Mitigated disaster

How can we respond to a world of cascading disasters?

Over the past past few years we’ve had to deal with all sorts of new or resurgent evils, including climate catastrophe, Covid and the global assault on democracy. That’s been made harder by the fact that our political leaders (and plenty of their supporters) have either failed to respond effectively, or have actively promoted these evils. Yet there’s nothing positive about giving in to despair, either politically or personally.

In trying to respond, I’ve started thinking about the idea of ‘mitigated disaster’. Despite our collective failures on all of these issues, there’s still a good chance that the worst of the catastrophe will be staved off. And individually, we need to find ways to act responsibly and to resist the call of despair.

I’ll start with climate, because it’s the issue I have been engaged with longest and understand best. Global heating is having disastrous effects, from bushfires to heatwaves to extremes of drought and floods. And our political leaders, making judgements about what we, as citizens want, have failed to do what is clearly necessary.

But, despite all that, we’ve done far better than seemed likely 10 or 15 years ago. Nearly all major countries have committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and many have adopted policies that require the end of coal-fired electricity and petrol-driven vehicles.

Those policies aren’t adequate, but they are a long way from the ‘Business as Usual’ scenarios we were looking at not long ago. On current policies, the best estimate is that we will ultimately see 2-3 degrees of warming. That would be disastrous in all sorts of ways. But it’s not that long ago that we were thinking about 4 degrees of warming https://findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/scholarlywork/738066-australia%E2%80%99s-climate-in-a-four-degree-world, which would be catastrophic.

No matter how bad the prospects are, we still have the chance to mitigate the disaster. Every coal mine that doesn’t go ahead, every solar farm that’s installed, every waste of energy that is eliminated is a step towards a more livable future. That’s true if we are looking at 1.5 or 2 degrees of warming, and even more so if we are looking at 4 degrees.

What can we do, as individuals, to save the planet and ourselves. In a world of national targets, individual action may or not be effective in itself – it may simply allow others to do less. Even so, by modelling the kind of life we need to adopt, we may help the process along. That means things like avoiding unnecessary car and plane travel, putting free time for our family and personal goals ahead of maximising money income and making our homes as energy efficient as possible. The point is both to reduce carbon emissions and to show that we can still have a good life as most people see it – at this point, trying to persuade billions of people to forgo the benefits of modern life is a non-starter.

Things aren’t nearly so encouraging in relation to the Covid pandemic. For quite a while, it seemed as if we could manage the collective action needed to beat the pandemic. We endured lockdowns while we waited for the vaccines that would allow us to return to a normal life. But the initial vaccines were beaten by Omicron, and the effort to develop new ones seems to have flagged. Meanwhile, the combination of anti-vaxerism and general weariness have led to the abandonment of nearly all the interventions that might prevent the spread of the pandemic. With better treatment and the (now waning) benefits of vaccination, the death rate is lower than at its peak, but repeated infections are generating all sorts of adverse consequences that may be lumped under the heading of Long Covid.

The best we can say about our collective response to the pandemic is that most places avoided the worst-case consequences, such as those seen in Republican-dominated parts of the United States, where vaccination was rejected along with other interventions. And, while we’ve lost years of progress in reducing mortality rates from disease, those rates are still lower than they were, ten or twenty years ago.

Looking to the future, it is possible to see some signs of a renewed demand for political action, as the consequences of doing nothing become more and more evident, particularly in the form of collapsing health systems. But it will be a long struggle.

So, it largely comes down to individual mitigation, protecting ourselves as best we reasonably can and making it clear to others we are doing so. In my own case, I’ve got myself vaccinated as much as possible (I’m hoping to get a 5th shot through an experimental program), minimised indoor contact with others (for example, refusing in-person speaking invitations) and stuck to masks, even though I know they mostly protect the non-wearers I engage with. That’s manageable for me, but of course things are much worse for immuno-compromised and other vulnerable people

The other aspect of surviving the pandemic is mental health. The challenges are different for all of us, but I hope some of what I’ve written will be helfpul in resisting general despair about the situation. At an individual level, the most important thing for me is putting in the work to maintain contact with people, now that I can’t rely as much on meeting them in person. Skype and Zoom chats are more difficult than in-person, but we need to keep going.

Then there’s social media. What matters here is to avoid the kind of negative-obsessive behavior advertisers want, and commercial networks promote in order to keep our attention. I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid any kind of negative engagement with others. A recent step has been dumping Twitter for the friendlier climes Mastodon (though I still cross-post and occasionally succumb to the temptation of a sharp response on Twitter).

I’ve gone on for too long, so I won’t say anything more about the attack on democracy than needed to point out that we are winning more rounds than we are losing. Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson are all gone, at least for now, and most of the dictators who seemed irresistible a few years ago (Xi, Putin and Erdogan for example) look much weaker today.

I’ll end with a couplet I cited a few years ago one of my favourite poets, Arthur Hugh Clough, in his poem “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth,” which ends with these lines:
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,But westward, look, the land is bright.

