What is climate change? A doctor’s perspective


It is a question with an answer that eludes a simple response, because it is so vast yet so nuanced that it’s hard to firmly wrap our minds around it.

But as a physician, I know the vital importance of being able to clearly identify the malady that afflicts the patient. It’s the only way to determine a course of treatment, of action, even if at the end of the process I am taking my best educated guess based on all the facts and science before me.

Because sometimes the answer to the question “What’s wrong?” is hard to define.

But if you’ll stay with me a moment here-I’ll answer the question for you in terms you will understand using a single word.

So what is climate change? First we need to understand the facts.

What symptoms are present?

What’s the patient’s history? What is the prognosis?

Science tell us the Earth is warming more rapidly than ever before-a consequence of human activity, specifically our carbon emissions through industrial development and deforestation.

As temperatures rise even slightly on a global scale, ice melts. Seasons change.

Sea levels rise and oceans become warmer.

What used to be extreme events become more frequent and more violent-storms, hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, brutal cold snaps. It is a problem that compounds itself without aggressive treatment, year after year.

Consider-the last five hurricanes to threaten the U.S. Coast have each broken the previous storm’s record for intensity.

On our current trajectory, we are headed to as much as a 4 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of this century.

What this means in terms of human health is nothing short of catastrophic. Not just overseas, not just in developing nations, but everywhere on our currently beautiful planet.

What that means is:

1. Lower access to clean drinkable water.

2. Up to 50 percent less agriculture capability, for what is likely to be fifty percent more people.

3. Greater risk of famines, pandemics and the spread of tropical diseases northwards.

4. A degradation of infrastructure that puts a strain on schools, hospitals, public services and industry.

5. Prolonged heat (and yes, cold) exposure and its damage to our kidneys and cardiovascular systems.

6. Mass movement of entire populations for survival’s sake, and the greater likelihood of armed conflicts over dwindling resources

This will impact us all, including our children, born and unborn. Secure borders are powerless against it, and sheer wealth alone cannot protect us from it.

And while deniers and obscurers of fact insist this is just the Earth’s “natural” course, and governments rush to balance climate change against the staggering costs of dealing with it, and politicians taking broad, sweeping stances either “for” or “against” it, the pressing question of climate change goes unanswered on a global scale.

But I’ll tell you what it is right now: Climate change is a disease.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word disease as, “any particular quality or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or group of people.”

The particular qualities and disposition of this disease are clear and evident-temperatures are rising globally. Ice is melting prematurely and more aggressively year after year. Extremes are becoming the norm. And currently in the east we are experiencing a long stretch of midsummer weather … at the beginning of fall.

Climate change is a disease.

One of growing severity and spectrum about to damage all facets of human health, life and livelihood to a degree greater than any threat human beings have ever encountered in recorded history.

Perhaps, if we think of it in these terms, we can appreciate its true nature and malevolent intent. Our great society has dealt with the scourge of AIDS, has made mind-bending advances against cancer, and heart disease, and now the opioid epidemic.

And while we have yet to eradicate the diseased enemies that have cost our population so dearly, we have learned to fight them better, mitigate them more fully, and drastically reduce their devastating effects to humankind.

Let us muster our resources in our minds and hearts, in voting booths and at home with our children; in our great halls of medicine and hallways of education at every level of learning to squarely and honestly face the scientific fact of climate change.

Let us accept it for what it is so we can fight what has most certainly become-something we can no longer afford to call by any other name.

Climate change is a disease.

Sam Stea, MD is a nephrologist practicing medicine and living with his wife and teenage children in North Central, Pa. He is also a climate change activist and author of the young adult climate change science fiction novel.


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