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Nobody really knows: a Trumpworld dreamscape

Posted on 29 March 2017 by John Mason

“I'm very open-minded. I'm still open-minded. Nobody really knows. Look, I'm somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows. It's not something that's so hard and fast”

Donald Trump on climate change, during an interview on Fox News Sunday, 11th Dec 2016

It had been a long day. The rain fell incessantly as a gale rose from the south-west. I had read a couple of new peer-reviewed papers as one attempted distraction, chatted online with a few fellow climate campaigners as another, argued with a few of the usual suspects and their followers as a third, then finally settled down into a prolonged stint of editing a book-chapter. Darned word-limits!

After a late supper I had a quick trawl through Facebook, scrolling past the photos of people's cats, interspersed with a multitude of political posts, almost entirely concerning either Trump or Brexit. You don't see much else these days. There was the odd one mentioning Arctic sea-ice (still at a record low and now beginning to fall again) and I put right a commentator who was arm-waving about the Antarctic, but who hadn't bothered to check the latest data. Oh well. I took a quick look outside. The wind had veered north-west and dropped. Ragged clouds drifted past the Moon. The air felt unusually warm but damp. Owls called in the unseen distance, whilst closer by, the enthusiastic croaking of frogs reminded me that spring had officially arrived. "Pruitt, pruitt, pruitt", they went, on and on. "Brexit", said another, quite distinctly. "Poor thing", I thought. "It must have a sore throat". I closed the door and turned in with a favourite book, but I was knackered. Before I was halfway from Bree to Rivendell, dodging Black Riders, reality had drifted away....

Nobody really knows... Nobody really knows....

Nobody really knows how it began. People move around the globe in vast numbers in the 21st Century, each airport a hub, an exchange centre for pathogens from pretty much every capital city in the world. Perhaps it was a businessman, browsing a Hong Kong street market for gifts to take on his homeward flight and passing too close to a stall selling live poultry. Or perhaps it was that careless traveller, bitten as he mishandled an unfamiliar rodent in the final days of his Amazon rain-forest trek, who paid the true price for his misadventure. All we knew back then was that someone had brought something new to science into the heart of the United States and that something was a) very unpleasant and b) readily transmitted between humans.

By the time a few cases had become a major outbreak, we had learned one important thing about this new disease. It had a long incubation period of at least two weeks. People were infectious yet for that period they showed no symptoms. Since nobody really knew any better, that first critical fortnight allowed affected individuals to take the infection to pretty much every corner of Planet Earth. Virtually nowhere was immune.

Symptoms showed a rapid onset once triggered, with severe fever and collapse. Mortality was high: 62% of those showing symptoms died within days. The high level of infection meant that infrastructure was increasingly coming under strain.

One problem was that this infection had never before been examined by virology specialists: without knowing its weaknesses they could not take down its defences. Another major issue was that, thanks to some of the more extreme characters in the early days of the Trump administration, many of the relevant research bodies had been cut back in their operational capabilities almost to the point of emasculation. Some researchers had already moved themselves and their work overseas, to China and other rapidly-developing countries, where they were welcomed. As it happens, that was to prove most fortunate. Some countries were far better-prepared for this challenge than others.

You see, nobody really knows. Nobody really knows what they are dealing with. Or do they? Some basic questions can be easily and confidently answered. Yes it is a virus, yes it is highly contagious between humans, yes it has a long incubation period and yes mortality is high: we really do know the basic principles. It is the fine details that are elusive: how it first jumped species, why it is infectious before symptoms, what process triggers the onset of symptoms, why some people make it and others do not.

In many scientific fields of enquiry, the basics are straightforward and well-agreed. Earth goes around the Sun in a cyclically variable orbit. The gravitational pull of the planet makes you fall swiftly to the surface if you jump out of a plane, hence parachutes. Greenhouse gases have prevented Earth from cooling into a perpetual iceball. There is broad scientific consensus on all of these things. It's all the little variables, all the little gaps to fill in, the nitty-gritty, that are our focus of attention.

