COVID and climate test leaders’ ability to think nonlinearly

The progression of COVID-19 around the world tragically illustrates most leaders are struggling to deal with a natural phenomenon characterized by nonlinear exponential growth.

Kaua‘i has been one of the few exceptions, thanks to Mayor Kawakami’s early, bold leadership, which displayed “nonlinear thinking.” However, the state’s plan to reopen with a single pre-test starting Oct. 15 is, sadly, a reversion to “linear thinking.”

When nature behaves “linearly,” the severity of a problem varies directly with the size of source of the problem. The problem grows steadily as the source grows.

To solve the problem, you can wait until it becomes noticeable, take modest action to reduce the source, and continue ramping downward to return to normal or to some other acceptable level.

Leaders can compromise with nature to achieve a workable solution. However, COVID-19 is reminding us that nature can behave “nonlinearly,” too, with tragic consequences if very early major action is not taken. The essential idea of nonlinear behavior is that the rate of growth (rather than the size) of the problem varies with the size of the source.

The profound implication of this difference is that by the time a problem becomes noticeable, the growth rate of the problem has exploded and it is too late to only take “modest action.” Compromising with nature is not an option. Radical action to solve the problem is needed — as the COVID-19 shutdowns and other measures have shown.

Let’s illustrate with two environmental problems. Air pollution is a largely “linear” problem, with air quality being roughly proportional to the amount of air pollutants being emitted. Air quality in Los Angeles in the early 1960s at times became so bad that it was a major health hazard and visibility was barely across the street. Finally, the federal government responded with the Clean Air Act, which required emissions to be ramped slowly downward, and over an extended period this modest action vastly improved the air quality.

In contrast, climate change is a “nonlinear” problem. The addition of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere increases the trapping of heat, which then affects the oceans, ice sheets and atmosphere, which together form Earth’s highly-nonlinear “climate system.” Because of this nonlinearity, “climate disruption” rather than “climate change” is the better name. This nonlinearity means “modest action” is not an option. Only early, bold, and sustained action will be sufficient.

Hawaiian wisdom recognizes society and the economy can only function well when the natural world is healthy. The shutdown of much of Hawai‘i’s economy at times to suppress COVID-19 pointedly shows this truth.

Our leaders have understandably faced pressure to reopen to tourists, but they must resist attempting to compromise with nonlinearity. Negotiating with nature this time is not an option. By keeping the virus suppressed, the large portion of Kaua‘i’s economy independent of tourism can at least remain open until a scientifically-sound reopening to travelers is possible

We must support our leaders to be “nonlinear” thinkers who can effectively handle the two major nonlinear challenges facing us: COVID-19 and climate disruption. “Nonlinear thinking” means taking very early, very bold action while a problem is barely visible. It means being ready to resist pressure to try to compromise with nonlinearity. Remember that the economy depends on malama ‘aina. Be creative in supporting and transitioning those suffering economic impacts out of no fault of their own.

Finally, we must all remember that COVID-19 is a full, very-consequential rehearsal for our response to climate disruption.


Julio Magalhaes, Ph.D., is a retired planetary climate scientist who resides in Kilauea.

  1. rk669 October 15, 2020 3:44 pm Reply

    Ecclesiastes 10-5
    There is an Evil I have seen under the sun,the sort of error that arrises from a Ruler!

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