16 April 2020   Leave a comment

A new research article was published in the Journal Cryosphere that documented a highly unusual weather pattern in Greenland in the summer of 2019 that contributed to a very high level of ice melt. According to the abstract:

“The summer of 2019 was characterized by an exceptional persistence of anticyclonic conditions that, in conjunction with low albedo associated with reduced snowfall in summer, enhanced the melt–albedo feedback by promoting the absorption of solar radiation and favored advection of warm, moist air along the western portion of the ice sheet towards the north, where the surface melt has been the highest since 1948. The analysis of the frequency of daily 500 hPa [Hectopascal- A unit of pressure equal to a millibar (1 hPa = 1 mb)] geopotential heights obtained from artificial neural networks shows that the total number of days with the five most frequent atmospheric patterns that characterized the summer of 2019 was 5 standard deviations above the 1981–2010 mean, confirming the exceptional nature of the 2019 season over Greenland.”

The Guardian puts the analysis in less scientific terms: “Crucially, the team note, the high pressure conditions lasted for 63 of the 92 summer days in 2019, compared with an average of just 28 days between 1981 and 2010. A similar situation was seen in 2012, a record bad year for melting of the ice sheet.” The real question is to what extent the summers of 2012 and 2019 were anomalous. If those summers are becoming more of the norm in Greenland, then most of the models used by researchers to predict the degree of ice melt in the future will significantly underestimate the potential for ice melt and, subsequently, sea level rise. The Guardian goes on:

“If such high pressure zones become a regular annual feature, future melting could be twice as high as currently predicted, a result that could have serious consequences for sea level rise.

“’This melt event is a good alarm signal that we urgently need to change our way of living to hold [back] global warming because it is likely that the IPCC projections could be too optimistic for [the] Arctic,’ said Dr Xavier Fettweis, co-author of the research from the University of Liege, adding that the atmospheric conditions were unlikely to be down to natural climatic variability and could be driven by global heating.”

Unconstrained, that degree of ice melt would be catastrophic for some marine life and for many coastal communities.

The Trump Administration has announced that it will cut US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) for alleged lapses in reporting the significance of the COVID-19 virus in China. National Public Radio has published a very informative timeline of WHO’s involvement in publicizing the virus. The evidence suggests that WHO made its first statement about the new virus on 5 January, but that it did not signal the virus as a serious threat to the international community until 30 January. On that day the Director General of WHO made this statement:

“For all of these reasons, I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus.

“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries.

“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it.

“Let me be clear: this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China. On the contrary, WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”

The statement tried to do two things at once: to warn the world about the possibility of a pandemic but also to express confidence in China’s ability to prevent a pandemic from occurring. It was a singularly unfortunate statement reflecting bureaucratic caution and a strong desire not to alienate China. It was not until 11 March that WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.

It seems clear that both WHO and China bungled the situation and that more effective action was necessary at a much earlier point in time–many lives could have been saved if that had happened. But we should keep in mind that US President Trump was also reluctant to take strong action at that point. On 24 January, President Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!” And on 24 February, Mr. Trump tweeted: “”The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” I think that it is fair to say that all parties did not take the situation seriously enough and we should try to figure out how to make sure that national and international leaders act more promptly in future situations.

I say this not to apportion blame–it is a bootless exercise unless we are prepared to assure that the process of assessing responsibility for the failure leads to protections against such failures in the future. It does appear, however, that the action to defund WHO is an exercise in divesting responsibility for lapses in institutional and personal judgments. Jamie Metzl, a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing and a former National Security Council official, has written an op-ed for Newsweek which makes the point:

“The United States had all the information it needed by January to mount a massive response, but Trump actively undermined the findings of his own intelligence and health officials. Worse, he passed misinformation to the American people that potentially led to many thousands of deaths. We’ve got to ask why this happened.”

The real question we should be asking is how defunding the WHO will lead to better performance by the WHO. Avoiding failures in the future should be our objective, and there is no other international organizations tasked with the problem of protecting global health. Do we really think that the US would have been better prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic if the WHO did not exist? An editorial in The Guardian goes further and considers the act on WHO as an attempt by the US to avoid responsiblity for its own failures:

“The attacks on the WHO and China from the US, the UK and elsewhere reflect not only anger at Beijing’s responsibility for this pandemic, and a belief that coronavirus has exposed the state’s essential nature, but also a wish to divert attention from unpardonable failings by western governments. They, too, must take responsibility.”

Posted April 16, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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