Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 1, 2021

Comparing profound issues facing the USA

Just in the last decade, profound threats to the American way of life have occurred which have caused many of us to become justifiably concerned. In this post I will briefly discuss and compare three of these problems; they are our vulnerability to novel viruses, internal attacks on our democratic system of government, and, of course, global warming. In coming up with these three I will admit that I included global warming first and then somewhat arbitrarily picked two others for the sake of comparison.  While I could also have included some of these other issues, for starters a smaller group of three will be sufficient for making the overriding point to be made here. In comparing the relative importance of these three problems, I will consider the “worst case” scenarios of each if they are not adequately addressed.

The Covid-19 pandemic. The most surprising event to occur in the year 2020 was the discovery of the Covid-19 virus and its subsequent explosion across the globe and especially throughout the USA. While the development of vaccines for this virus was accomplished in a timely manner, the delivery of them has been relatively slow and an additional concern is now that mutations of this virus might also cause future problems. Covid-19 variants have already been detected in the USA and Europe.

Within the USA we were overrun by the first wave of the Covid-19 virus more than most other countries probably because we did not follow the dictates of science as well as many other countries did. A priority of our then President Trump was to not disrupt our businesses-as-usual economy and this was undoubtedly why Mother Nature wreaked more havoc on our country’s population – with over 440,000 deaths, to date, and many more to come this winter. The good news on this front is that we now have a new President who has already assembled a team of well-qualified professionals who are far more responsive to this problem and will be allowed to honestly share with the public the latest scientific views of the issue.

Internal attacks on our democracy.  For those of us that happen to value the free democratic principles that our country was founded on and has miraculously managed to retain over its 250 years of existence, the threat of internal takeovers by those who prefer more authoritarian forms of government have been most unsettling.  Hopefully, the example provided by our recently departed President Trump has shown us how real and detrimental these ever-present internal forces can be. Prior to Trump’s election in 2016, I didn’t think an autocratic candidate whose interests did not go much beyond the financial wellbeing of his family and wealthy friends could get to first base in the American political system. In addition, his lack of basic knowledge in critically important areas, from the many fields of science to basic American history, led me to think that his election by Americans was not likely to occur.  As we all witnessed, however, I absolutely wrong. Far more US citizens than I imagined allowed this person to win a presidential election and, once inside, he began to undermine some of the core principles of our democratic system of government.

The election of 2016 thereby revealed the profound ignorance of many of our citizens concerning the form of government that our country had adopted back in 1776 – precisely for preventing authoritarian takeovers of our government.  In pondering the issue of governance, it is helpful to recall an observation made by Winston Churchill.  He is reported to have said “the worst form of government is a democracy – except for all the others”.  Yes, indeed, Churchill was well aware of how difficult it was to get a politically complex democracy to move in some of the directions he preferred.  He even stated once that “the best argument against a democracy can be provided by a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.  Nevertheless, he had also witnessed first-hand the rise of some of the world’s strongest autocracies, including those in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, and Mao’s China. In all three of those countries the views of the individual citizens were reduced to nothing when confronted with the whims of their authoritarian leaders and millions of their citizens where “neutralized” just because the authoritarians in charge preferred that their pollical adversaries be eliminated. In addition to the three authoritarians mentioned above, another such person is Donald Trump who did his best to weaken and destroy the founding principles of our democracy if those principles got in the way his goals. Going forward, we must do a more thorough job of reminding our citizens of the basic principles on which our representative government depends, so that we are not again tempted to take the “short-cuts” to those preferences offered by authoritarians.

Global warming.  And then there is the relentless advance of global warming, which is the most profound event ever to occur on planet Earth during the last 200,000-year period during which homo-sapiens have been thought to walk on its surface. A man-caused warming of our planet is rapidly occurring now at the end of the human-friendly Holocene period and threatens to produce another mass extinction in our upcoming decades in which the population of human beings could very well be dramatically reduced. Due to the explosion of scientific knowledge that has occurred over the last two centuries, mankind has learned how our planet works and specifically how it has managed to keep its temperature at levels that were favorable to human beings. But now the temperature of Earth is increasing uncontrollably beyond it’s safe limits. While we know how to fix this problem, scientists have not yet convinced their governments to take those corrective actions. Therefore, the concentrations of heat-retaining greenhouse gases continue to rise every year. 

Relative importance of each of these issues. 

Now that we have three important threats to our future on the table, it is useful to compare and evaluate the relative importance of each. For starters, one way of doing this is to envision what would happen if we did nothing in response to each of them.  That is, what would be the “worst case” scenarios of each of these three threats if we did nothing.

First, consider what would be likely to happen if we fail to eradicate the Covid-19 virus and its secondary strains.  An answer to this question has been suggested by various historical events of this sort.  For example, the flu epidemic of 1918 was not met with an effective vaccine in a timely manner and it spread rapidly throughout our planet killing 20 to 50 million people worldwide (including my grandmother in the third wave of 1920). It did eventually lose it’s death grip on the remaining population, however, and was no longer such a major factor to public health after the 1920’s.