4 thoughts on “Mitigated disaster

  1. Davos is “westward, look, the land is bright” JQ, as Lord Stern et al have provided a study to go with “the idea of ‘mitigated disaster’”(JQ) … “as a counterbalance to Guterres’s pessimism”.(1.)

    Now we just need to sort out MMT / economic dogma / rich-poor, vs Carbon Price vs secure funding of Lord Stern’s “transformation doesn’t come cheap; an estimated $5-7tn (£4-5.6tn) of investment a year will be needed until 2030”.(1.) 

    Mark Diesendorf and Steven Hail see funding via MMT – “Modern monetary theory explains how … create the necessary funding without financial constraints,”(2.)

    And Lord Stern et al say “The aggregate world macro position makes this increase in investment possible; there is no global savings constraint.”(1.Paper.)

    MMT as Diesendorf and Hail use it, and Lord Stern alludes to, sounds like a money tree. Is it? 

    Lord Stern et al have also hopped on the AI bandwagon as one of the 3 legs toward carbon neutrality – “It contends that the world has in its hands a new growth and development story driven by investment and innovation in green technology, boosted by artificial intelligence (AI)”. I find this statement glib and grasping at a perceived technology solutions. A breath away from CCS. AI?! Where is the functional agreed able to be voted on contractual geopolitical and financal policy?

    If I had to choose a route given (1.) & (2.) I wouldn’t. I’d ask Stern et al and Diesendorf & Hail to come back to me when they agree on the path to the future. They don’t. And how are ‘we’ to decide. 

    JQ, we would love to see your specific route for funding AU $10Trillion a year. Humanity will appreciate a monetary road map to manage Stern’s optimism & price. 

    We need an agreed method and budget asap. Or like The Voice, we may reject “the idea of ‘mitigated disaster’.
    *

    1.
    Article
    “What we learned at Davos: signs of hope emerge from the pessimism 

    Larry Elliott

    “Lord Stern is an expert in the economics of climate change, and the paper acted as a counterbalance to Guterres’s pessimism. It makes the case that in the next five years – a crucial period if net zero targets are to be achieved – more than half the tipping points for key green technologies will have been met.

    “The transformation doesn’t come cheap; an estimated $5-7tn (£4-5.6tn) of investment a year will be needed until 2030. But if a bit of optimism is what you are after, Stern and Romani provide it. They say the green transition represents the biggest investment opportunity since the Industrial Revolution. And they are right.

    https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/jan/22/what-we-learned-at-davos-global-economy

    1. Paper.
    “The global growth story of the 21st century: driven by investment and innovation in green technologies and artificial intelligence”

    Policy publication on 20 January, 2023

    “Major investment is needed for the transition to rapid, sustainable growth: some $5–7 trillion a year globally in gross investment for clean energy and digital transformation. Part of this investment will be additional; the necessary global increase in investment will be around 2–3% of GDP, less in richer countries, more in EMDEs. The aggregate world macro position makes this increase in investment possible; there is no global savings constraint. This investment can give impetus to a strong and durable recovery from the current crises and pre-empt a lost decade for development.”

    https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/zh/publication/the-global-growth-story-of-the-21st-century/

    “The global growth story of the 21st century-driven by investment in green technologies and AI (PDF)

    Click to access The-global-growth-story-of-the-21st-century-driven-by-investment-in-green-technologies-and-AI.pdf

    *

    2.
    Still plenty of work for you though JQ. Such as contacting Mark Diesendorf and Steven Hail with an alternative funding paradigm to MMT.

    Any comment in Mark Diesendorf and Steven Hail quote from;

    “Energies: Special Issue “New Insights into Energy and Environment Economics: Decarbonization Goals”, which has other worthy papers.

    “Funding of the Energy Transition by Monetary Sovereign Countries”

    by Mark Diesendorf and Steven Hail

    Energies 2022, 15(16), 5908;https://doi.org/10.3390/en15165908 – 15 Aug 2022

    Abstract
    “… Modern monetary theory explains how monetary sovereign governments, with their own fiat currencies, can create the necessary funding without financial constraints, although constraints do result from the productive capacities of their economies. The energy transition could be part-funded by a significant transfer of resources from monetary sovereign countries of the global North to the global South, financed by currency issuance.”

    https://www.mdpi.com/journal/energies/special_issues/New_Insights_into_Energy_and_Environment_Economics_Decarbonization_Goals

  2. When a connate optimist canvasses “mitigated disaster” we know we really are in trouble. All of us who are realists knew it already but this sort of leading post brings it home. How we react depends on our remaining options, our perceptions of the multiple crises and our internal disposition. Anyone like me, a lifetime sufferer of borderline personality disorder and persistent depressive disorder, might indeed find it a particular struggle.

