Archive for the 'Global Climate Change' Category

Responding to my Climate Change Denying Friends

Tuesday, 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

Don’t Get Pregnant

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

Microcephaly-comparison-500px

Image courtesy of the CDC

“The Zika virus provides a glimpse into a future we should do everything possible to avoid, a terrifying reminder why the fight for a stable physical planet is the fight of our time.” Bill McKibben

“Don’t get pregnant until 2018” is the advice given women in El Salvador. Yet only two thirds of married women there are using modern contraception.

The Zika virus, declared “public health emergency of international concern”, is the cause of the Salvadorian government’s warning against pregnancy. “We’d like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next….” This quote from Deputy Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza is frightening.

Although it hasn’t caused an epidemic in Africa where it was first identified, it is raising havoc in the Americas. Zika virus symptoms are usually mild: eye inflammation, fever, rash and joint irritation—but the majority of infected people have no symptoms at all. There is no treatment for Zika disease. Mosquitoes of the Aedes genus spread Zika, dengue and other diseases, and it may also be spread by sex.

The best way to avoid getting Zika is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes—insect repellant, dress appropriately and avoid areas where mosquitoes live. So far Colorado is safe from Aedes.

Climate change has recently increased the range of Aedes mosquitoes. Air travel has allowed the virus to spread like lightning. Humans have destabilized the planet, as McKibben states.

The Zika story in the Americas is still being written, but began last year. Brazilian doctors noticed a huge increase in the incidence of babies born with small heads—microcephaly. They found an association with the mothers having had Zika virus infection early in pregnancy.

I am terrified that brain scans of affected babies show other serious abnormalities usually associated with profoundly impairment. There are dozens of causes of microcephaly, but most of them are associated with cognitive and other problems.

The CDC recommends avoiding Zika when a woman is, or could become, pregnant. If the mother could have been exposed to the virus during pregnancy, it recommends ultrasounds to monitor fetal head growth.

What is so concerning is that where Zika is found, family planning services may be spotty. Fortunately El Salvador, where women are supposed to abstain from pregnancy for the next 2 years, has had a pretty successful reproductive health program. It is regrettable, however, that El Salvador is one of only 6 countries worldwide that outlaw abortion for any reason.

Beloved Pope Francis recently gave Catholic women who are at risk of Zika virus permission to use “artificial” contraception. This is great news for the millions of women where Zika is a threat, and will hopefully encourage governments in those areas to make contraception easily available.

One of the reasons that the U.S.A. liberalized of our abortion laws was that we had a viral epidemic that caused severe fetal damage. Fortunately, immunization has made rubella a disease of the past.

What happens if a woman is infected with Zika in pregnancy and ultrasound shows that her fetus has microcephaly? The Salvadorian punishment for having an abortion is 2 to 8 years in prison for the woman and up to 12 years for the doctor. Nevertheless hundreds of women risk having an illegal abortion. Often they cause their own abortions by thrusting a knitting needle or piece of wood into their uterus. Tragically, suicide is not uncommon among pregnant women in El Salvador.

Here is a hypothetical situation. Luisa, a Salvadoran campesina, has two healthy children. She was taking birth control pills, but her clinic ran out. Shortly after conceiving her third pregnancy she had what she thought was a cold with a mild red rash. During a routine ultrasound at 5 months the doctor said everything was ok except the fetus’s head seemed small, and she could see calcifications in the brain. What can Luisa do? If this baby’s brain was severely damaged she couldn’t afford to take care of it, and her other two children would suffer because of the family’s very limited resources.

What is wrong with a society that puts women in such a difficult bind? Rape is common in El Salvador, yet a woman who has been raped or is carrying a terribly compromised fetus has no legal recourse. Climate change and international travel make it more important that women everywhere have access to family planning and safe abortion services.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2016

River Spill was a Signal to End Business as Usual

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

3 kayakers on Animas

Our Animas River received a serious insult recently. Fortunately the river seems to be recovering, but we cannot predict what the long-term effects will be.

Contractors working for the United States Environmental Protection Agency recently released a huge amount of toxic water and tailings from the Gold King Mine. The water spilled into the Animas River, originally named “el rio de las animas perdidas” or the “river of lost souls”.

It wasn’t long before the finger pointing started. The EPA was blamed not only for the spill but also for the long delay in notifying our community. To the EPA’s credit, they are taking responsibility for the accident and for monitoring its environmental effects. There is also talk of compensating the businesses for their loss of revenue.

I am impressed that the EPA’s chief, Gina McCarthy, came to Durango to take command of the event. This is so different from the way the chief executive of BP reacted during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. While his well was polluting the Gulf of Mexico, Tony Hayward went to a sailboat race.

I know little about mining and mine remediation, but I have had plenty of home maintenance projects go awry. I can understand how the contractors working for the EPA could make the mistake that resulted in this tragedy. Fortunately the EPA is accepting responsibility, but I’ll bet that they will be careful in hiring those same contractors again!

The laws that govern hard-rock mining were written over 140 years ago, when the west was wilder and the number of people of European descent was small. Mining claims were inexpensive and easily available. The laws allowed mining with little concern for environmental protection or for remediation. This has lead to hundreds of mines such as Gold King where the value was extracted and the shaft abandoned. Water continues to flow through many of these mines, picking up silt and poisonous metals, as it has for decades. Before the deluge on August 5th up to 250 gallons of contaminated water poured out of the Gold King every minute—that’s 360,000 gallons every day! The flow has increased significantly since the dam was broken.

Folks have been concerned about pollution from the mines in Silverton for years, but insufficient remediation has been done. Being inundated by an estimated 3 million gallons of sickly orange water at one time has finally brought attention to the problem. Unfortunately, it includes international attention that puts southwest Colorado in a bad light.

This is an opportunity for those who believe that the government is too big and has too much power to be critical of the EPA. Many politicians have want to abolish it. We should be wary of their efforts to use this spill as an excuse. That doesn’t make much sense to me, however. If we didn’t have any laws that controlled mining, the Animas would run orange every day!

I think that this catastrophe (to use the word the Herald chose for its headline) will finally motivate cleanup of the Silverton mines. Even more important is to prevent future hard-rock mining problems by changing the ancient mining laws. Furthermore, this spill should motivate legislators to pass “good Samaritan” laws to protect people who work to clean up the mines from liability if things go wrong.

But maybe there is a broader lesson to be learned from the Gold King misfortune. Let me ask a couple of questions: what are we doing now that will result in Gold King-like problems in the future? Are companies charging enough to pay for cleanup that will be required in the future? I think you know what my answers will be.

Let’s look at electricity. Much of our power is generated using coal; indeed, we have two coal-fired power plants just across the border in New Mexico. Testing the mud at the bottom of Narraguinnep Reservoir north of Cortez showed low levels of mercury until about the 1970 stratum, when those plants started up. We are advised against eating fish that are caught there, a consequence of mercury from the power plants. A neurotoxin, mercury is especially bad for the most vulnerable—developing fetuses and the young. Yet the coal companies are trying to reduce the price they pay to the government for coal mined on federal land and they fight public safety regulations.

Climate change is much worse than the mercury problem since it affects all of life. Future generations may never recover from the damage we are causing with anthropogenic climate change.

            © Richard Grossman MD, 2015

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