gwagner3_Dave RowlandGetty Images_jacindaarderncoronavirus Dave Rowland/Getty Images

Compound Growth Could Kill Us – or Make Us Stronger

The power of compound growth has long been recognized as essential to economic development. But in both the COVID-19 pandemic and the slower-moving climate crisis, this same mathematical force is cutting the other way, revealing dangerous shortcomings in how we manage externalities.

NEW YORK – A good way to think about the coronavirus pandemic is that it is like climate change at warp speed. What takes decades and centuries for the climate takes days or weeks for a contagious disease. That speed focuses the mind and offers lessons in how to think about risk in an interconnected world.

With both climate change and COVID-19, the real problem is not absolute numbers (whether greenhouse-gas emissions or infections), but rather the rate of change. It is bad enough that average global temperatures have risen by 1°C (almost 2°F) above pre-industrial levels. But warming of 2°, 3°, or many more degrees would be profoundly worse.

In pandemics, too, even a very small difference in the growth trajectory has stark consequences down the line. Coronavirus infections have increased by around 33% per day in most European countries (and by only slightly less in the United States, possibly owing to a relative lack of testing). At that rate, a dozen cases today will become 500 cases within two weeks, and 20,000 two weeks after that.

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