This week we’ve looked at the relatively simple science underlying climate change, which is due to global warming, which is happening because carbon dioxide — a potent greenhouse gas — has been accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere in greater amounts for decades, which is because humans are burning increasing amounts of oil, coal, and natural gas to fuel humanity’s very real global progress and prosperity. We’ve listened to the call of the AAP — pediatricians like your own — to address climate change for the sake of our children and their future social, psychological, and physical health. We’ve heard the AAP’s recommendations for pediatricians and other health care providers to get up to speed on the potential dangers we all face from climate change in order to advocate for those who are uniquely vulnerable: children.
The AAP isn’t alone in encouraging pediatricians to do more. The World Health Organization calls climate change “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century”:
Health professionals have a duty of care to current and future generations. You are on the front line in protecting people from climate impacts — from more heat-waves and other extreme weather events; from outbreaks of infectious diseases such as malaria, dengue and cholera; from the effects of malnutrition; as well as treating people that are affected by cancer, respiratory, cardiovascular and other non-communicable diseases caused by environmental pollution.
The message that is somehow getting missed in all the talk about what to do about climate change is one that should be getting people and corporations and governments motivated to act, and that’s the message of opportunity.
We have before us, especially in America, the opportunity to create new industries and services along with millions of new jobs, better national security, greater environmental health, and improved public health. Financial markets are already divesting money away from fossil fuel interests and investing instead into renewables. Corporations, challenged by new government regulations, new technologies, and consumer demand, are taking conservation and energy efficiency seriously as they develop and sell new products. Coal and oil have taken a major hit from natural gas (the so-called “War on Coal” is not political so much as market-driven); soon, as prices for photovoltaic (solar), wind, and other renewable technologies continue to fall, natural gas will also lose its sooty value and relevance in a new, clean-energy world.
The goal is to keep the carbon in the ground rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. Remarkable progress is being made to make this happen in this country and around the world.
Conserve. Recycle. Renew. This is the direction governments, consumers, and markets are going, with the wind at our backs. It’s not a question of whether global warming and climate change are happening. The answer, as we’ve seen, is obviously yes. It’s also not a question of whether or not society should do something about it. The answer is that change is already happening. We are (finally) on the right track!
The question we really need to ask is: Are we too late? Climate models tell us we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere NOW in order to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2 ºC (3.8 ºF.), which is when climate scientists say things really hit the fan. It is clear, even though progress is being made, that transitioning to carbon-free energy generation is going to take some time. There seem to be so many obstacles in humanity’s path away from carbon-intensive living — endless wars, terrorism, poverty, the pace of technological advancement, politics both here and abroad — that seem to be slowing us down. American politics in particular vis-à-vis climate change is particularly maddening to people who feel we need to accelerate our efforts. But “low and slow” is the way our government was designed to work. There is no way our forefathers could have imagined the situation we find ourselves in: an urgent planetary emergency requiring difficult and immediate decisions.
So here is our opportunity; this is our choice. If everyone does their part to decrease their carbon footprint — through conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy generation — our children and grandchildren might just, maybe, stand a chance. If not, it is game over for life as we know it on this planet and we will know then that the species with opposable thumbs and a prefrontal cortex — the one whose intellect separated them from all the others — was not, after all, compatible with life on Earth.
Like I’ve said all week, it’s not complicated.
— Pope Francis — Encyclical Letter “On Care For Our Common Home.” (This is a beautifully written document.)