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COVID & climate change: Why is the sky always falling on our head?

By Sanjeev Sabhlok

We have nothing to fear but fear itself, but fear seems to have become our bosom friend.

The media drums up headlines each day that the sky is falling down. Climate change (the Earth is going to burn down!) or the pandemic (coronavirus is bigger than Spanish flu!). Then there are the Hindutva fanatics who drum up panic on social media about Muslims (that they’re bent on destroying all other religions!). The common man can be forgiven for thinking he is under siege from all sides.

The media’s incentive is to create scary headlines: these sell better than the boring ones. We, on the other hand, are perfectly designed by nature to be the receptacles for panicky “news” reports. Fear is deeply etched into our primitive limbic system along with other strong emotions such as euphoria, anger and envy.

Marc Siegel wrote in 2005 that “humans can be alarmed by events we have only read or heard about, so we may worry about disasters we may never experience… Adding to the problem … is that people often fail to assess the level of threat accurately. We tend to overpersonalize risk and to experience an unrealistic sense of peril when we hear or read of a bad event occurring to someone else”.

Much of this fear is boosted by our fertile imagination. As Charles Mackay wrote in his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: “We go out of our course to make ourselves uncomfortable; … we conjure up hideous things to frighten ourselves at, which would never exist if we did not make them”.

We also tend to panic as a herd: “whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it.” Media’s greed and our biological tendencies together create a heady mix that makes our daily lives into a bigger drama than Mahabharata.

Mackay discussed the fear of witches and haunted houses – fears that linger even today in parts of the world. More recently, Siegel’s 2005 book, False Alarm, looked at some recent fears: the anthrax scare and fears about smallpox and gas bioterrorism agents that arose after the September 2001 incident, as well as the SARS epidemic and the mad cow disease. In each case we managed as a species to blow the threats out of all proportion.

The only way out of this mess through our higher brain, by actively seeking information that gives us a better handle on the true risk. Unfortunately, “science” is not guaranteed to help. Extremely rare are scientists like Anders Tegnell, more common are those who add fuel to the fire. For instance, Siegel shows how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “attached itself to the media megaphone and made us afraid to open our mail” during the anthrax scare. Likewise, in the ongoing pandemic the WHO has been squarely responsible for fueling hysteria and ignoring its own published October 2019 recommendations on dealing with flu-like pandemics.

The result is that the people have been scared witless. An opinion poll company, Kekst CNC found in July 2020 that the average person in the UK, USA, France, Sweden and Germany thinks that 100 to 300 times more people have died from this virus than it has actually killed.

This hysteria is not helped by “scientists” who keep comparing this virus with Spanish flu. But we can counter-check their claims easily with a simple calculation.

According to the CDC, the Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people worldwide when the global population was 1800 million. Proportionately, a virus as lethal as Spanish flu would have to kill at least 210 million people today, probably a third (73 million) by now. Instead, 0.71 million have so far died.

But what if there is a second wave? (Our brain is always ready to imagine scary situations!) Our higher brain can calm this fear: There has never been (nor can we reasonably imagine) a second wave 300 times bigger than the first. So even if three times more people die from this pandemic in the end, it will end up 100 times less lethal than Spanish flu. A really bad virus, but was it worth this huge global hysteria?

Climate change is another area of grossly over-blown fear. Bjorn Lomborg’s recent book, False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet notes that our “singular obsession with climate change means that we are now going from wasting billions of dollars on ineffective policies to wasting trillions. At the same time, we’re ignoring ever more of the world’s more urgent and much more tractable challenges. And we’re scaring kids and adults witless, which is not just factually wrong but morally reprehensible”.

Last year I wrote many articles on climate change. I showed that the allegedly uni-directional link between CO2 and temperature has not been established and there are hundreds of other factors involved in determining the climate. Further, CO2 levels today are one of the lowest in the Earth’s history and if CO2 falls excessively, plants itself could disappear.

Lomborg, on the other hand, assumes that “climate change is real” and that “it is caused predominately by carbon emissions from humans burning fossil fuels”. Even then, he shows there is simply no reason to panic.

For instance, how many of us know that the IPCC itself has discounted all reasons to panic? It said in 2014 that “For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers [such as] changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development”.

When climate fanatics try to force societies into extreme “solutions” they only end up harming the poorest of the world, including the people of India. Lomborg also notes that “climate policy threatens to crowd out the much more important issues of health, education, jobs, and nutrition”. There are trade-offs in life but fear makes us lose all sense about these trade-offs.

Lomborg’s recommended solutions include a low carbon tax and more research into fusion, fission and water splitting. Our party would question the need for such solutions since the problem itself has not been established. However, if we are assured that the costly “remedies” promoted by climate fanatics will then be permanently removed from the table, our party could then possibly consider a low carbon tax.