    Nevertheless, J.Q. is perfectly right on all scores, including on mental health. We have to keep trying to do what we can at all levels. To do nothing and/or to give in to total despair only makes things worse. Believe me, I have a lifetime’s experience in that and in battling against it. The slough of despond only gets worse and worse. The deepest pits are horrendous. YMMV, but the basics are a big part of the answer. Get adequate physical exercise, preferably a lot of it outdoors with proper sun protection. Get adequate sleep. Cut down on drinks other than water. (I take less caffeine now and I haven’t touched alcohol, drugs, or even psycho-active medications for 40 years, for very good reasons.) Don’t doom-scroll too much. Avoid social media if you can’t really handle it. I can’t and so I avoid it now. Blog sparingly where it gets too ideological or too personal. I am still working on that but I have cut down a lot in volume and shrillness, believe it or not.

    And yes, we should all keep doing what we can to save resources, cut CO2 emissions and so on. My wife and I haven’t flown since 2018. It helps one avoid C-19 too. The three legacy ICE vehicles in our garage (for three people!) are almost relics now (two in superb condition with ridiculously low readings on the odomoters). It’s getting to the point for the third car, which has little resale value) that the battery breaks down relatively regularly from lack of use. My rough calculations show that deliberately putting kilometers on it to prolong battery life would probably cost more in petrol than one would save in batteries. My son keeps this car to preserve his feeling of independence and then borrows his mother’s car when it never starts. Everyone’s dignity and equanimity is maintained.

    All I can add to JQ’s points is that we will have to start viewing these endless crises (as they certainly will be) as existential and survival adventures. We older middle-class types of Australia are both materially comfortable and yet in continually brittle or precarious statea at other levels. We are all only one health crisis away from disaster. I have two health-brittle immuno-compromised people in my immediate family. And my own mental health is at times brittle. The iron grip I have kept on inner parts of myself for 40 years (I kid you not) and without medications or treatments is getting harder and grimmer to maintain in old age. At the same time, those who know me have said more than once just when you look like exploding or disintegrating you seem to make some extra effort and pull yourself back from the brink. I just hope I can keep doing it.

    We are all going to find ourselves needing these sorts of consistent or intensified efforts from now on. It’s not going to be easy for anyone and many whom we envy, thinking they sailed effortlessly through life, and got all the prizes and goodies without the travail, probably didn’t, and are probably paddling furiously below the surface, just like us.

  3. Two cheerful observations (I know, I know. But why do i get more optimistic with age?)

    One is accidental. Social media depend on advertising. Platform operators therefore maximise engagement. Engagement comes from emotional responses, not reason. These can be negative (Who is this racist idiot?) or positive (Gee, this kitten is cute!). But advertisers don’t like association with conflict and much prefer saccharine cuteness. So the kittens win in the long run, and Musk’s libertarian Twitter heads for bankruptcy.

    The other, as somebody pointed out recently, that nonlinear tipping points can be on the plus as well as the minus side. More than half of new car sales in Germany and the Netherlands in December were for PHEVs. The mood music on green shipping, aviation, and steel has changed quite markedly – actual investment is slower, but is starting to happen.

  4. ATAGI can stay irrational longer than you can maintain antibodies. That’s the bottom line. Antibodies from COVID-19 vaccination begin to wane significantly after 3 months. After 6 months you likely have little remaining antibody protection. The memory or T-Cell induced protection response (for ramping up new anti-bodies) may still be there more than 6 months after vaccination, if the new variant’s spike is not too different from your vaccine’s 2P-stabilised spike.

    If you have had vaccines and a COVID-19 infection or two, this does not necessarily confer greater protection. It might do so for another 3 to 12 months but likely no longer. And it all depends on how different the endless new variants are from the previous variant you caught. In addition, any COVID-19 infection will have reduced your naive T-Cell count (naive memory cells are needed for imprinting against each new variant) and also reduced your immune system DC (dendritic cells) count and thus your immune system’s anti-tumor responses; thus increasing your chances of getting cancer in future. You never get new naive memory cells (after your thymus atrophied normally at about age 20) and your DC counts may never come back either, especially if you are old.

    Catching COVID-19 is bad deal for anyone, with significant chances of leaving one with long Covid or reduced immune capabilities going forward, plus increased chances of chronic auto-immunity and systemic inflammation. ATAGI and the government either know all this and are ignoring the science or else they are totally ignorant of the science. Neither possibility instills any confidence in their management of the pandemic.

    We are 1/12 of the way into 2023 and ATAGI have not yet decided on the plan for 2023. I would have thought in a pandemic with lead-time requirements of many kinds, including antibody half-life calculations for cohorts and vaccine logistics, the plan for 2023 would have been ready and announced well before 2023. Clearly, I was wrong.

    I know a very small circle of people, yet I already know people who have had COVID-19 twice in the last 12 months. And they get it in the summer holiday season. The notion that Australia has winter waves larger than its summer waves is not borne out by the data. It’s rather the reverse in fact for Australia. Here I refer to the population waves data, not my anecdata. So why are ATAGI waiting and planning only for winter vaccination? Are their minds so ossified they are no longer able to learn anything new? Can they read the data at all? Or is there some other explanation? The explanation, that incompetence alone explains the world’s and our poor response to COVID-19, is beginning to wear thin. It begins to look like calculated indifference… or something worse.

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