Failure Is An Option: Antibiotic Resistance and Global Warming

A while ago, I argued that many of our supposedly ‘scientific’ or technological problems aren’t anything of the sort: instead, they are largely political failures. Consider the problem of antibiotic resistance:

There are a lot of things we could currently do to significantly reduce the threat of antibiotic resistant organisms:

1) Stop clinical misuse of antibiotics. Maybe handing out Z-paks like candy shouldn’t be best practice.
2) Improve healthcare-associated infection control.
3) Stop the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture.
4) Make a serious attempt to make the use of phage (bacterial virus) therapy viable (the Soviet Union used this for decades).
5) Improving sanitation in developing countries so antibiotics aren’t used as often (and to lessen the transmission of resistant commensal bacteria).
6) Better combination therapy in the clinic.

None of those are really difficult technological or scientific challenges. But they are regulatory and political challenges–Rep. Louise Slaughter and Sen. Ted Kennedy tried for years to get PAMTA passed (and failed), which was a pretty modest agricultural antibiotic use reform bill. No one has figured out to how commercialize phage therapy–which is, again, not a scientific problem. The only thing that comes close [to requiring some scientific advances] is combination therapy.

When it comes to controlling CREs–carbapenem resistant enterobacteriaceae that are basically resistant to all antibiotics–in the U.S., we know what to do, but it’s not clear that we’ll be willing to institute the appropriate infection control procedures*. In the developing world, we desperately need better sanitation, so antibiotics aren’t a routine necessity to treat gastrointestinal disease. We know how to do these things, but, even under the president’s new initiative to combat antibiotic resistance, there aren’t any resources or legislative proposals to do these things.

With that as prelude, let’s move on to something more cheery, like global warming. David Roberts, in a must-read piece, makes a very important point (boldface mine):

The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit….

“A 4°C warmer world can, and must be, avoided,” said the World Bank president.

But that’s where we’re headed. It will take enormous effort just to avoid that fate. Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it’s plausible anytime soon. And so, awful shit it is….

The message is always, “We’re running out of time; we’ve only got five or 10 years to turn things around, but we can do it if we put our minds to it.”

That was the message in 1990, in 2000, in 2010. How can we still have five or 10 years left? The answer, Geden says, is that scientists are baking increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models…

Now policymakers are being told that emissions can peak in 2030 and still keep temperature rise under 2°C. To get that result in a modeling scenario, emissions have to fall 6 percent a year, even with large amounts of BECCS thrown in. To find that plausible, one has to imagine all of human society turning on a dime, beginning in 2030, deploying massive amounts of nuclear, bioenergy, wind, and solar, and doing so every year for decades.

It’s “possible,” yes, but at a certain point that term loses much meaning. Something that would require human beings to quickly and fundamentally change their collective behavior may not violate the laws of physics, but it is unlikely, given what we know about human beings, path dependence, and political dysfunction. This is what I once called the “brutal logic of climate change.”

Lots of things are physically possible that nonetheless require heroic assumptions about collective human behavior (like, say, aggressive mitigation policy, in the face of powerful vested interests, harmonized across the globe, sustained for decades … and also many gigatons worth of BECCS). The question is not whether 2°C scenarios violates laws of physical science, but whether they are reasonable given what we know about human beings.

That’s not really a scientific judgment, though, is it? Geden makes the same mistake when he writes, “the climate policy mantra — that time is running out for 2°C but we can still make it if we act now — is a scientific nonsense.” No. It may be a nonsense, but it’s not a scientific nonsense….

There is not a politician on earth wants to tell his or her constituents, “We’ve probably already blown our chance to avoid substantial suffering, but if we work really hard and devote our lives to the cause, we can somewhat reduce the even worse suffering that awaits our grandchildren.”

Meanwhile, on an elite college campus somewhere, a dopey student issued a strident statement arguing for or against trigger warnings.

We could solve–or at least greatly mitigate many of our problems–but politically we’re not able or willing to do that. And it’s not just politicians fault either. Many of the required changes would require that we alter very fundamental facets of our lives. So, instead, we focus on second– or third-best options, and hope a magic pony arrives that will solve our problems.

Hope might not be a plan, but if we don’t follow a plan at all, there’s not much reason to hope.

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8 Responses to Failure Is An Option: Antibiotic Resistance and Global Warming

  1. Gingerbaker says:

    “Many of the required changes would require that we alter very fundamental facets of our lives”

    Really? Seems to me the electricity still comes from the socket, just like before. Except it need not cost as much and we no longer have to feel guilty about actually consuming it.

  2. If you are communicating with an American audience and want to get their attention, for heaven’s sake use fahrenheit! I know celsius is the scientific standard, but there’s a communication issue here.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Centigrade is the world standard as well as the scientific standard. There’s only about 6 countries in the world that still use Fahrenheit. And probably none with a population much larger than downtown Los Angles except for the USA.

      I don’t live in the USA and probably many other readers don’t. I find it rather quaint to read of degrees F in present-day reports. And bloody difficult to figure out. If it’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit in Miami is that a heat-wave or a cold-snap?

  3. jemand says:

    Quibble about nuclear power discussed in some of your past linked posts. Sure, nuclear is *technically, physically* possible to do safely, but requires ongoing maintenance and as-yet-unproven permanent disposal.

    Socially and politically, we have had decades and decades to deal with permanent solutions while other energy sources were cheaper and more available, and chose not to. It seems extremely unlikely those human problems are going to be avoided in the future, regarding nuclear power or anything else. Increasing, or even not decreasing nuclear power, just leaves people in the future not only with the 2+ degrees of warming, and limited fossil fuel energy to drive cleanup, but ALSO the intractable social problem (and at that point, technological, as the rest of society creaks and falls apart) of disposing of spent nuclear fuel.

    If society is going to have warming anyway– better to have it come a few years earlier and spare the future messes they are not going to even have the technological ability to clean, even if they would fix the political mess that stops us from fixing it for them…

    I’m open to revisiting my opinion on nuclear power– but it isn’t fair to compare the political realities of every other aspect of human society, to “imagined perfect use and future disposal” for nuclear. We had our chance to be responsible on that front, a whole lot of people from all sectors of political ideologies failed. Perhaps we should choose those technologies which will fail quickly with fewer lingering effects… (And I am not convinced global warming will be worse depending on path– it is a question of when society cracks, at which point emissions reduce rapidly. With the small possibility of avoiding that cracking via massive and rapid action, which avoids the worst global warming entirely.)

    Do people 200 years from now want to deal with 3+ degree warming hitting their battered societies, or with the same degree of warming which intensified a couple decades later in our time, but leave them ALSO living with extensive nuclear contamination?

  4. mk says:

    David Roberts is anything but a “must read.” Joe Romm, however…

  5. Jim Sweeney says:

    I don’t actually like advocating Dr. Ain’s approach, but a massive reduction in the human population would make most of the problems we face more tractable.

    At age 2, approximately, my life was saved by antibiotics (appendicitis, peritonitis). My father physically ejected the priest administering last rites, I’m told. I drive a fast car, I own a big house, I attended Berkeley for free. Few of my experiences will be available to future generations.

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