What the COVID-19 curve can teach us about climate change

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. 

farmer sits on cracked earth near drying water source

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,” says Kunreuther. “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.”

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.