Reading Recommendation #2: The New Climate War

Occasionally, I find it necessary to write a post about some things I clearly got wrong. It’s also been a while since I made a book recommendation. To pull these two threads together, I can happily recommend that any reader interested in an accessible, thorough, action-oriented primer on the history and current state of climate science, policy, and action pick up Michael Mann‘s new book, The New Climate War, from which I quote:

[The climate-denial complex] has promoted the narrative that climate-change impacts will be mild, innocuous, and easily adapted to, undermining any sense of urgency, while at the same time promoting the inevitability of climate change to dampen any sense of agency. This effort has been aided and abetted by individuals who are ostensible climate champions but have portrayed catastrophe as a fait accompli, either by overstating the damage to which we are already committed, by dismissing the possibility of mobilizing the action necessary to avert disaster, or by setting the standard so high (say, the very overthrow of market economics itself, that old chestnut) that any action seems doomed to failure. The enemy has been more than happy to amplify such notions.

While I don’t love Mann’s use of the language of war, contrary to the employment of militarized pandemic-response metaphors, in this instance, I at least feel there is sound justification for all the martial imagery, for there is, indeed, an enemy, in the form of the climate-denial complex. I pull this quote, in particular, from Mann’s book, though, because I myself have been guilty of at least two of these three mis-steps at different times in the past. In fact, my choice to start this blog, now almost three years ago (with an inaugural post title honoring the late Martin Luther King, Jr., no less) was predicated largely on my desire to shift away from the raw (and no doubt, at times, indulgent) anger that had often characterized my posts on Medium, in the direction of a more constructive and generous tone.

Incidentally, Mann has also been among the most outspoken popularizers of an important shift in climate science consensus – namely, to oversimplify, that: “If we stop burning carbon now, we stop the warming of the planet [within a few decades, rather than – as many of us had previously believed and stated – only after centuries of locked-in warming].”

As I’ve addressed elsewhere recently, the ~10% decrease in US GHG emissions in 2020 stands to have little to no lasting impact, alone, on the trajectory of global heating, but were the US and other heavily-polluting nations to move aggressively in the coming years and decades to reduce emissions and transform their economies, it could dramatically reduce the global mean temperature increase by 2050. Couple this with the revelation now being popularized by Mann, and there are real reasons for hope, that, not only is it possible to limit heating this century, but that the prospects for averting catastrophic long-term heating may be much better than had been previously understood.

This framing only redoubles my conviction that climate crisis is the defining issue of our time and that those of us who enjoy the luxury of agency in these matters have a moral imperative (an obligation, but also an opportunity) to commit ourselves to preventing global catastrophe while also shaping a more sane, just, and equitable future.

From Climate Central, in case you need any additional motivation to throw yourself into climate action.

Postscript: Full disclosure, I’m passingly acquainted with Michael Mann through a mutual friend, and he was kind enough to gift me a copy of his new book; however, he is not aware that I write this blog, and – even were he to have been – I can’t imagine he would have been moved by anything other than the goodness of his heart to share his work with me, as I don’t think he needs my help in reaching an exceedingly broad audience.

Immunological Escape

Yesterday, I reaffirmed my conviction that the pandemic will be effectively over in the US by early this spring. Today, I’ll share the one caveat about which I remain deeply worried.

First, it is tragic what has been unfolding in the UK as the B.1.1.7 variant has spread there; however, I’ve yet to hear any argument that that variant is either more deadly, or that it has evolved such that existing vaccines (or infection-acquired immunity) would not be effective against it. (That is, immunological escape by this, or other variants, of SARS-CoV-2 has thus far appeared an unlikely eventuality.) It is wreaking havoc because it is just as deadly as other strands, but far more infectious, so spreading more rapidly, and thus killing and hospitalizing a larger number of people than less infectious strains would have in the same amount of time.

Shortly after sending out yesterday’s newsletter, though, I listened to this podcast episode from the New England Journal of Medicine featuring “South African infectious disease physician Salim Abdool Karim”; long-short, Dr. Karim explains that, while until recently, evolutions of SARS-CoV-2 observed by his team had been modest and gradual, the recently-emerged variant that has been spreading rapidly in South Africa appears to have undergone a large number of mutations at once, including some which bear on the structure of key viral proteins, and that there is some risk that this could lead to immunological escape. He further speculates that these mutations could have been the result of the virus passing from humans into a non-human species and then back again. Be the case as it may, were a new and highly-infectious variant to actually undergo escape, all bets would be off, and it would put us back where we started (or almost, as I have to imagine that all the vaccine progress to date would further speed the creation of still newer vaccines to address new mutant viral strains), confronted with the necessity of controlling a novel pathogen for which no cure or vaccine exists.

