Responding to my Climate Change Denying Friends

May 24th, 2016

Curves of pop & CO2 in air

Please note the two curves above. Although the graph of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere (Keeling curve) on the left starts in 1958 and the one on the right (human population) starts in 1800, they follow the same trajectory of steep increase over the past 50+ years.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

            A recent Letter to the Editor of the Herald got my attention. It would seem that its author and I are living on different planets.

The writer calls Dr. James Hansen’s statement that the world would “overheat” because of carbon emissions “a ridiculous assertion”. NASA has a web page devoted to statements from our country’s foremost scientific organizations. For instance, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states: “The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”

The LTE was in response to Herald article about the wager between Roger Cohen and me. Dr. Cohen (former manager of strategic planning at Exxon Mobil) earned a PhD in physics and is a member of the American Physical Society, which states: “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.”

Let’s go back to the other planet where the writer of the LTE seems to be living. He asserts that polar bears are thriving. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the status of polar bears as “vulnerable”, This would not lead me to believe that they are thriving. Dr. Steven Amstrup, head scientist with Polar Bears International, wrote: “One of the most frequent myths we hear about polar bears is that their numbers are increasing and have, in fact, more than doubled over the past thirty years.”

“The polar ice caps, both of them, are robust” according to this LTE. Unfortunately, Earth’s ice caps are not healthy. Indeed, a large freighter recently navigated the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean!

There is mixed news from Antarctica. Although ice in west Antarctica is melting, the amount of ice is increasing over the continent. That is a bit of a paradox since the average temperature there has gone up by almost 1 degree Fahrenheit—but it is just so darn cold in Antarctica.

Studies find rising levels of CO2 help some plants but hinder others. Studies of phenology (when plants and animals wake up after the winter) find that climate change is already causing problems that may lead to decreased crop productivity. Many places in the world are experiencing decreased precipitation from climate change. Overall, the bonus of increased CO2 seems to be overwhelmed by other aspects of climate change.

The LTE ends up by stating “…the standard of living of some of the world’s poorest of the poor has risen because of increased vegetation to feed themselves and their animals….” Try telling that to the people who are starving in Madaya—where the Syrian revolution was triggered, in part, by drought caused by climate change. The Horn of Africa is also suffering from chronic malnutrition, as are many other places in Africa and Asia. Drought caused by climate change has worsened starvation in these places. Although the percentage of people who are undernourished in the world has decreased, the improvement is not generally attributed to increased CO2.

People are also suffering from climate change closer to home. Residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, will be relocated because their community is disappearing under the rising ocean.

What I find amazing is that, although people deny climate change (or perhaps deny that climate change is anthropogenic), I have yet to read any refutation of the observation that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is rising, and that its rise is anthropogenic. We all understand that this gas, along with methane and water vapor, are greenhouse gases. Without GHGs our planet Earth would be 60 degrees Fahrenheit colder—and totally unable to support life. Doesn’t it make sense that, as the CO2 level rises, the temperature will also rise?

Perhaps we can excuse some of the denial of climate change thanks to the findings of a recent study of people’s reaction to the climate. Apparently the warming that we in the USA have experienced actually has made the climate more agreeable—although that is far from true in other parts of the world.

Greenhouse gases released by people cause climate change; the more people, the faster the climate will change. Family planning is part of the solution! Another part of the solution is convincing our political representatives to support legislation to slow climate change. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (http://citizensclimatelobby.org) has an effective plan to do this. A local chapter has just been formed; you can contact them at: durangoccl@gmail.com.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Consider Human Inhabitants When Creating Nature Reserves

April 24th, 2016

tiger closeup 4

Last summer a big game hunter from Minnesota shot Cecil, a famous male lion, in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean officials didn’t press charges against Cecil’s killer.

Many people in this country were outraged that such a rare and beautiful beast had been murdered. The response in Africa was different, however. For us a lion—especially a noble and handsome male—symbolizes freedom and wildness. In Africa, however, a lion means danger.

We live in a protected bubble from which most predators have been excluded. It is true that occasionally a mountain lion will injure or kill a human, but fortunately that is a very rare, newsworthy incident. Black bears are also responsible for a few injuries and rare deaths here in Colorado. The real killer is not a predator but the sweet, innocent herbivore—deer.

Biologist E. O. Wilson has recently written a book advocating that half of the planet become a nature reserve. He wrote: “…I propose that only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.”

I grieve for the loss of biological diversity (biodiversity). Although we cannot know exactly, it is estimated that species of plants and animals are going extinct at 1000 times the normal rate; we are in the 6th mass extinction. There have been five prior mass extinctions, the last one being about 65 million years ago when a huge meteor hit off the coast of Mexico. The resulting explosion changed the climate for centuries, killing off dinosaurs. What is different about the current mass extinction is that it is caused by a single species—ours.

Each species has evolved strategies to maximize reproduction, to gather nutrients efficiently and to ward off other species that imperil it. We are no different, except we have been so amazingly successful. Sadly, our success endangers nonhuman species—and probably ourselves, since our livelihood depends on the web of life.

I have a problem with those who are “prolife”. Our human success is causing the extinction of other animals and plants. By preventing women from access to family planning and safe abortion services, the people who claim to be “prolife” are actually destroying the biodiversity that makes our planet habitable.

