In the last fifteen years, we have witnessed dozens of natural disasters affecting our most vulnerable patients, from post-hurricane victims in Haiti to drought and famine refugees in Malawi. The vast majority of these patients suffered from acute on chronic disasters, culminating in life-threatening medical illnesses. Yet, during the course of providing clinical care and comfort, we rarely, if ever, pointed to climate change as the root cause of their conditions. The evidence for climate change is not new, but the movement for climate justice is now emerging on a large scale, and clinicians should play an active role.
Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as an “equal opportunity”
disaster. Yes, climate change poses an existential threat to us all, but not on
equal terms. When nature strikes, it has always been the poor and historically
underserved who are most vulnerable to its wrath. Hurricane Katrina provides an
example of how natural disasters target their victims along racial and
socioeconomic lines even in the wealthiest nations. Writes TalkPoverty.org, “A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as
likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck;
because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken
by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy
a home.” Throughout the world, historically marginalized communities have been
pushed to overcrowded, poorly-built, and unsanitary neighborhoods where natural
disasters invoke much greater harm.
THCB readers may recall last year in early June when the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and earlier this January when the World Economic Forum met to discuss its global risk report that included the chapter, “Our Planet on the Brink,” I discussed in part (here and here) the health care industry’s indifference to global warming (See also my related 3 Quarks Daily essay.) Now comes the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate and Change’s (IPCC’s ) latest report. Once again overwhelming scientific evidence that confirms life as we know it on this planet will soon cease to exist is received with apathetic insouciance.
Created in 1988 the IPCC is considered the world’s definitive scientific body on climate change and co-winner with Al Gore of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, finalized in early October its report, “Global Warming of 1.5°C.” The 2015 Paris accord called for the report. It was prepared by nearly one hundred scientists who analyzed thousands of the most recent scientific evidence. The report’s summary was accepted by over 180 countries including the American and Saudi Arabia delegation during the IPCC’s meeting recently concluded in South Korea.
What is newsworthy about the IPCC report is its conclusion that keeping or holding temperature increases below 2°C, the goal of the Paris agreement, would not avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. At 1.5°C life on this planet would suffer serious or dire harm, at 2°C catastrophic harm. Specifically, the report compared the impact between a 1.5°C (2.7°F) increase in temperature with a 2°C (3.6°F) increase (The earth has already warmed by 1°C since the pre-industrial era). Among numerous other findings, should temperatures increase to 1.5°C, the report found of 105,000 species studied, four percent of vertebrates (that include us), eight percent of plants and six percent of insects would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C, the percents double to triple. Global crop yields will decline significantly. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss. At 1.5°C Marine fishery losses or the global annual catch loss would be 1.5 million tons, at 2°C they double.
During the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Trump once again noted his objection to the Paris climate accord.In an interview with Piers Morgan, Trump again called it a “horrible deal” because, as has been widely reported, climate change or global warming is, per the president, a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.“There is cooling and there’s a heating – I mean look,” Trump explained to Morgan, “it use to not be climate change.It used to be global warming.That wasn’t working too well because it was getting too cold all over the place.The ice caps were going to melt.They were going to be gone by now, but now they’re setting records, okay?”
Trump was asked about climate change because the topic was on the Forum’s agenda.Not surprisingly, in the days leading up to the confab, climate scientists once again found the proceeding calendar year one of the warmest on record.NASA ranked 2017 the second warmest since 1880 (or since reliable record keeping began), or after 2016.NOAA, using a slightly different methodology, ranked it the third warmest after 2016 and 2015 respectively.Not only were the last three years the warmest on record, the five warmest years on record have occurred since 2010, 17 of the 18 warmest since 2001 and last year marked the 21st consecutive year the contiguous United States had above average temperatures.Record 2017 temperatures were somewhat unanticipated however because of the lack of an El Niño (or Pacific trade wind), effect that is associated with increased global temperatures.Because air temperatures are largely determined by ocean temperatures, also not surprisingly the five warmest ocean temperature years recorder have been 2017, 2015, 2016, 2014 and 2013 respectively.Ocean temperatures in 2017 were exceptionally warm.Measured as heat energy in Joules, 2017 ocean temperatures exceeded 2015 by 1.51 x 10^22 Joules, or the amount of electrical energy China produces annually.