Justin F. Thulin: Are climate change and COVID-19 a modern Greek tragedy?

(Carolyn Kaster | AP photo) Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist, chair of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors, left, and Thomas Pickering, co-chair of the International Crisis Group, display the Doomsday Clock during a news conference the at the National Press Club in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, announcing that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist have moved the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight.

Most parents do what they can to make the world a better place for their kids and grandkids. They buy them their first bike when they are little. If they can, they help them pay for college when they are teens. If they are able, they might help with the down payment on their kids’ first house in their 20s or 30s.

And it doesn’t end there, as they lavish their generosity on their grandchildren in a similar fashion and give whatever is left over to their offspring when they pass.

What may surprise and undoubtedly horrify many of these well-intentioned parents and grandparents is that they have been unwittingly harming their precious kids and grandkids by voting for presidents, senators and representatives who for the past 30-plus years have been supporting policies that have degraded the environment that their offspring will inherit. Yes, I am speaking of the colossal failure of leadership that our collective ignoring of climate change has spawned and the inevitable consequence of bequeathing our progeny an Earth in worse shape than the one we inherited.

It’s tragic because public-spirited parents, grandparents and other citizens certainly would not have chosen this course had they been fully aware of the consequences of the electoral choices that they made. They have a right to be furious. For decades, many in the political class obfuscated regarding the clear scientific data showing how rising levels of an invisible gas, carbon dioxide, caused by humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, has been inexorably warming our planet.

The fruits of this short sightedness were summarized by a 2014 Department of Defense climate change road map: “Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict.” Certainly, this is not the gift any parent or grandparent intended to leave.

But this tragedy has yet another twist: unintended revenge borne of youthful self-absorption. As the whims of microbiological malice have it, while the invisible novel Coronavirus infects ubiquitously, on average it causes mild illness in the young, while not infrequently squeezing the air out of their elders.

Social distancing? Mask wearing? Many youths seemingly cannot resist the genetically hardwired temptation to socialize if not specifically mandated not to. And why not? Over the ages, youth have always been forgiven for giving little thought to their own mortality, and in this case, the facts seem to bear out their nonchalance.

Unfortunately, the demography of Covid-19 infection has swerved sharply. The peak incidence of infection now encompasses the 18-34 year-old cohort, whereas two months ago the disease most commonly affected those over 50. The consequences of this shift are at first blush surprising, and on further reflection, terrifying.

Young adults possess wonderful idealism and commonly a zeal to make the world a better place. It would pain them to realize that while they may not be often adversely affected by the Coronavirus, the three people they passed it to at the sports bar may be harmed; and if not, the three people each of those people passed it to very well, might be.

Pretty soon the exploding nature of the math becomes inescapable, and before they know it their own diabetic 57-year-old mom is in the ICU on a ventilator with COVID-19. Lacking sometimes the inclination to fully think things through, our young are now unintentionally infecting our older citizens, and adding gas to an already overheated pandemic.

So, while good intentions, if well-conceived and developed, can transform the world in a variety of salutary ways, sometimes these benevolent desires are not fully informed (adults) or miss the forest entirely for the trees (youth). And in the unfortunate examples of climate change and COVID-19, like an epic Greek tragedy, middle aged and senior citizens have harmed those they least wished to. Making things worse and as if returning the favor, our young adults’ social habits are now killing seniors, without them even realizing it.

Had ancient Greek audiences watched this bit of history play out on a stage, they may have ruefully and cynically concluded that a cosmic justice such as this could only be the product of jealous and vengeful gods.

Justin F. Thulin

Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.