What climate science could learn from medicine

Many of us are watching the recent flooding in Yellowstone National Park with horror, and rightly so. To see whole structures carried away as if they were weightless is terrifying. What struck me is how quickly the devastation came and went from the top headlines. Did any of us change anything about the way we live after seeing the footage? Very few, if any. The reason, unfortunately, is science.

Though scientists across the globe have largely rallied around data that supports the impacts of climate change on our planet and the rapidly closing window of time left to truly stave off the worst consequences, scientists have also been reluctant to draw direct connections between catastrophic events like Yellowstone’s flooding and climate change. Their reluctance is so common that media articles and reports often reference it in environmental coverage.

For example, in a recent New York Times article, the reporters say this in the opening: “It is difficult to directly connect the damage in Yellowstone to a rapidly warming climate — rivers have flooded for millenniums …”

With sweeping statements like that, the well-intentioned reporters have given climate deniers all the fuel they need to shrug their shoulders and go about their day exactly as they have every other day. Or worse—this is a simple explanation they use to convince others that scientists have no idea what they’re talking about and that everything is just fine. This behavior is destroying the planet and will ultimately destroy us.

Our hand-wringing about “direct connections” is going to cost us our lives and livelihoods. It’s time for us to get off the sidelines and stop taking the role of being our own worst enemies. Climate scientists can look to other areas of science to see how to inspire action, namely medicine.

Very little in the field of medicine is certain. A lot of medicine is educated guessing. Standards of care often read something akin to “given your situation and what we have observed with those who we believe are similar to you, we believe this course of treatment may help.” I know this first-hand because I’m currently taking a medication after beating early-stage breast cancer that is still experimental with some studies showing that it has a possible chance of reducing the risk of recurrence for someone like me.

There are caveats all over that statement, but you know what? If it can’t hurt, might help, and my insurance covers it, I’m taking it. I want to live a long, healthy life. Most of us do. For that singular reason we exercise, eat healthy food, try to manage our stress level, don’t smoke, limit (or eliminate) alcohol, go to the doctor for check-ups and exams, and take medications that could help us. Is any of that advice perfect? No. Are we guaranteed a specific outcome if we do all those things? No. But why not give ourselves every possible advantage we can, right?

Climate scientists could model their approach on medicine. Even if they can’t make a perfect case for cause and effect between climate change and a single catastrophe like Yellowstone flooding, does it seem likely that the two are related? Yes. Could an increase in wildfires, droughts, and more severe storms be related to a warming planet? Yes. Could an acceleration of species extinction be driven by deforestation and the pollution of our air, oceans, and water ways? Yes. Could the continuous and increasing supply of greenhouse gases being pumped into the air be destabilizing our atmosphere? Yes. Then why not do everything possible to mitigate the impacts that could have such dire consequences on the life of every living being on the planet?

We want to live long, healthy lives so we do everything we can to try to make that possible. Why not do the same for the planet that we all need? Even if you and I do everything right when it comes to the health of our bodies and minds, if the health of the planet as a whole suffers, what we do for our own individual health will be for naught.

The planet needs a standard of care—limit or eliminate pollution in all its forms; reduce, reuse, and recycle; replace fossil fuel consumption with clean, renewable sources of energy; stop food waste; stop deforestation and replenish the forests we’ve lost.

None of these changes will be simple nor pain-free. We have to reinvent how we live and the systems that make our lives and economies function. The transition will be difficult, expensive, and, for a while, inconvenient. But you know what’s more difficult, expensive, and inconvenient? Having a planet that’s in such poor health that it can no longer sustain life—ours or anyone else’s. Why take that risk when there is another way? Why not give ourselves and all those who (hopefully) come after us the best chance to live and live well?

We don’t need certainty and one-to-one causations for climate action. If a high probability and correlation is good enough for the science we use to sustain our bodies, then it’s good enough for the science to sustain our planet. By the time we have inarguable certainty, it will be too late for all of us. That’s a risk none of us should willingly take.

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