing in their ideology – as are the “experts” they engage . there has never been a better time to push the RE scam. Industry shut down. Airlines on life support. traffic volumes down. The transition to a clean future is now “less painful”. COVID’s already done the heavy lifting. Keep the “Economic Support Payments” coming and most people won’t lift a finger.

  21. min

    tombell have you watched The Planet of the Humans yet? Made by and narrated by left greenies .and I hope going viral whilst still free on youtube . How will the greens and left argue against this ?
    I sent it to a Greenie who saw it as only talking about sustainability so the questions to ask are
    Birthrate in Western countries has dropped to below replacement level, whilst population increases are happening in third world countries still what do you suggest we do ?
    How many wind turbines and solar farms are needed to supply the equivalent amount of energy that is supplied from fossil fuel plants that is coal and gas and how much cleared land will that require ?

  22. Nob

    High oil prices were said to be great for renewables because it would make them look more affordable.

    Low oil prices are said to be good for renewables because it shows we’re weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.

    It’s all bullshit. Wind and solar have had forty years of subsidy and encouragement and they’re nowhere near replacing fossil fuels, nor will they be in another forty years.

  23. cuckoo

    In the past you could expect medical experts to recommend such a medicine on the basis of the data, without fear or favour, but now just mentioning it can get you banned in some quarters.

    Ultimo-Pravda tv last night covered the announcement by Fauci of a promising US report on Remdesivir. Trump was careful to offer nothing but bland comments. You could feel the reporters busting for their anti-Trump angle, but in the end they had to settle for sneering that a medical report was announced in a ‘political’ setting. [sad trombone]

  24. Major shut downs across the globe. Satellite pics show drastic reduction in pollution over major industrial regions/cities. EMISSIONS ARE WAY DOWN (by up to 80%) yet…….yet the Mauna Loa CO2 tracker shows atmospheric CO2 still rising as usual in March and April.
    Kuvezchens kuvezchens, we haf so many kuvezchens.

  25. Robert

    At Cpt Seahawks Not a very good analogy. Bowlers on bowling greens are not uniformly dispersed over, say 1000 sq metres. They are congregated at the ends of the greens and therefore there cannot be in compliance with directions whereas people on a beach can be uniformly dispersed by maintaining 4 sq metres and thereby comply.

  26. Herodotus

    Let’s see; you’re the BBC’s Science In Action team and you want to ask someone about climate change, and the prediction of the forthcoming hurricane season in the USA in particular.
    Who do you go to?
    Why Michael Mann, of course!
    He says it’s going to be a bumper crop this year, the models tell him so.
    And that heat that’s hiding in the oceans is going to come to the surface and turbocharge them.

  27. Squirrel

    So true, but that won’t stop the usual suspects from chanting “Green New Deal” as the solution to every problem created by the virus.

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