Most of my blog entries are focused on infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis because those are the fields I know best. But from time to time an important non-medical issue comes up that I feel compelled to write about. Today is one of those days.
100 days before the big UN climate talks in Paris, President Barack Obama is traveling to Alaska to examine the effects of climate change. (As background, if you aren’t well versed on drilling in the Arctic, I suggest watching Obama’s Youtube video and glancing at the following New York Times articles (1, 2, 3, 4), before continuing on to my blog entry).
President Obama argues that his administration has “worked to make sure that our oil exploration conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible” and “safety has been and will continue to be” his top priority. Meanwhile, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came to the opposite conclusion. On August 18th, she tweeted, “The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling. -H.”
How to reconcile these opposite viewpoints? It’s politics. Barack Obama is winding down his last term while Hillary Clinton is engaged in an unexpectedly difficult primary campaign, pushed from the left by Bernie Sanders. While it appears that Obama’s stance may be driven by industry interests and Clinton’s stance may be due to pressure from climate activists, I think it’s more complicated than that. The multinational oil companies have a target of reserves to discover each year. Preventing them from exploring for new oil is another way of putting a limit on how much carbon they can unearth. Much of this issue has to do with the price of crude. The lower the price, the less oil that will be extracted (because it’s less profitable). You can lower the price by increasing supply (which doesn’t stop climate change), reducing demand (by developing alternative energy sources like wind or solar), or implementing a carbon tax (this remains a political nonstarter).
When analyzing Obama’s visit to the Arctic, we mustn’t forget the complex history of drilling, for example the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon spills and subsequent political fallout. No matter how much politicians and industry reassure us that drilling is “safe,” history suggests otherwise. Enforcement and regulation is the issue. If oil companies aren’t forced to do their work safely by threat of large fines from the government, they won’t, because their purpose is to maximize profits for shareholders. And as the climate activists have made clear, a major oil spill off the north slope like what happened in the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon could be catastrophic, permanently altering the environment. The Arctic is the harshest climate on earth. Oil platforms, pipelines, and slogans like “safety is our top priority” aren’t necessarily going to survive against the Arctic sea ice.
Meanwhile, the geopolitics in the Arctic are also complex. Steven Lee Myers implies that we might be headed towards a second “Cold War” with Russia, the battlefield being the extraction of resources from the Arctic (perhaps this should be called a “Warm War”).
So what should be done to reduce the extraction of oil? It comes down to combustion. We must each burn dramatically less fossil fuels. To do this, there needs to be a change in the debate about global warming. Traditional media and social media can play a role, but the magnitude of this problem is immense. Climate change will require a grassroots social movement like we’ve never seen before, led by ordinary citizens. Where are the doctors and nurses and public health experts on this issue (myself included)? Why haven’t I been attending climate rallies? Too busy? The health of the planet is intimately connected to the health of its inhabitants– our patients.
President Obama has done lots of good things in the oval office but unfortunately he has failed to live up to his 2008 campaign slogans, “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we can.” The grassroots effort to get Obama elected was certainly inspiring. But after the victory, we, his constituents, became complacent. We thought that electing Obama was all it would take to make long-lasting change in America. Our attention spans were short and we didn’t realize that change comes from an “interaction between grassroots mobilization and elected leaders,” to quote my friend, the sociologist Adam Reich.
But climate change is a growing emergency and it’s time for an organized movement to counter it, and today is the day to begin. Barack Obama is still our President and is in office for another 16 months. We can influence his actions. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, when a progressive group brought him an idea: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
Please remember my disclaimer. I’ve never been to Alaska. I am a practicing physician, not a geologist or economist, so I can’t pretend to understand climate change in depth. But I do know that we must stop global warming if we want our children and grandchildren to inhabit a livable planet. What do you think?
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, when a progressive group brought him an idea: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
This post is dedicated to the late Dr. Paul Epstein, a physician who also worked in Mozambique early in his career (1977-1980) and was passionate about protecting the environment. His powerful book, Changing Planet, Changing Health, written with Dan Ferber, was a major influence on my own thinking about climate and health. I first read their book while working in northern Zambia. The Zambia-DRC border is home to a number of copper mines and significant pollution. I recall the smell of burning metal in the air while reading this book in my hotel room at night. Also, thanks to several of my colleagues who provided major input on earlier versions of this blog post.