by Planning Engineer (Russell Schussler)
Reflecting on the U.S. response to the covid pandemic, Dr. Fauci provides some important insights on managing complex risks – with relevance to climate change and the electric grid transition.
Dr. Fauci discussing past covid measures was recently quoted as saying,
“(W)e looked at it from a purely public-health standpoint. It was for other people to make broader assessments—people whose positions include but aren’t exclusively about public health. Those people have to make the decisions about the balance between the potential negative consequences of something versus the benefits of something.”
I was surprised to hear that Dr. Fauci did not think that public health should have been in total control of the pandemic response. But he is right. We needed diverse experts providing input and impacting policy choices – some who worry about public health, others who worry about individual health, others who worry about children, and others well versed on the economic impacts of it all. Doing everything possible to stop the spread of covid, all other costs and consideration be damned, should have been expected to reduce the overall well-being of society and provide grossly suboptimal outcomes. Focusing solely on covid risks was likely counterproductive even for those most at risk from covid.
In the U.S., the balanced path Dr. Fauci is now advocating was not seriously pursued during the pandemic. With the Covid panic, it seemed public health took over with one over-riding goal. Advocates for individual health and individual health care found few available forums and inroads to appeal to and impact policy makers. Appearing to be against the central narrative of those in power may have had severe consequences for individuals and organizations. In hindsight, many see that balancing competing views and values would have better served us all. In focusing so exclusively on the threat of covid, we increased our risk from so many other threats. Many now understand that our “best” scientific understandings should be subject to challenges. It certainly seems we needed “other people” to speak up, but those voices did not find the platforms they would need to influence policy and direction.
There are some similarities here with “experts” who are driving policy as relates to the climate “emergency” and the emerging plans for net zero. My recent posting discussed reasons why utility grid experts were silent while policies were enacted that called for large increases in wind and solar power. It’s fairly clear that insufficient numbers of policy makers want to hear of the potential negative consequences related to increasing penetration levels from wind and solar. Perhaps our experience with covid regulations can shed some light on the discussions that should occur around grid policies. Both covid and net zero efforts are dominated by an overfocused group of experts, crafting an overly simplistic narrative to guide policy makers, the press, and much of the public. These narrow experts and their followers are largely unaware of the large negative externalities that result from their initiatives. Public health was worried about public health, not individual health or the economy. Many of those now driving the net zero mobilization are focused on CO2 reduction, not grid reliability or the economy.
Counter to Dr. Fauci’s calls for “other people to make broader assessments”, in reality often when disaster or emergencies are proclaimed the voices of the “other people” are marginalized, ignored, discredited and/or demonized. Instead of allowing diverse voices to “balance” concerns, those proclaiming disaster become self-righteous and authoritarian, arguing that other voices are at best wasteful distractions and at worst the work of those with selfish or sinister motives. Such sentiments can capture policy makers, the media and the public. The resultant mob wants to build consensus for a complex and highly uncertain problem, and they promote the idea that anyone challenging “the consensus” narrative is a dangerous threat.
The fear-based, narrowly focused public health approach to covid avoidance, largely to the exclusion of all other concerns, seemed to get worse as it trickled down to the broader public. Over-reactions were common as skate parks were filled with sand and beaches were closed. In my active 55+ community, our board had regular visits from public health workers. They focused on obscure risks and studies like this one recommending walkers beware of slipstream transmission. They locked up our outdoor recreational amenities, took down nets and encouraged isolation way longer than made sense. Arguing against their efforts in favor of a two-pronged strategy of avoiding covid and also encouraging individual health, was seen as a selfish and ignorant position by many. They insisted they were following “experts” advice, but it was only from one narrow perspective from one narrow field of expertise. The masses were largely swayed by unchallenged public health concerns such that for many staying home, watching tv and drinking were seen as the responsible thing to do. Unfortunately, the health consequences of that strategy in older populations were generally not good.
The fear-based calls for a “green” grid has followed a similar path. The narrative coming from leaders in this area influence regional and local authorities as well as individuals. Many areas over-subsidize solar for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Ridiculous “green” projects garner support. As with covid, those challenging the “green” narrative are suspect. “Forget the economy. Forget the negative impacts associated with wind and solar. Forget the cost and reliability implications or what it might do to our standard of living. We are facing a calamity.” When technical claims about the shortcomings of intermittent asynchronous wind and solar are met by exclamations about how bad climate change might be, you realize that fear has pushed rational discussion aside. Hopefully “green” experts and advocates might one day soon see the wisdom of Dr. Fauci’s statement rewritten here for them:
“It is for other people to make broader assessments… Those people have to make the decisions about the balance between the potential negative consequences of something (asynchronous intermittent generation) versus the benefits of something (economic reliable energy)”.
Those calling for economics and reliability to be considered along with social responsibility and “green” concerns should not be seen as the enemy. They should play an important role in the broader assessments of energy policy. They should not be seen as shills of industry or deniers of science but rather responsible experts helping achieve balance in the policy process.
There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Dr. Fauci actually sought to encourage balance around the bigger issues as covid policies evolved. But his more recent reflections provide rock solid good advice.
“Those people have to make the decisions about the balance between the potential negative consequences of something versus the benefits of something.“
We may one day hear “green” experts cry out, after grand experiments fail, that, “I was only talking about what green energy could do, it was up to others to provide balance and publicize the short comings of the technology.” It will be too late then. Let’s challenge all “experts” now to show their commitments: 1) to balance, 2) to addressing their critics, 3) to understanding the limitations of their knowledge, and 4) to help cultivate an appreciation for how other experts might help better understand potential negative impacts from their proposed actions.
Promoting healthy debates with a variety of perspectives around critical issues, such as a potential grid transformation, is the best course for developing sound policies. Unfortunately, we seem to be moving farther away from such hopes, as those in control argue for our/their “best understandings” and help stifle anything that might cast a shadow of doubt around their narratives . When disaster is predicted, select “experts” take priority, opposition is hushed, and then balance is lost. The overused recipe of proclaiming disaster, proposing a solution, declaring there is not much time, arguing that “misinformation” is harmful and then controlling the dialogue works against us all. While it may get decisions and policies rolling, it is often not in the right direction and long-term needs and feedback mechanisms are frequently overlooked and ignored
As suggested by Dr. Fauci, in any major undertaking balance is needed. It is far better to understood this in advance, rather than recognize it in hindsight. The justification for balance is summarized in this 2016 posting:
“The power system is a matter of extreme importance relating to economic development, quality of life as well as health and safety. In order to best meet the needs of any given area, it is necessary to balance the factors of economics, reliability and public responsibility. An imbalance in any area will lead to repercussions in other areas and may, in fact, prove to be counterproductive across all areas.”
Getting the power system right is important regardless of the threats posed by climate change. Climate change concerns should not trump a reliable economic grid. In fact, quite the opposite, the greater the threat of climate change, the more important it is that we get power supply right. Climate change would not pair well with an unreliable, overly costly, unworkable energy system. Focusing too narrowly on public responsibility (CO2 reduction, equity, social justice) without adequate concern for economics and reliability is a recipe for disaster. Bring on the balance.