Is Global Warming a Greater Threat to Health Than Nuclear War?


January 26, 2017

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Hello and welcome. I am Dr George Lundberg and this is At Large at Medscape.

Is the climate changing? Well, yes, the climate of planet Earth is changing—always has, always will. In that case, what's the big fuss about? The fuss is about the relatively recent general recognition of the rate and scope of change and the anticipated consequences, which are likely to be dramatic.

Specifically, is planet Earth warming? Yes; there is no question about that. But it is the rate at which the temperature of the globe is rising and the extent of projected warming that is a really big deal. Accepting that this warm-up is real, can anything be done about it?

The intense argument that goes on has to do with the extent to which human activity contributes to the changing climate, and whether and what can and should be done to stop or at least slow it. We all know that money is central to the debate. Who is profiting from the activities that produce climate change and would stand to lose money by altering those activities? And who can profit from the activities necessary to slow, halt, or reverse the temperature rise?

But Medscape is a medical site. What does this have to do with health?

My earliest recollection of global warming as a health issue dates from January 17, 1996, when we at JAMA led an international group of 36 journals in 21 countries on all continents to publish concurrently more than 200 articles on the theme of "emerging and reemerging global microbial threats."[1]

The lead Original Contribution was titled "Global Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases,"[2] by Jonathan Patz and three colleagues at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and George Washington Universities. This article, consistent with the declared theme, was all about how diseases such as malaria, dengue, hemorrhagic fever, arboviral encephalitis, schistosomiasis, onchocerciasis, trypanosomiasis, cholera, and others were affected by global warming. The authors included several paragraphs with references as to the observations, projections, uncertainties, and likely effects of climate change, including extreme weather events, effects on agriculture and nutrition, and immunosuppression. They also reported ongoing studies by the National Academy of Sciences/Institute of Medicine and the leadership of the World Health Organization, which asserted that global warming would be one of the most important challenges to public health in the 21st century.

The number of publications about global warming and health was quite limited at that time—only in the hundreds from 1990 into the next century.

Fast-forward 10 years, to March 17, 2006, while I was the editor of MedGenMed (Medscape General Medicine). I published a webcast video editorial entitled Global Warming May Be a Graver Public Health Threat Than Nuclear War.

Comparing the two threats, and calling for physician leadership against global warming similar to that which had been successful in the movement to prevent nuclear war, I wrote:

The threat of nuclear war is still with us, but now leading environmental scientists have unambiguously documented onrushing climate change called global warming, produced largely by excess human use of fossil fuels that builds up more gases like carbon dioxide than can be tolerated by our fragile planet's environment. Some scientists say it is already too late to save our world for humans; almost all say we are nearing the point of no return. How would global warming kill billions? Heatstroke, drowning, famine, new and old diseases out of control, and war for competitive survival on a greatly decreased inhabitable land mass near the poles. How soon might this cataclysm be upon us? As early as the end of the 21st century.

Surely, the medical and public health communities are working really hard to prevent such a catastrophe? Sorry. Guess again. For the most part, physicians and their organizations seem to be ignoring the threat, preferring to fight over issues like malpractice or the size of their fees, in effect rearranging the deck chairs on this sinking Titanic while exercising denial. But don't the doctors care about their great-great-great-grandchildren? Looks like they may never have any. You have got to be kidding. The risks must be overblown! Hope so; don't think so; ohmygod!

A lot of 2006 readers loved that piece. Others called it unnecessarily alarmist.

Fast-forward another 10 years. A lot of water has washed over the dam since 2006 and a lot of carbon has been released into the air. There is now a global consensus among informed scientists and science-informed politicians, as well as the educated general public, that this is a super-serious threat, that we are getting farther and farther behind, and that it is imperative that a mass change in human behavior as regards energy production and use now take place.

This is not an issue to be dealt with by measuring the quarterly shareholder reports of capitalism's lions.

This is not an issue to be dealt with by measuring the quarterly shareholder reports of capitalism's lions. Nor is it an issue upon which to cast doubt à la the tobacco industry's great success at delaying tactics. The basic science has been settled for a long time. The applied science determining the best ways forward can benefit from ongoing research and new engineering.

Worst-case scenario: If all of the fossil fuels are burnt, a rise in the sea level of some 200 feet is likely, but this would take hundreds of years. Thinking only about your lives and the lives of your children and grandchildren is natural but so selfish. We should be thinking about all life, human and other, forever, on planet Earth, writ large. The human animal and various world cultures can deal with this, but enlightened leadership will be required in large doses. If we can make positive energy economics the driver, the human race has a fighting chance.

That is my opinion. I am Dr George Lundberg, at large at Medscape.


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