“We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inward at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet.” — Stephen Hawking
I am concerned about the health of our planet, how it affects public health and how human management of our environment, while economically self-serving, is leading to disastrous consequences for our posterity. In 2014, data from the Mauna Loa Observatory, which has been measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) since 1958, measured 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time. This represents a 24% increase in atmospheric CO2, and the rate of increase is twice as fast as a decade ago. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), 2014 also was the warmest year on record since temperature records began in 1880, and the top 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1998.
Yes, CO2 is a natural component of our atmosphere and life depends on the carbon cycle (the natural exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, soil, plants and animals). The environment that humans evolved into and inherited through the millennia depended on establishment of the equilibrium of carbon in the atmosphere so the planet was not too cold and the carbon sequestered in the oceans and the ground so the planet was not too hot. Granted, this is a miserable oversimplification, but every responsible adult should have a working knowledge of this cycle which is so fundamental to our continued existence.
One of the best explanations on the carbon cycle and the risks of increasing atmospheric CO2 from burning fossil fuels is provided by astrophysicist and author Neil Degrasee Tyson on his National Geographic series, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey – The World Set Free (Season 1, Episode 12).” If you desire a science-based understanding of how human carbon emissions are impacting the planet, I highly recommend viewing this episode. In summary, we need to drastically curtail and eventually stop pulling fossilized hydrocarbon fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) from the ground to burn for energy. This excess carbon was naturally locked away in the ground,and releasing that carbon (unnaturally) into the atmosphere through our human activities is the cause of global warming. This is not a theory; it is as close to scientific fact as anything else we accept as scientific fact.
You would be hard pressed to find a respected American scientific society that does not accept the empirical fact of human induced global warming from the burning of fossil fuels (18 scientific associations are listed at http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/). Yet, our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels increases with no sign of abatement. Annually, energy companies invest hundreds of billions of dollars searching for new sources of hydrocarbon fuels despite the devastating impact burning these fuels is having on the planet.
From a purely economic standpoint this is understandable since seven of the 20 most profitable companies on the planet are energy companies, the largest industry represented on the list. I imagine it is rather easy to ignore the global-warming consequences of the energy business for those individuals becoming fabulously wealthy working in this field. I also am not insensitive to the fact that the energy industry employees millions, and I understand that modern society as we presently understand it depends on readily available energy. Fact is, personally, I can continue to enjoy my modern life and not bother myself with any of these issues, since I am old enough that these decisions will likely not impact me personally. Our children’s lives, sadly, are a very different story.
According to NASA, the impact of global warming on our planet already can be seen in shrinking glaciers, shifting ranges for plants and animals and earlier loss of sea ice around the planet. Of specific American population health concern is the expanding range of diseases such as Dengue Fever, West Nile Virus and Lyme Disease that were little known just a few decades ago but are moving north with the warming climate.
One of the most concerning impacts of global warming is the concurrent rise in sea levels that has been observed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is estimated that at least 600 million people live in coastal areas that will be impacted by sea level rise. Perhaps chillingly (pardon the pun) the DoD is already planning for the impact of global warming and sea level rise on its installations and mission profiles. The 2014 DoD Quadrennial Defense Review specifically addresses the national security issues of global warming as a “treat multiplier.” Within this document, under the heading global trends, is the following quote:
“The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
This is by no means an exhaustive description of all the consequences that warming of the planet will bring to the human condition. From my perspective, though, we have plenty of evidence to suggest a “Manhattan Project” style move to non-hydrocarbon sources of energy would be in our collective human self-interest. I am not suggesting an immediate moratorium of fossil fuel use, I have no desire to destroy our current economy, and I still need to drive to work. What I am suggesting is a grass roots public movement to force our government leaders and the energy private sector to aggressively begin to change our sources of energy from non sustainable fossil fuels to new, environmentally sustainable, sources (solar, wind, geothermal, as examples). I have heard all of the excuses for not doing this, from economic Armageddon to (seriously) that global warming does not exist, but the science suggests little choice if we are to mitigate the Malthusian consequences of global warming. As a federal medicine provider and father of three daughters, I am no longer content to sit and passively watch this irrational experiment on the planet we all depend on. But, honestly, what can I possibly do against the economic self-interest of energy companies and the politicians they support?
At least in this country I still have my vote and the ability to influence others who vote for politicians willing to move to an energy future that is less harmful to the planet and ensures a future for our children. I also have become aware of efforts to encourage financial institutions to divest from companies that profit from the burning of fossil fuels. To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”
I already have worked to reduce my family’s carbon footprint through investment in home insulation, renewable home heating, energy-efficient lighting and hybrid automobiles. With this editorial, I plan to ask my financial adviser to move my paltry securities account away from the fossil fuel industry. I understand that, on the grand scale of global warming and world economics, my efforts are as inconsequential as a raindrop on the ocean. Then again, every ocean starts with a raindrop.
The impact of global warming affects the health and well-being of all of us, regardless of economic means, social status or location on the planet. Global warming will likely be the largest threat to public health in the 21st century. This is an issue we must agree to solve together, and the science suggests we have no time to lose.