Here’s hoping that it never comes to that. That this risk highlights the need to vaccinate rapidly, and otherwise control the spread of COVID-19, not just in rich countries, but all over the world, should go without saying.

Darkest Before the Dawn

In anger, on Thanksgiving Day, I wrote: “A month ago, 1,000 people a day were dying in this country of COVID-19, and that came to feel routine; now, it is 2,000, but wasn’t it higher in the spring? By the end of December, look for it to be three or four.” According to the NYT, yesterday, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the US was 4,406 (and we’ve been averaging 3,000+ COVID deaths per day in recent weeks). That is an awful human tragedy. Given that the IFR for COVID-19 seems to be roughly 0.5% – meaning that 1 in 200 infected individuals dies from the disease – it also suggests that nearly a million people a day were likely being infected with SARS-CoV-2 between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the US. So much for all that holiday travel.

On December 17th, I predicted that roughly 2/3 of the US population would enjoy some form of immunity (either via infection or vaccination) by February or March, and that the pandemic was likely to be effectively over in the US by March or April. I’d planned to revisit those predictions today in some detail, but as it turns out, my math is all coming out about the same as it did a month ago, with the caveat that it now looks extremely unlikely that the US will successfully vaccinate 100MM people by the end of February; however – given that, in recent days, the US has been vaccinating half a million+ people a dayx (perhaps even closer to a million on certain days, though lags in reporting and differences across publicly-available trackers make it a little hard to say with confidence), and that that number will likely cross a million per day in the coming weeks, and perhaps two million per day by sometime in February – I think it is likely that the US vaccinates 100MM+ people by the end of March.

Meanwhile, this very dense research paper published last week in Science concludes: “[O]ur data show immune memory in at least three immunological compartments was measurable in ~95% of subjects 5 to 8 months PSO, indicating that durable immunity against secondary COVID-19 disease is a possibility in most individuals.” Basically, the vast majority of people who become infected with SARS-CoV-2 experience some form of lasting immunity (and, as is noted elsewhere in the paper, symptomatic reinfection is extremely rare).

With that in mind – even accounting for the small fraction of people who do not enjoy immunity after infection, and the fact that many vaccinated people will have previously been infected – the 100MM+ people who have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the US today (and, even more, the ~130MM+ people who will likely have been infected by the end of March) gets us to the “roughly 2/3 of the US population would enjoy some form of immunity” by the spring mentioned above. The herd immunity threshold for COVID-19 remains unknown, but it is probably somewhere between 70% and 90%; however, given that many of us will continue masking and taking other precautions, a lower percentage will likely suffice to break epidemic transmission; thereafter, I think we can expect scattered outbreaks through the spring (a la the 2014-2015 Disney measles situation brought to us by rich, Disney-loving anti-vaxxers), but no further explosive community spread until full herd immunity is reached.

Between immunity from vaccination and immunity from infection, the pandemic will likely be largely over in the United States by the spring. In hard hit places like New York City (where something like 30-40% of the population probably already has immunity via infection), we may reach the end of the pandemic still sooner if our elected officials can just get their shit together and run a vaccination campaign. These are real reasons for hope, as well as for appreciation for the people, like my friend Naman, who are out there making sure that vaccinations happen.

Postscript: Although there’s always the more infectious variant to worry about…

Alien vs. Predator

At the end of Ridley Scott’s (mediocre) Alien prequel, Prometheus, there’s a scene where an ingenuous human manages to trick a giant humanoid and an alien (both of which are intent on killing her) into combat with one another. I’m not optimistic that this is what’s happening now in US politics – as my friend Dan summed up the hopeful take, “if neither the neoliberal/state forces or the neofascist/trump forces can defeat the other then they both are weakened/distracted which [may turn out to be] a net positive” – but it is at least instructive to recognize that neither the neoliberal establishment, nor the insurgent neofascists have the human interests of the majority of the population at heart.

As my mom put it, “I have trouble with having absolutely no good guys to turn to”; unfortunately for my mom, and all the rest of us, that is our predicament, roughly, at least with respect to the two major parties and the existing major US power bases. Too often, the urge is to identify – as if the Democrats and Republicans were sports franchises – with irrational/libidinal fervor with ‘our team,’ but now, more than ever the call is to be working towards a better and different world that breaks our current, tragic impasse.