Another historic example of an uncontrolled pandemic was provided by the bubonic plague of the 14th Century which is estimated to have killed more than 25% of the European population and 50 million worldwide. Thus, from these previous experiences we can expect to have widespread pandemics killing millions of people if its spread is not successfully addressed.  That outcome would be terrible, of course, but would probably not rise to the level of causing an extinction of human beings.

Next, what would happen if the USA finally loses one of its battles with ever-present authoritarian forces that seek to destroy our democratic means of governance (as one came close to doing during the recent “reign” of Donald Trump).  Again, in answering this question, we can learn a lot from the numerous times this has happened in other countries. The example of Germany in the decade of the 1930s provides a good example.  After the reins of government were handed over to the extreme authoritarian, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party in 1933, Germany went from being the most powerful to the most demolished nation in the world in less than 6 years between 1939 to 1945. History has shown that this disastrous outcome was made possible by the fact that Germany bet all of its resources on the strong central leadership of their dictator who claimed to know more than the combined knowledge of his countrymen and its military leaders. History has shown that this often happens when a country goes for an authoritarian leader who at the moment seemed to provide better solutions than those provided by democratic representations of their citizens. If that should happen in the USA, the penalty we would pay could be as harsh as that experienced by Germany during WWII but note how in the post WWII era, Germany once again rose to be a prosperous country.  So again, this worst outcome would not necessarily cause a mass extinction of human beings.   

Next, what would be the “worst case” scenario of not addressing the problem of global warming? Because scientists have thoroughly studied this for many years, we know the answer to that question.  Any planet that allows its greenhouse gases to increase substantially is going to get significantly warmer. In addition, one of our most prevalent greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide – which does occur naturally but over the Industrial Age has been greatly increased by an astonishing amount, about 50%, above the prior natural level – primarily due to combustion of fossil fuels.  And unfortunately, that extra carbon content of the biosphere cannot be easily removed – it takes multiple centuries for such removal to occur by natural processes and methods of man-facilitated removal have not yet been demonstrated at the scale required.

Furthermore, with respect to the present amount of potentially volatile carbon deposits on Earth, our planet is a literal “powder keg” ready to explode – if those carbon deposits are ignited by the continuous warming of our planet. For example, the permafrost of our Arctic regions contains vast amounts of biological matter that will be converted to volatile forms of carbon, such as CO2 and methane, as those regions get warmer. In addition, the ocean beds of the world contain vast amounts of frozen methane clathrates which will release methane as the Earth gets warmer. These releases of what can now be called “natural” CO2 and methane would cause run–away, irreversible changes to the planet that are likely to cause changes on Earth that would, indeed, be large enough to cause the extinctions of numerous species, including homo-sapiens.  

So, based on the information provided above, which of these threats to mankind should receive our high priorities? I believe that our scientific understanding of these issues leaves us with only one answer to that question. The best answer is that we can give high priority to any set of these three and other issues as long as the very highest priority is given to the problem of global warming. If that problem is not solved, we will not be able to address any of the other issues before us. If it is solved, it would then be possible to address all of the others at some future time.

Enter President Biden.  Whether or not we will be able to give the problem of global warming our highest priority is the big unanswered question. Our past behaviors have shown that we will very possibly not be able to do that. That is, we will very likely continue to be dominated by the “tyranny of the contemporary” (see previous post by this name in the archives of January, 2016) and our addictions to fossil fuels. A test of this prediction will be provided by our response to President Biden’s recent statement that the Keystone Pipeline should not be completed. This move would be much more than mere “talk”.  It would constitute real “action” by not allowing an enormous amount of additional CO2 to be emitted into our atmosphere.  As expected, there is now a tremendous amount of push back against Biden’s proposal with the ever-present argument of “jobs, jobs, jobs” in the immediate future – even though our top climate scientists agree with Biden – that the pipe line would constitute a “game over” tipping point for the onset of the worst outcomes of global warming.

So, keep an eye on that upcoming political debate concerning the Keystone Pipeline.  It will provide a strong indication of whether the US will continue with just “talking the talk” or will finally switch to real and effective preventative actions.


Responses

  1. Well done Eric, the pandemic could also serve as a current example of our “short-sightedness” in responding to a preventable deleterious outcome with the virus. So we could , if we act quickly, get a second chance to avoid another even more catastrophic outcome and get on board with the science of why we should act on Climate Change, NOW! I’m always intrigued by the argument of how fixing Climate Change interferes with jobs. Many of the practical solutions of doing something about the problem actually create jobs. And secondly, what good are the worries about jobs in the short term going to matter when our environment will be unfit for humans to exits if we continue to ignore what is happening with the immediate short and long term effects of continuing to drag our feet about implementing the changes necessary to save ourselves and the planet from this preventable fate. Just like the common sense solutions of just wearing a mask were ignored and many paid dearly; so are we going to be so stupid again and ignore even more common sense solutions to this issue with more far-reaching and fatal repercussions? I pray not!


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