Those same leaders who are pounding on Big Tech are even worse practitioners of Champlain South syndrome themselves. Our recovery from the worst public health catastrophe of our lifetimes is now stalled because millions of people are refusing vaccination, and officials who know better aren’t willing to take steps that would decrease infections. But even if every person in the United States was vaccinated, we would still be at risk. Epidemiologists all agree that huge unvaccinated populations abroad are breeding grounds for potentially more dangerous variants of the virus, like the more virulent Delta variant, which has triggered a terrifying rise in cases across the globe. Vaccines do mitigate Delta, and it seems no more deadly than the earlier versions of the virus. But that may not be the case with a future variant.I’m all for the new infrastructure bill, but if we’re talking trillions for public works, how about doing whatever it takes to get the rest of the world vaccinated, so we might all live to travel on those new roads? Joe Biden has taken some timid steps towards this, but far less than is required to get the job done. Maybe he’s figured that it’s a hard sell to ask Congress and the American people to spend hundreds of billions to vaccinate other countries—and to spend valuable political capital to get fellow nations on board. But to me, it seems like the only sell.
When it comes to our response to climate change , Champlain Towers looks like a model of responsibility. For decades, we’ve had evidence that a rise in temperatures will have horrific effects, including billions of climate refugees, deadly weather, and elimination of many species, maybe not excluding ours. The problem is that mitigating this will cost a lot and take a lot of time—even though we know it’s necessary, it’s just too much for us. (At least most of us know it’s necessary—we have an entire political party that’s been acting like the building manager who told tenants their building was doing great.) But now, with continental wildfires, apocalyptic heat waves, and once-in-a-century floods twice a year, any idiot can see the concrete is clearly crumbling and the pool is about to collapse on the parking lot. At the Champlain Towers, seeing the damage led to actually making the painful assessment, however belatedly. But somehow, with climate change, we still aren’t close. Nobody is prepared for what is going to happen in the next few decades. Even our enlightened billionaires throw only a fraction of their riches at the problem—and then build huge yachts.
There’s something wrong with us. In the field of SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—there’s a thing called the Fermi paradox. It goes like this: Evidence shows that there are millions of planets that can potentially host life. There are so many that other civilizations seem inevitable. But, as physicist Enrico Fermi once said during a famous lunchtime discussion, “Where are they?” One dismal postulation is that as civilizations become more sophisticated, they eventually destroy themselves, way too soon before figuring out how to make house calls to galactic neighbors. Carl Sagan, addressing this issue in 1979, urged against adopting this thesis of despair. For one thing, he suggested, maybe some super-advanced civilization light-years away learned survival skills, and might pass us some tips on sustaining our species. I wonder if Sagan would still have this opinion in 2021. My guess is that even if we got a SETI bulletin with the most explicit blueprint imaginable for avoiding destruction, we’d simply ignore it. Or maybe the powers that be would consider the prescription too disruptive to implement.
“This is perhaps one of the first really big cases where we've seen the real world do something before we've been able to have the capacity to model it properly,” says climate scientist Benjamin Sanderson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, who cowrote a piece in the Nature Climate Change package.