White Guy Leftist Roundup

In the past, Matt Stoller has embraced Josh Hawley on the grounds that the senator is a strong advocate of Federal anti-monopoly action; I think Stoller got it very wrong in backing this charismatic and ambitious budding fascist, but he has a good piece out in response to the storming of the Capitol – and Big Tech response to it – that includes this contextualizing excerpt: “So here’s the profile of a rioter, a working class person who went overseas eight times in military service, including two combat zones, who then tried her hand at a small business where financial predators and monopolists lurked. She then fell in with conspiratorial social media, and turned into a violent rioter who, like most of the rioters, thought she was defending America by overturning an election.” He goes on to say that none of this justifies her actions, but that it is helpful to understand how our political economy shapes our politics.

I think Glenn Greenwald was wrong to downplay the threat from armed white supremacists in the US – generally on the grounds that the Deep State is the real threat, and that, anyway, the threat of fascism is much more serious in Brazil where he now lives, than in the US, where he grew up; with armed white supremacist demonstrations planned for every state capital and DC in the coming weeks, the threat seems pretty real, but Greenwald has been right, and courageously so, about a lot of things for a long time, and – in spite of the fact that he’s noticeably modulated his emphasis since leaving The Intercept in what seems a clear attempt to attract more right-wing/libertarian readers to subscribe to his Substack – I appreciated his analysis of the mainstream liberal response to Big Tech’s banning of Parler, the key line of which was: “[T]he dominant strain of American liberalism is not economic socialism but political authoritarianism.” One is reminded of the breathtaking pivot of the Democratic Party establishment to crush the Sanders campaign in early 2020.

I’ll give the last white-guy-leftist word to Mike Davis (and thanks to Dan for sharing this piece): “But an open civil war amongst Republicans may only provide short-term advantages to Democrats, whose own divisions have been rubbed raw by Biden’s refusal to share power with progressives. Freed from Trump’s electronic fatwas, moreover, some of the younger Republican senators may prove to be much more formidable competitors for the white college-educated suburban vote than centrist Democrats realize.”

On the Pandemic

I’ll spare you another one of my home-made graphs, but looking at the trends between COVID-19 vaccine doses distributed in the US versus doses administered, it seems reasonably likely that the latter will start to catch up with the former in the next few weeks/month, as doses distributed are increasing in a more linear fashion, while doses administered are now appear to be increasing more exponentially (although there is obviously a ceiling to that increase). In spite of our plodding and bungled vaccine rollout, I continue to think we’ll see the pandemic effectively end in the US by the spring.

Also, my mom (hi mom!) shared more than grim political texts with me today, and I highly recommend this video interview with Shane Crotty on mRNA vaccines.

On Climate Crisis

There is authentic good news with respect to climate crisis, but it is not – as David Dayen grimly joked – that “Greenhouse gas emissions fell significantly in 2020. We’re just a few shelter-in-place catastrophes from saving the planet, I guess.”

To quote from an excellent Nature Climate Change article, entitled “Current and future global climate impacts resulting from COVID-19“: “[W]e estimate that the direct effect of the pandemic-driven response will be negligible, with a cooling of around 0.01 ± 0.005 °C by 2030 compared to a baseline scenario that follows current national policies. In contrast, with an economic recovery tilted towards green stimulus and reductions in fossil fuel investments, it is possible to avoid future warming of 0.3 °C by 2050.” The good news is that, if we get together and fight for a better future, we can change the course of (geo)history.

Even better news is that which has been making the rounds in recent weeks with respect to a major shift in climate-science consensus on locked-in future planetary heating. In short, to quote Michael Mann from this Guardian piece – entitled “Global heating could stabilize if net zero emissions achieved, scientists say” – if net zero emissions are reached globally (a monumental challenge), “surface temperatures stop warming and warming stabilizes within a couple decades.” Like most other climate activists, I’d been under the impression until quite recently that significant warming was locked in for centuries to come, so if this shift in consensus turns out to reflect the climate realities, it is very good news for our future prospects.

The narrative about pandemics (or other human catastrophes) being climate boons, however, needs to die.

Postscript: I know the difference between the Alien vs. Predator films and Ridley Scott’s oeuvre. I’m sorry for referencing both in a single post.

Political Chemotherapy

Amongst those agreed that the storming by white supremacist QAnon fanatics of the US Capitol last Wednesday – and, more, the movement underpinning that storming – represent a danger to the future of our flawed, but still vibrant, democracy, a divide of opinion has emerged with respect to the appropriate response, a divide which can be boiled down to the following opposition: Neo-fascist white supremacists pose a threat to US democracy, but so does the ever-growing authoritarianism of the US ruling class (call it the Wall Street-DC-Silicon Valley nexus, or the Deep State, for ease).

