What the Coronavirus Curve Teaches Us About Climate Change

Humans don’t easily grasp the concept of exponential growth, but it’s exactly why coronavirus has gotten so hard to manage—and why climate change could too.

The coronavirus pandemic—sadly—has introduced or reintroduced many people to the concept of an exponential curve, in which a quantity grows at an increasing rate over time, as the number of people contracting the virus currently is doing. It is this curve that so many of us are trying to “flatten” through social distancing and other mitigating measures, small and large.

It’s easy to project a pattern of smooth, linear growth: one person gets the coronavirus today, another person contracts it tomorrow, a third person gets it on the third day, and the process continues in this manner, the cases simply adding. But most people, including leaders and policymakers, have a harder time imagining exponential growth, which means you can have two cases of coronavirus tomorrow, four on the third day, hundreds after the seventh day and thousands soon after—a situation that’s challenging to anticipate and manage. That’s the nature of pandemics.

It’s also how climate change works. And if there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us a valuable lesson about the perils of ignoring destructive processes—and perhaps even larger, longer-term disasters—that increase exponentially. Even if growth looks mild in the moment—think of the earliest segments on an exponential curve like the red line shown in the illustration above—it will soon enough be severe. In other words, delay is the enemy.

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