Climatic catastrophe: Poisoning the air … Does UD care?
The ongoing scientific study of global climate has raised serious concern for the future habitability of the Earth. While scientists, governmental authorities and the public still differ about the validity of the findings, we are continuously loading the Earth’s atmosphere with noxious materials whose long-term influences are not completely known. What are we doing to Earth? If we destabilize the climate will our civilization destroy itself, or will we endure?
The belief that we may be responsible for not only placing civilization in jeopardy but all humanity is so despairing we are inclined not to think about it. What we wish not to think about we can mistakenly ignore. Others may find it more comforting to accept the prevailing prejudice that attempts to refute the scientific evidence for global climate change, although such opposing views are made without even the slightest suggestion of proof.
Nevertheless, we do have a talent for deceiving ourselves, and where we have strong emotions we are likely to fool ourselves. Doubt, apathy and finally denial may also keep us from the realization that our own survival may be in doubt–who wants to consider that humanity may not have a future? But the facts as reflected in the evidence directly point without a doubt to Earth’s vulnerability.
John Adams, the second U.S. president, said it best when he said “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions–they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
The world scientific community sounded the alarm about the grave danger of global climate change. The assault on the environment from burning fossil fuels threatens the ecosystem, which all life depends on. The knowledge that we could have prevented it and did not–what account then can we give for our stewardship of the Earth, preserving the lives and wellbeing of its citizens and the future of the planet? It is essential that we address the issue honestly by examining rigorously and skeptically the hard facts, disregarding all opinions and arguments or beliefs made before considering the evidence.
Will our foresight, reason, experience, our desire to learn from history and our intelligence be the clear tools for our survival and prosperity, or will we submit to the dreary prediction of the poet Robinson Jeffers who wrote “that a day will come when the Earth will scratch herself and smile and rub off humanity.” Is it inevitable that as a result of unforgivable neglect or our indifference that we are a danger to ourselves? The imperative to cherish the Earth and protect the environment that sustains all of us has gained some acceptance.
But there is yet no evidence or examples that demonstrate our worthiness to value the Earth and our commitment to life. We have misused science and technology allowing passions to obscure our intelligence by the development worldwide of obscene weapons of mass destruction that threaten all of us. A chain of morbid causality exists. Whether it’s nuclear war, the poisoning of the air or water, catastrophic climate change, ozone depletion, pandemic disease, global poverty and drought, deforestation or overpopulations, our survival is in doubt. An uninvolved public not realizing the consequences is far more dangerous in our time than any other time before.
The failure of conventional wisdom to protect the environment is exemplified by the university, a highly respected academic institute that harbors the mission to promote an ethic of environmental responsibility. With the support of government officials, the university plans to build a large power plant adjacent to a highly populated residential community emitting dangerous pollutants into the atmosphere. In a mockery of their own policy, the administration has chosen to value special vested interest and special cases over the sustainability of the environment and the health and wellbeing of the community.
The health consequences from respiratory pollutants for people living nearby must be addressed, and suppression of the truth is unforgivable. Medical studies published in world-renowned textbooks of medicine alert us to the following dangers. First, large numbers of people are at risk for developing serious respiratory disease as a result of exposure from gases emitted by power plants. Second, close proximity to atmospheric pollutants is directly responsible for the highest mortality rates for people with chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Third, people with asthma, heart disease and other cardio-respiratory disorders can suffer serious life-threatening exacerbations requiring hospitalization with mortality rates between 11 and 25 percent when exposed to pollutants. If mechanical ventilation is required, the six-month mortality rate is 40 percent. Those who survive endure poor functional status.
Fourth, children with asthma, allergies and rhinitis exposed to even low concentrations of respiratory pollutants suffer severely. Asthma accounts for more pediatric hospitalizations than any other single illness. Fifth, even healthy individuals can develop respiratory illnesses when exposed to atmospheric pollutants. If only five percent in Newark (a low figure) are affected, it means that 1,500 individuals will suffer from respiratory diseases. The perils we face are real, and since there is no cure the only intervention is prevention. A Newark power plant from a risk-benefit analysis is medically contraindicated. If we wish to maintain a healthy community and also reduce atmospheric pollution responsible for destabilization of the climate, we must stop poisoning the air.
It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant or in denial about the catastrophic consequences of global climate change. The people must be informed of the intimate dangers and willing to challenge complacency. No doubt we have made some progress, but the steps are too small and too slow.
In the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future and we are all mortal. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet and our obligation to survive and flourish is owed to ourselves and the generations to follow. We know who speaks for the nation, who speaks for Delaware, who speaks for the university, but we speak for humanity, we speak for Earth.
Dr. Philip Pollner practices medicine in Newark. He was awarded special recognition Nobel Peace Prize 1985 as president of the Delaware Physicians for Social Responsibility, the American affiliate to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.