Sometimes, when a person develops cancer, the only available treatment – given our current state of technomedical advancement – is chemotherapy, and sometimes, even when treated with chemotherapeutical agents, a person afflicted with cancer dies. (Anyone whose seen/experienced the ravages of these drugs on a human body understands the obscenity of calling them “therapeutic” at all.) Analogies are very often imperfect, and yet they can also be instructive. In this instance, with respect to cancer prevention, it is best that a person not be immersed in a comprehensively toxified environment (and that a person avoids harmful habits, though so often habits are dictated by that same environment and its toxicity), and – in the instance that someone is cured of cancer – it is best that that fortunate person then take every possible step to avoid exposure to risk factors that could lead to a recurrence of the disease.

With respect to our politics, white supremacy is a cancer, and a congenital one at that, for the United States was born with and founded in this ideology. It would have been better to find less catastrophic means of extirpating it (especially after the Civil War, and I’ve appreciated and learned from the explosion of attention paid in recent years to the Federal betrayal of the Reconstruction project in the US South), but we live in the present and face the urgent, contemporary impasse at which we’ve arrived in real time. Relying on the Deep State to rid our body politic (another problematic but useful metaphor) of white supremacy in the name of democracy is both dodgy in principle – given how steeped that Deep State itself has long been in the white supremacist project of the United States – and risky, existentially, given that the Deep State, especially post-9/11, has posed, year by year, an every greater threat to our civil liberties.

Unfortunately, I see no other option in the near term but to count on an enraged establishment to lash out and take vengeance on those who so humiliated it. (Of course, given the utter lack of any attempt to prevent the rioters from looting the Capitol, there is also a scenario in which this outcome was allowed to unfold so as to empower – through public shock and outrage – those very forces in the Deep State that have been back-footed by Trumpism.) As the arrests proliferate, and further light is shed on Wednesday’s grotesqueries (the man who died of a heart attack after inadvertently tasing his own genitals; the woman trampled to death by her fellow looters; the Capitol Police officer who was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher by rioters; the other officer who evidently committed suicide); as a second-round of impeachment proceedings against the President kick-off (on the same day that the second-round of the PPP opens for applications from small businesses hammered by the pandemic to which the President has done next-to-nothing to respond); as calls for the resignations of Senators Cruz and Hawley mount, I agree with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who was featured on this morning’s Democracy Now!: “If there are not severe consequences for every lawmaker & Trump […] official who backed this, every member of the Capitol Police who collaborated with them, this ‘strategy of disruption’ will escalate in 2021.”

Clearly, we should not be relying on tech monopolies to police the public sphere, anymore than we should be lionizing an FBI that has a long history of infiltrating and crushing movements for justice, but this is the impasse we now confront: Die from cancer? Or risk the chemo and face the long road to recovery if we survive?

I’ve written enough on these issues elsewhere – including in recent days on the riot itself, in all its tragicomedy, and the prospect of a second civil war in the US (tl;dr: its clickbait for the corporate media) – so I’ll end here by just pointing out, as my friend Evan did yesterday, that perhaps lawmakers (some of whom came remarkably close to being executed on Facebook livestream); police officers (many of whom aren’t white supremacists and may now be imagining themselves on the losing end of another such incident); executives (many of whom had been all-too-comfortable to live in complicity with neofascism until about five days ago); and a great many others will now, at last, decide to confront the issue of white supremacist neofascism with the seriousness that it demands.

That, however, is not an agenda for radical change, and as the pivot to security intensifies (Axios reports: “D.C. lockdown for inauguration to start Wednesday”), we’d do well to remember that one doesn’t continue taking chemotherapy after the cancer is cleared, and to prevent recurrence – or malignancy in the first place – one does best in creating conditions conducive to health and human thriving. It is not a coincidence that the rise of neoliberalism (with its assault on working people, organized labor, social welfare, and public goods) has been accompanied by a rise in authoritarianism (embodied, in the US, by the emergence of a unitary executive in the form of our increasingly imperial presidency). Our democracy is sick. Much of the morbidity dates back to our country’s founding (white supremacy, settler colonialism, etc., etc.), while other aspects of our unwellness are of more recent provenance. We need secure voting rights for all; checks on the power of money in politics; and robust anti-trust enforcement, and that’s before getting into the question of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. (Or of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. Or of statehood for DC and Puerto Rico. Or of independence for Puerto Rico and, perhaps, the rest of the US territories. Or of term limits for Federal judges. Etc. Etc.)

I wish this wasn’t our predicament, but it is. Here’s hoping the cure isn’t worse than the disease. We have our work cut out for us, but we also have the opportunity – as I wrote in March, as on other occasions – to rise to the occasion and make this a transformative decade for which future generations will thank us, and for which we’ll be able to thank ourselves.