5: The curves beyond the curve
Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.
Slowdown to drawdown
That phrase about the Australian bushfires — “A continuous catastrophe, limited neither by season nor by geography” — captures how the virus feels right now. Ultimately, though, as far as we can tell the virus will not be continuous, its geography will be patchy, and it may have some seasonal characteristic. Whereas we have changed the weather, forever.
Our challenge now is to limit the scale of the changed weather, as rapidly as possible, and perhaps reverse aspects of it. The Project Drawdown initiative, amongst many others, suggests exactly how to do much of it, with ‘drawdown’ being the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline.
Those in the field looking at options that include, well, some kind of slowdown to better enable the drawdown, know that we have not been short of technical solutions to address the climate crisis, and simultaneously solve for chronic health and social justice. Technology, as ever, is the easy part of the answer, but only if the question is framed in the right way.
Right now, money for respirators, hospital beds, medical staff, and support for those suddenly unemployed must be prioritised. But after that, after the immense effort expended to ascend the flattened curve, how to be both tactical and strategic with the recovery on the way down?
Adapting the now ubiquitous ‘flattening the curve’ graph (reproduced above), could we see that some of the response to the Coronavirus is also a response to the climate crisis? How much overlaps, or duplicates? And conversely, what are the short-term tactical measures to stop the virus that offer little to the climate crisis?
Flattening the curve on Corona, squeezing the curve on climate
This could be seen as a question of speed and scale of response, rather than a technical challenge, learning from the response to the virus. With COVID-19, we are looking to slow the transmission over time, by halting economic activity to buy time instead, to flatten the curve of viral activity — we must do the opposite with climate. With the climate we don’t have time.
To address the climate crisis we must generate an intense peak of focused activity as rapidly as possible, squeezing the curve. This activity should have been happening for some decades, of course, but clearly has not. Some of the activity for climate, particularly that involving the slowdown, will also slow the corona curve.
In reality, though, if taken literally, this would be interpreted as taking resources and attention away from the first wave response to the virus.
So, whilst we can understand which activities will slow the curve on the Coronavirus whilst also addressing the climate crisis (for example, not flying, working from home, reducing consumption) perhaps we could look to continue and extend some emerging behaviours beyond the peak of the Corona curve (behavioural changes, community interactions, new levels of trust in expertise, engaged governance, connected international approaches) that will also be useful to tackle the climate crisis. Some climate-related activities do not relate to Corona at all, and so they don’t overlap.
In a sense, after the peak of the Corona curve, this suggests we continue some of the collective effort being demonstrated by the concerted attempt to slow the virus, but progressively switch focus and resources to the deeper climate crises beneath. It springs off the top of the Corona curve, using the energy built up to defeat the virus, and devotes proportionately more resources to the climate crisis over time, as the singular efforts to defeat the virus dissipate.
Obviously, these diagrams are highly metaphorical. By drawing the ‘climate effort’ required alongside, they indicate that the effort to defeat COVID-19 is not in a vacuum, as if it is the only challenge we have, and that we do not get to simply just revert to zero once that downward flattened curve hits the baseline. Unless the climate crisis is addressed, further disasters follow.
If we are able to maintain the activities that also address the climate crisis, once the Corona curve is flattened, we may have a way of accelerating our response to global heating. There are many activities that have little or no impact on the virus — switching all energy generation to renewable sources, away from fossil fuels, or changing construction methods, for example — which need to be developed over and above Corona (hence no overlap above).
But if the virus forges new ways of addressing shared and complex challenges, via concerted local and global action, we will not want to simply discard that social and political infrastructure at the end of the year.
Both the Paris Agreement and IPCC research are attempts to support climate policies that could hold global heating to around 1.5°C–2°C, somewhere between 2030 and 2050. That 1.5°C is the other dotted line that our population has to stay beneath. This will still be catastrophic for many, and yet the temperature could still move well beyond that. Either way, can we really afford the ‘slow burn’ to an overheating world over the next 30 years until 2050 and beyond? Drawdown indicates that we can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, though we will not be able to reverse temperature increases themselves. But we would be able to adapt, preventing further catastrophe.
In the diagram below, plotting both the Corona response and global heating together, can we stay in the green — the drawdown of greenhouse gases, alongside a reduction in other pollutants — in order to keep heating at or below 1.5°C, staying out of the red zone of the climate crisis as much possible, as quickly as possible? If we move faster now, this would be possible. So could we retain the sense of concerted global action, maintaining some of the social and political infrastructures and resources we are building now? Why stop fighting after three years only to have a much tougher fight over thirty years? We would need far fewer restrictions on our daily lives to solve for climate, compared to fighting the virus, but there would be some significant changes. All those changes are highly positive, in my view, but only if action happens now to avoid the far greater threat later.
As that horrifically plain black line of a hospital system at capacity fades, over the next few years, can we finally switch our focus to the greater challenge of the next few decades? Do we want to leave this curve moving into the green or the red?
Drawing a few curves gets us nowhere, clearly. Yet the ‘flattening the curve’ graph, originally developed by visual-data journalist Rosamund Pearce for The Economist and then adapted by Drew Harris, a population health analyst at Thomas Jefferson University, has been one of the clearest cultural artefacts produced during the virus so far. It is more effective and engaging than any picture of ‘the enemy’ itself — I defy you to draw the coronavirus as quickly and accurately as you could draw their curves — combining a sense of a systemic response, in terms of hospital admissions, to a threat which is itself systemic.
First You Write A Sentence. But we also sketch as a way of understanding. These are not charts to explain, but to provoke the thought of action, by conveying the sense of sliding down a curve, or leaping off its peak, transforming potential energy to kinetic. We don’t even know, at this point, if the curve can be flattened, but something happens next. By plotting both climate and Corona on the same, deliberately vague axis, I’m suggesting that addressing both challenges together, as they originate together, is not only possible, but hopeful, despite how despairing our situation can feel.
As Raymond Williams said, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair inevitable.”
These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.
Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.
How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?
The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.
The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.
Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.
How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.
Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.
The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.
The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.
Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?
How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.
Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.