It was quickly understood by world leaders that because nobody really knew about the strengths and weaknesses of this thing, we had to find out as quickly as we could. The global research effort was vastly increased as soon as it was evident that we had a major problem. Stateside, hundreds of specialists were lured out of early retirement with the promise of funding they could only have dreamed of just a few months ago. They joined forces with teams working in isolated clean-room conditions at centres all over the world. And yes we are making some progress. We have tested a new blend of antiviral drugs that are showing promise: the mortality rate has started to fall sharply. But we need to stop it spreading in the first place: above all we need a vaccine.

Predictably, some cult-like groups protested against the up-graded research, arguing that the infection was simply the will of whatever deity they followed, so that it was insulting to them to go against that will.

Others took a different stance, preferring a wide variety of alternative hypotheses. Some claimed that government forces had been spraying the infection into the atmosphere from aircraft. Some insisted that it had been the result of a mishap at a top secret military research facility. Yet others opined that it was all a big scam to raise taxes to pay for healthcare - despite the growing numbers of recently occupied houses along their streets, now vacated, their inhabitants having passed on. It was even suggested that the occupants of said houses had not been taken out by a virus, but instead taken away at night, to secret camps. Online forums were ablaze with these and a host of other rumours, most of which contradicted one another, not that their proponents particularly cared.

But there will always be those who spend their days banging out angry messages in all-caps. Meanwhile, thanks to repeated and detailed briefings from leaders in the field of viral medicine, President Trump had come to his senses quickly. In a press-conference on December 11th 2017, he spoke plainly and directly to the American people:

“Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows so we're gonna find out. That's the only way. We've got people, we've got great people, the best people working on this. Those scientists are working so hard. Those special, amazing scientists. They're gonna do a phenomenal job. They're so great, they really are.......”

The alarm clock rang. “It's six o'clock on Tuesday the twenty-eighth of March twenty-seventeen and you're listening to the Today Programme. And here is the news”, the radio told me helpfully. “Dang it”, I thought. “He was being all pro-science. That was just getting really interesting”.

I walked to the bathroom and stuck my head under the cold tap. On the radio, something about Trump and the media - couldn't quite catch it but it's the same most mornings these days. I dressed, came downstairs, boiled the kettle and made coffee. I switched on the downstairs radio. On the Today Programme, presenter John Humphrys was interviewing someone:

“I'm joined now on the line by Scott Pruitt, new head of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, or the EPA as it's often called. Now, Mr Pruitt, I've got a very simple question for you. Does man-made climate change exist or not?"

Outside, the landscape lay hidden in the early-morning darkness, indiscernible but very much there. The wind had risen again. I could hear the swirling of the rain-laden squall around the folds of the hills, its gusts hissing through the swaying trees. I switched on the PC. There was work to do: there would be work to do every day, just as surely as the sun comes over the eastern horizon each morning, whether it may be seen or not. Onwards and upwards....

 Thanks to Baerbel W for the idea behind this post.

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. Excellent post John. Good analogy.

    You made an error on the 13th paragraph putting a date as,  "December 11th 2017".

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  2. I get that Trump is a climate sceptic, but to actually try to shut down basic scientific research on climate science is just so risable. This is short sighted, emotive, authoritarian thinking. When I think Trump, I'm reminded of the authoritarian state in the book 1984 by Orwell.

    Trump is trying to go back to a world that no longer exists. You can't pretend certain climate realities don't exist. You also can't put the globalisation genie back in the bottle, 

    As you appear to say, he could take a different more positive approach to research, and be well thought of by the vast majority of people

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  3. A pandemic would, ironically, be the single one situation where closing borders actually would make sense.

    To be more precise: quarantine everyone that is not a healthcare worker (or any other emergency hero, for that matter). Close not just the external borders, also the inter-state and inter-province ones. Close schools, universities, workplaces and factories. Close ports and airports (like after 9/11, but for months). In the worst case scenario, no one should exit home. To feed people, there should be soldiers and doctors distributing food, water and medicines.

    Before the vaccine/cure finally arrives, it will take many months. In those months quarantine in a massive scale is the only way to prevent losing most of human population. Yes, it would mean to shut down the whole economy for perhaps even a year round, but is better to lose 80% GDP than 80% of the population.