Although I haven’t read Wilson’s “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life”, its premise troubles me. Yes, it is important to do what we can to protect other species. Yes, the major cause of loss of species is loss of habitat. Yes, preserves (both terrestrial and marine) have shown their value in preserving biodiversity. The Center for Biological Diversity has a brilliant record of protecting endangered species by preserving habitat.

Turning half the Earth into preserves would slow the loss of biodiversity. But what about the people who currently live on that land—many of whom live in overcrowded, developing countries? what would happen to them?

We had the good fortune to visit the Ranthambhore preserve in India where we observed a Bengal tiger in the wild. We also heard about people who were forced off that land and repatriated to a nearby village. They now make their living by making and selling souvenirs to tourists. This model would not work for half of Earth’s surface, however. Where could all those people settle?

This conundrum is one of the plotlines of “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh. This wonderful novel takes place in the Sundarbans, the deltas of four major rivers where they empty into the Bay of Bengal. Thousands of squatters settled on Marichjhanpi Island, an Indian animal refuge, in1979. Piya, a protagonist, biologist and protector of animals, is distressed when settlers kill a man-eating tiger. Forest Guards moved in and destroyed the settlement—and the settlers. Thousands of people were killed in this genocide. Although this sounds incredible, it is based on history.

Thanks to the foresight of Americans a century ago, we have the National Park Service, one of the agencies that take care of our public lands. We should be proud that 14% of our land is currently protected. Costa Rica may have the highest percentage of land preserved for nonhuman use at 25%. It is important to preserve what we have and to continue to protect more wilderness, parks, forests and roadless areas for our enjoyment, and especially for the benefit of other species. However, it is important to keep human rights in mind when considering making new protected areas. Voluntary family planning will help achieve that goal by decreasing population pressure.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Remember how Abortion Used to Be

April 4th, 2016

no such thing as no abortion

I returned to our room in the cheap hotel in Paris to find a bloody mess. My roommate, John, left a note that he had gone to the hospital with his girlfriend.
We were in college and were spending the summer studying the French language. John had met Ruth in London, our first stop. She was already pregnant and had decided, although it wasn’t legal, to abort the pregnancy. She arrived in Paris several days later and thought that everything had gone well. Immediately after she got to our room she started to hemorrhage. John called an ambulance, she was hospitalized, transfused and had a D&C. She recovered eventually.
That was my first introduction, as an innocent 20 year-old, to the subject of abortion, and my first brush with gynecology. It made a lasting impression.
Two years later my fiancée (and later, wife) was in graduate school and I in medical school in a different city. One of Gail’s roommates had been out of town, then spent a night in the hospital. After she returned to the apartment the police came for an official and frightening visit. The hospital reported that Jane had had an abortion and the visit was to find the identity of the doctor who had performed it. The officials interrogated her at length but left without that information.
Fast forward to when I was in general practice in New Mexico. The records of a new patient showed that she had had a hysterectomy—not unusual for a middle-aged woman. But what was surprising was the pathology report. In addition to the expected uterus, it showed a 6-inch long splinter of wood! I asked the woman how the splinter got there. She replied that she didn’t know, that she was as mystified as me. We both knew what the real story was.
During my residency I was called to the emergency room one evening to see a woman who was pregnant and bleeding. This was her 4th pregnancy; she had 3 young children at home. I thought she could be having a miscarriage. Spotting could also be an indication that the woman was trying to cause an abortion by introducing something into her uterus. Abortion was already legal in all states in the USA, although the Supreme Court decision was less than a year old.
Back then I used to warn all women with a threatened miscarriage that it was important to tell me if they had done anything to abort the pregnancy. This was because nonmedical abortions were still common, and because of the risk of a serious infection. This woman responded “no”, she would never do that—she was a member of a religion that didn’t believe in abortion.
I was surprised a few hours later when the same woman returned to the ER. She told me that she returned because what I had told her worried her. She couldn’t be sick because her children needed her. She admitted that she had, indeed, tried to cause an abortion with a knitting needle.
These are cases that I can remember well of women who faced unwanted pregnancies. All of these cases are long past history, thank goodness, because now safe abortion services are available. Regrettably some people are trying to take away access to safe, empathetic and legal abortion. Worldwide over 20 million women have unsafe abortions, resulting in 50,000 maternal deaths and many more serious injuries. “Not Yet Rain” is a video made in Ethiopia about the difficulty young women have in getting safe abortions after rape. Studies show that abortion is actually more common where it is illegal!
An unplanned, unwanted pregnancy is a difficult situation for a woman to face. Sometimes things work out well and the child is adopted. Sometimes the child is raised by the mother and loved despite an inauspicious beginning. But often things don’t work out well. Currently women in the USA occasionally resort to unsafe abortions because of increased difficulty in accessing safe abortion services.
Some politicians are trying to overthrow the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling. They put hurdles in the way of women to decrease access to abortions. They also decrease access to contraception, the best way to decrease the need for abortion, by defunding Planned Parenthood. They advocate needless requirements for clinics that have provided safe abortion services for years without them. For women’s sake and for the sake of our already overcrowded planet we must maintain access to safe, legal abortion services.
© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.