Medicine For People!

April 2016: Climate Change and Health - Win/Win

Warmest Global Year on Record
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Climate Change and Health: Win/Win


  • Are You Concerned about Climate Change?
  • Medical School and Climate Change
  • You Have Your Share of Power
  • The Prescription
  • Accomplishment for Comfort and Health

Climate Change and Health: Win/Win

Are You Concerned?

As your doctor, I expect, and no doubt you expect, that you will come to me with questions about your physical health. You may even ask me for medical treatment for issues such as depression or anxiety. But what if your emotional or psychological state is being affected by societal problems? Is there a "prescription" I can write for you?

As a doctor I try to read all the latest medical news and studies. But I also pay attention to greater issues, such as climate change. While a few politicians and others continue to insist that global warming is controversial, my chemistry classes in the 1960s taught me that carbon in the atmosphere would heat the earth and that this is a phenomenon that had been first understood and predicted in 1824 by a French physicist. Our current unstable weather and rising sea levels were likewise predicted long before they started to happen.

Climate change poses a tremendous threat to your health. No one can say whether you'll be impacted by a new disease such as Zika or through social instability as in Syria, nor if it will affect you personally or your children, but as surely as we know that snow melts on a hot day, trouble is coming.

Medical School and Climate Change

In medical school in the 1960s we were drilled on the chemistry of carbon dioxide, which is critically important to the acidity in our blood and vital to understand in the practice of emergency medicine. The very same carbon dioxide chemistry determines the acidity in the oceans.

Last week, a biologist who works with the oyster industry reported that baby oysters now have inadequately formed shells. The increased carbon dioxide in our air has increased the acidity in the Hood Canal, and the shell of the baby oysters dissolves faster than the oyster can create it. The industry now flies oyster spat in from Hawaii to seed the beds.

And a couple of weeks ago on the Internet, I viewed a video showing Miami on a typical day, with one anomaly-seawater has backed up to cover some of the streets. A storm surge hasn't caused this, for the day is calm and sunny. Rather, melting glaciers and changes in ocean currents are pushing the water over the land.

What is so sad is that we have ignored this for so long, and it was so predictable.

You Have Your Share of Power

"But what can I do?" you may ask. One cannot push the global thermometer down on one's own. Only collective action can influence the major contributions to environmental destruction. In my consulting room, people often express sadness to me, and a sense that the world is out of control, and that they are helpless.

We are not helpless. Certainly we cannot solve the climate problem or our other common problems by ourselves, but we can decide that we are a part of the whole, and that our individual effort is necessary to our common success. In my view, this contributes mightily to our good health.

The Prescription

So here is my "prescription" for your healthful relationship with our environment. Here is how you can feel a little less helpless about it all:

First: combine a little light exercise (and the pleasure of listening to the birds) with hanging the laundry. We all enjoy games of chance; make a game of monitoring the pile of laundry along with the weather report and matching the two. (Our personal score is about a 95% reduction in energy consumed by the clothes dryer.)

Second: one can cross Port Townsend by bicycle from one end to the other very easily; at the same time, you'll knock about 20 to 25 minutes off of your 150-minute per week exercise requirement. You may require some time for your body to condition itself to this, and you may need, as we did, to create your own solutions to fitting your shopping into the panniers of a bicycle. But who said that reversing climate change was going to be easy?

Third: dressing warmly in the house can reduce the requirements for household heating significantly. There's also a medical benefit: lower indoor temperatures raise metabolic rate and can help you lose weight.

Fourth: plant trees. They don't have to be big. If this is not an option, there are a number of reputable organizations to which one can donate that work to save or re-establish the forests of the Amazon river basin, helping to make sure that our quota of carbon is recycled, in perpetuity, by trees that can turn it back to oxygen.

Finally, you can do things that might not benefit your health directly, but will help you sleep better at night. You can carpool. You can turn your car off instead of idling it. When we idle more than ten seconds, we emit more carbon than if we turned off the engine and re-started it.

Most importantly, because our democracy depends upon you as an informed voter, you can invest the time to understand the issues. If you don't have a chemistry background or an obsessive nature as I do, let me clarify the issues in the news. As you know from previous issues of Medicine for People!, when I do an in-depth study of a medical issue, I often reach a conclusion that differs from what the less technically trained journalists report. I find the same is true of energy technology. Future issues will give you a capsule summary of my own investigation into how we measure and understand the overall problem, and the role to be played by conservation, wind-solar-nuclear power, and carbon-producing fuels such as coal and oil.

Accomplishments for Comfort and Health

These measures are but the first step on a long journey. But each one makes a small difference. You will feel better. Our human nature is to feel more relaxed when we know more about a difficult problem and take some action. The actions above will be good for the muscle that is your heart and for the emotional heart and spirit that give you comforting repose at night. These actions will signal to your neighbors that you know energy conservation matters, and that we as individuals can do something about it.

Minimizing the damage from carbon pollution will be a win, and improving your health will be a win. Win/win.

That's my prescription!


Newsletter edited by Jody Bower.



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Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.