Climate Change Is Not Our Biggest Threat

I am worried about climate change, but I started out as a skeptic. Today I am like the reformed smoker, evangelizing about the need to control methane in particular and CO2 as well.

My journey began when I noticed that the climate record showed that we are due for another ice age. It turns out, that anthropogenic warming has forestalled an ice age.

The problem is, we “over-shot”. We are no longer just preventing an ice age, but we are making our polar caps melt. Not only will sea level rise, but areas that today are lush will become arid, and vice versa. That is disruptive. And most worrisome, the seas might become more acidic, which could disrupt the global food chain. While that is more due to the methods of modern agriculture, temperature rise contributes to it.

When I was a skeptic, I reached out to Dr. Andrew Glickson, a renowned climate scientist. Through a series of exchanges, Dr. Glickson explained to me patiently why the real problem is the rate of change: while temperature rises have occurred in the past that were far, far larger than what is coming (and humans survived those fine), we are facing a very rapid rise, which gives the ecosystem little time to adapt.

Plus, people cannot migrate like they used to. Twenty thousand years ago the sea level was more than a hundred meters lower than it is today, and what today is the northern US was covered in a mile-thick ice sheet. Northern Europe was similarly buried. But people lived elsewhere. As the climate changed, they migrated. Today, people cannot migrate, because every inch of land is owned by someone.

So I am worried about climate change.

But it is not my big worry. Not even close.

A recent article in Vox quotes Barry Pavel, a national security policy director at the Atlantic Council:

“Amateur biologists can now accomplish feats that would have been impossible until recently for even the foremost experts in top-of-the-line laboratories,”

And imagine if SARS-COV-2 had been more than 3% fatal: suppose a virus emerged that also had a 5-day incubation period, but was 90% fatal?

It would wipe out most of the human race, within a year.

What would we do? Developing the highly effective Moderna RNA-based vaccine took only one month, but it then took a year to get it approved.

Today’s drug approvals are the result of a horrible history of lack of oversight. A hundred years ago there were essentially no drug approvals, and we saw toxic substances being sold as treatments for pretty much every ailment. Drug approval globally was instituted to protect people.

But the drug approval process is not flexible enough to deal with an emergency. It is based on the concept of a controlled study. In that approach, one creates two groups: one group is given a placebo and the other is given the proposed treatment. Statistical analysis is then used to infer the effectiveness of the treatment. Generally there three separate controlled studies: a first small one to test that the treatment is not toxic, a second one to test that it really works, and a third at large scale to find out if there are rare side effects.

There are two problems with that approach when there is an emergency:

  1. Both groups need to be unbiased: ideally they need to have not had any prior treatment; and ideally they have been uninfected and will become infected in the course of the study. It is often hard to find people who meet the criteria; plus, it is unethical to infect them with something that might harm them, so one must wait until they become infected naturally. That can take a long time.
  2. The three controlled studies, performed in series, take a very long time.

This approach is ideal when there is no urgency. But in an emergency, one must use a more risk-based approach. If there is a spreading pandemic and the chance of death for the infected is large, then one should more logically balance the risk of the treatment with the risk of not being treated.

The problem with that approach is twofold:

  1. Today we do not have the systems in place to collect the data needed to clearly determine which people would be at risk, based on their current health profile — i.e., to be blunt, determine who is dying and who is not.
  2. The whole issue of vaccines has become political, and so there cannot be a rational public discussion about an alternative approach to the current one.

Here’s what we really need:

  1. A global data collection system that enables us to rapidly integrate epidemiological data, so that we can run database queries to ask questions like, “What health profile is most at risk?”, and “What health profile is least at risk?”
  2. A rapid detection system, that alerts us when a virus is spreading among the global population.
  3. A rapid turnaround vaccine development and manufacturing and logistics system, that can quickly create a vaccine, manufacture it at massive scale, using distributed and automated production systems around the world and located near each population where it would be used (go “wide”, not “deep”), and distribute it quickly.

It would be like having a standing army to protect you. We already spend so much to protect against the risk that someone would invade us militarily; but we spend a tiny fraction of that to protect us against a future pandemic.

That’s not all.

I am also worried about a meteor strike. It’s a remote possibility, but some scientists say we are overdue while others disagree. In either case, if a good-sized one appears and is a year away, it will be game-over for everyone on Earth.

Currently NASA has a mission to see if an asteroid can be deflected. That’s a good thing. But it is too little. We need to build a system that will be able to deflect a large meteor that we spot coming at us and have less than a year to react. Remember that the closer it gets, the harder it is to defect such a thing, so we would have to launch immediately on detection.

We don’t have such a system. And the system being tested would not work for something that is a true existential risk to us. It’s too little, too slow, and it is just a little experiment. We need an operational system.

So I am worried about climate change, but I am even more worried about these other things. Climate change will be disruptive, but these other things could kill everyone.

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