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The statistics are scary: In the United States alone, the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketed from less than 10 in early February to nearly 330,000 in early April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, more than 1 million people have tested positive for a disease that was unknown to the general public a few months ago.
Wharton professor Howard Kunreuther believes that the pandemic offers an opportunity to increase people’s awareness of another major global risk. As co-director of the school’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, his research focuses on ways to better manage events that are low in probability but very high in consequences, such as natural disasters or viral outbreaks. Underpinning that research is the concept of exponential growth, which is defined as a pattern of data that sharply increases over time. In examining the exponential growth curve of COVID-19, Kunreuther realized there is a teachable moment about the dangers of climate change.
Like the person-to-person transmission of coronavirus, climate change is happening in smaller increments that can be easy to ignore until the cumulative effects can be measured: a rise in average yearly temperatures, melting glaciers, more destructive hurricanes, more intense wildfires, droughts, species extinction — the list goes on.
“People [need to] recognize that we do have a tendency to put these things out of our minds, and we have to reframe the problem so people can think about them now in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise,” Kunreuther said during an interview with the Wharton Business Daily radio show on SiriusXM. “Highlighting exponential growth is only one part of the story, but getting people to recognize the likelihood of these things happening over a period of time, or bad things happening in 20 or 30 years, as in climate change, has to be put on the table. And maybe we can do something if people will focus on those things.”
“Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest, most destructive exponential growth processes that we must grapple with today are those associated with global climate change.”
Kunreuther and colleague Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, penned a piece for Politico last month titled, “What the Coronavirus Curve Teaches Us About Climate Change.” Citing a landmark study from 40 years ago, the professors explained why the human mind “doesn’t easily grasp the explosive nature of exponential growth.” Linear growth patterns are easy to understand, follow and ignore, but a multiplication of growth is more difficult to comprehend and mitigate.
“Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest, most destructive exponential growth processes that we must grapple with today are those associated with global climate change,” the professors wrote. “While it might be hard for humans to detect that carbon emissions and their concentration in the atmosphere are growing exponentially right now, that doesn’t mean we should rest easy. The opposite is true. As with the coronavirus, we need to anticipate the climate crisis and act quickly and aggressively to minimize further damages before they overwhelm us.”
Flatten the Curve Now
In the article, Kunreuther and Slovic present another scary set of numbers to illustrate their point: In 1958, the federal government measured damaging carbon dioxide emissions at 315 parts per million (ppm). By February 2020, that number had risen by 31% to 414 ppm.
The time to flatten the curve on climate change is now, Kunreuther said. But it’s challenging to shake citizens and policymakers out of complacency. That’s evident in the early attitudes toward coronavirus.
“We tend to rely on our past experiences. When we look at our past experiences with respect to pandemics, with SARS and the H1N1 virus, most people were not affected by that. And we say, ‘Look, why should this be any different?’” he said. “If we can somehow recognize that past experiences may not necessarily be where we’re going to be in the future, then I think we have a chance of actually trying to take some positive steps. And that’s where the climate change problem comes in. Right now, people aren’t bothered.”
“If we can somehow recognize that past experiences may not necessarily be where we’re going to be in the future, then I think we have a chance of actually trying to take some positive steps.”
Kunreuther believes there is a powerful, tangible lesson to be learned from the fragmented and delayed response to coronavirus, and those lessons should be applied to the fight against climate change. Paying attention, preparation and flexibility are key, but so is understanding the interconnectedness of such events. For example, the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income earners who lost their jobs, such as restaurant servers, or who work in jobs that increase their likelihood of transmission, such as grocery store clerks, rideshare drivers and custodians.
Kunreuther said it’s imperative that everyone recognize the “social responsibility” in preventing disasters, whether the next pandemic or the existential threat of climate change.
“Obviously, dealing with the present dangers from the coronavirus must be everyone’s top priority at this moment. We will eventually get control of this demon and begin to restore some semblance of normal life,” the article states. “When we do, the world must turn its attention to reducing CO2 emissions and stopping the further exponential havoc that climate change will wreak, far sooner than we expect.”