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(Image: AAP/Kelly Barnes)

Please stop analogising climate change and the pandemic. The pandemic is not a parallel of climate change at all — it is a disaster of a very different stripe.

Climate change is a slow moving juggernaut out to take us down. Pandemics are short sharp flashes that repeat throughout history. Anthropogenic climate change is happening for the first time. Pandemics we have a lot of experience with. 

The fact pandemics keep happening leads to one of the most important thing we can say about pandemics: they follow a power law distribution.

I remember when I first read that terrorist attacks follow a power law distribution. A paper published in 2005 explained that there are many, many small terrorist attacks. They happen all over the world, almost every day. Big attacks like 9/11 are rare.

“The frequency scales as an inverse power of the severity,” wrote researchers, drawing on a database of 11,000 fatal terrorist attacks worldwide since 1968.

That means terrorist attacks do not fit a bell curve, where there is an “average” that tells you what you need to know. Instead, much of the damage is done by a few rare events.

Terrorist attacks share this pattern with earthquakes, rockslides, asteroid impacts, industrial disasters, famines, fires, floods, the distribution of wealth, and many other natural phenomena. A few big outliers are really important.

“Large events happen more often than you would expect in systems that exhibit power law distributions,” wrote Professor Lisa Manning of Syracuse University. “This means that catastrophically large earthquakes, blackouts, stock market crashes or internet traffic bursts are more likely than predicted by gaussian [bell curve] models” 

We are more comfortable with normal distributions — the bell curve. Power law distributions are alien to us. To help conceptualise them, consider this: if human heights were distributed in a power law distribution, America would have one person as tall as the Empire State Building and 180 million people around 17cm tall.

A power law distribution is apparent in disease outbreaks. SARS killed 774 people. MERS killed 858. SARS-nCOV has been about 300 times more damaging, killing over 200,000 so far. 

The world was woefully ill-prepared for the latest coronavirus outbreak. The occurrence of the small outbreaks was a warning that a bigger one was out there waiting to occur. The globe was well advised to prepare.

And the disappointing thing is that even with all this evidence, and all these warnings, we took so little action.

One lesson everyone is taking from the pandemic is that we must prepare adequately for pandemics. That’s correct. But if we were wise we would look into the deeper pattern.

The pandemic tells us there are a lot of large disasters out there waiting to happen. They are unlikely to be hidden — we’ve probably seen a small version of them. What’s more, someone is probably warning us about them. We should start listening.

One such warning sticks in my mind. It comes from a Pulitzer Prize winning story about the fault line that sits under Seattle. That fault line is a peculiar one that stores energy up instead of releasing lots of little earthquakes. This has two implications — one, most of the residents of Seattle have never felt an earthquake; and two, when it goes it will really be something.

“When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America,” writes the author. Kathryn Schulz.

Is Seattle preparing for this quake? No. It continues to build on the zone that will be worst affected.

Faced with disasters that are serious only occasionally, it might seem like bad luck if they cluster, or happen close together in time. Surely you’d like some time to prepare, time to recover, right?

Instead, clustering seems to be helpful. Australia’s incredibly damaging, unpredictable and long-lasting 2019-20 bushfire season took only 34 lives. That is almost certainly because the lessons of Black Saturday were fresh in our minds. That fire event killed 173 people in 2009 and sparked an array of responses, both personal and political.

The inability of the novel coronavirus to make much headway in Taiwan can be understood in the same way. The relatively recent impact of SARS meant the country was prepared. Europe, which was most recently ravaged by a pandemic 102 years ago — the Spanish Flu — was far worse prepared.

New Zealand has long been well-prepared for an earthquake in Wellington, which is hit by them often. It was not expecting one in Christchurch, and when a magnitude 6.2 quake hit in 2011, 185 people died. 

These observations can be interpreted as reason to hope. We can take action and bend the left end of the power law distribution down, if —  if — we pay attention and take action in time.

We can’t stop earthquakes but we can stop building in the danger zones. We can’t stop bushfires, but we can evacuate areas in time. We can’t stop terrorists being motivated to attack, but we can make it very difficult for them to bring anything on board a plane. We can’t stop viruses mutating, but we can deprive them of hosts.

Recent times have seen a few small wars, while the multilateral institutions that were built to prevent a recurrence of global armed conflict are being eroded, and China and the US are at loggerheads.

We must combat climate change. But we already know that. The lesson of the pandemic is an unfortunate one — there are a lot of other risks we need to combat too, and we’re not paying any attention to those.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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