The common fruit fly – which lives one to two months, suggesting insignificance – has changed the world through medical research, leading to eight Nobel prizes in human genetics and disease prevention breakthroughs. Today an even smaller organism, Coronavirus, is changing the world even more significantly.
And confronting it with the same opportunity for breakthroughs as scientists treated fruit flies could hold the key to solving our greatest challenge – climate change.
Of course, all of the coronaviruses’ impacts – sickness, deaths, economic crises – have been negative. But, like the scientists who saw something unique in the fruit fly instead of just an unwelcome pest, coronavirus offers us a unique opportunity: visceral lessons in how to approach future crises, and the horrible costs of not doing so.
First among those lessons is taking authoritative warnings seriously, even when that may result in tough decisions. We have been warned repeatedly over the last decade that a pandemic was an existential threat to our way of life. At the end of 2019, when the late Chinese doctor Li Wenliang first reported his alarm over a coronavirus outbreak, authorities detained him for spreading rumors. If they had acted on his warning, the spread in China would have been less severe.
But by January 21, 2020 China had 278 confirmed cases, other countries had 282, and the World Health Organization issued its first coronavirus advisory. Instead of preparing for the virus’ inevitable spread to the United States, President Donald Trump downplayed the risk, comparing it to a bad case of the flu. Two months later, tens of thousands of Americans have tested positive for the virus and millions more are under shelter-in-place rules, threatening to send the global economy into a devastating tailspin.
Unfortunately, we’ve consistently made these same mistakes of ignoring scientific warnings when dealing with other global crises, especially climate change. Beginning in June 1988, when climate scientist James Hansen warned Congress that global warming had begun, climate scientists’ predictions have repeatedly and increasingly warned of impending crises, and how climate change is accelerating faster than expected – much like the Coronavirus. Sadly, the government response has ranged from non-existent to lacking.
Thirty years after Hansen’s warning, President Trump dismissed an official U.S. government assessment of climate change’s risks in 2018, saying “I don’t believe it.” As temperatures have risen, so too has the cost of inaction. From 1979 to 2017, the cost of global climate change-related disasters has increased 150%, costing $2.25 trillion, with the U.S. bearing the brunt of the financial pain at $945 billion – nearly twice China’s second-highest total of $492 billion.