    Extreme situation means extreme measures to save lives, even if that means destroying the economy. The economy can be rebuilt, dead people not.

    Climate change is like a slow motion version of a global fever. It will not just kill a lot of people (something that by itself would be already the worst thing in human history) but also most of life on Earth.And ironically, solving it will be economically positive, even if global warming is not man-made.

    Is like, in a hypothetical, conspiracy-theory world, letting billions of people to die because you don't allow to produce the right vaccine, a vaccine that already known and cheap, and has positive (not negative) side-effects. The "problem" is that vaccine is not profitable to the oligopoly in charge because it will make most medicines unnecessary and so they will lose most of their market.

    Well, if you don't produce the vaccine in time, you will need to either shut down the economy or surrender to the infection and let billions die.

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  4. #1 - dreams have the luxury of being in the future or the past :)

    Although having said which, if I could live a dream it would be to go back ca. 100 years and devise a "how the Planet works" course for all 12-year-olds worldwide and get its teaching implemented!

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  5. green tortoise@3,

    It [climate change] will not just kill a lot of people (something that by itself would be already the worst thing in human history) but also most of life on Earth.And ironically, solving it will be economically positive, even if global warming is not man-made

    We all know CC is man-made. But if you assume it "is not man-made" (as in your final clause quoted above) then the idea of "solving it" does not make sense. Because AGW problem is not an environmental problem but a social problem, as I've always been saying here. If AGW problem was an environmental problem, it would've been already solved, because the technologies to move away from FF already exist. It's just lack of power and/or courage by politicians to implement the solutions. The reason is that said implementation would change social status quo, because of large vested interests held by large & strong population groups and by large and literally "energy strong" nations on global scale. So there is strong opposition to the solutions, so strong as to resulting in denial by ruling political forces. The more powerful and the more encumbered by their FF donors the forces are (e.g. in English apeaking countires), the stronger and more absurd the denial is. Up to the point of disconnection from reality by the ruling party in the most powerful nation (GOP in US). This gradual strenghtening of denial through political systems culminates in the most powerful leader of the world: a sociopathic moron, the denier-in-chief, who came unsurprisingly from GOP.

    In context of that picture, it is more than obvious that we have a social problem here that we must resolve first. The environmental aspects or AGW is a distant secondary issue that will never be resolved if we do not resolve the social aspect. That's why talking about "solving global warming even if not man-made" does not make sense, or should be prioritised away as a secondary task. E.g. efforts to scrub CO2 from the athmosphere or deploy some other safe geo-engineering cooling methods only address the symptoms and not the cause of a problem we have.

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  6. chriskoz @5:

    I agree with you 200% that this is a social, economic, politic, moral and why not, criminal problem.

    However I was making the case that even in the case that the deniers are right and global warming is not man-made (I insist, it's just a hypothetical scenario to show how absurd the denialist position is) the case against fossil fuels and for renewable energy is still economically and socially very strong.

    FF deplete, causing inflation in the long term. Renewables in the other hand, are abundant, do not deplete, had a near-zero OPEX and a time-decaying CAPEX, causing energy cost deflation, a strong boost for the economy.

    Even without accounting for global warming, millions of people die every year due to aerosol air pollution, and it cost several percent of GDP to remedy all that damage.

    Today argue for FF, and coal in particular, is beyond crazy.

    It's behaving like Stalin during the 1930 5-year plans and Mao during the so-called "Great Leap Forward". Both agro-indutrial plans to boost production ended in the worst famines that affected Russia and China, killing even more people than WW2 and WW1. Only the 1918/AH1N1 avian influenza pandemic killed more people.

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  7. I'm reading late in the evening.  It makes spookily real sense... it is plausible.

    I hope not to experience that particular dream tonight.

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  8. #4 - Me dumb, should have read the whole thing before putting my foot in my mouth. :-)

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  9. Always good advice! But your skepticism was nevertheless appreciated! You later checked things out properly and came to and admitted a different conclusion - an excellent example of the scientific method.

    If only we could accomplish the same with WUWT commenters!

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