The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Climate Change and Cancer

Cancer has been on my mind rather more than I’d like, so this week it occurred to me to check out the links between climate change and cancer. I figured there probably would be some. Horsemen of the Apocalypse tend to roam in packs.

It didn’t take me long online to find out that yes, there are links. There’s even a whole chapter on the subject in a report published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Except where otherwise noted, this information in this article comes from that chapter.

Climate Change and Cancers

“Cancer” is not a single disease but rather a whole category of diseases. All cancers have some things in common, but causes and effective treatments both vary. It’s even possible to have two different cancers at the same time, in which case the two need to be treated separately, because what works for one won’t necessarily work for the other. So it’s not good enough to ask whether climate change causes or exacerbates “cancer.” We have to look at which (if any) cancers are involved.

We also have to be clear about what we mean by “involved.” I have not found anyone claiming that being too hot, too dry, too wet, or too wind-blown can actually cause any cancer (though these cause plenty of other health problems!), but there are indeed cancers that would be more rare if we weren’t heating the planet.

Some skin cancers are caused by exposure to UV light, and the thinning of the ozone layer caused more exposure. The main ozone-depleting gasses are also greenhouse gasses. Had those gasses not been released, there would be less climate change and less skin cancer. Higher temperatures also tempt people to expose more skin to damaging UV rays.

The other big climate-related cancer is lung cancer, which can be caused by air pollution. Many common air pollutants are also greenhouse gasses. Wood smoke, as in what comes off of all these wildfires we have these days, may also cause lung cancer.

So, it’s official; more climate change means more lung cancer and skin cancer.

A less direct source of risk is that climate change can make it easier for people to contact certain pollutants. For example, floods caused by the more extreme weather we’re getting often sweep up some very serious pollutants. Exposure to floodwater, or drinking water or soil contaminated by floodwater, could therefore involve exposure to various carcinogens. Higher temperatures make some pollutants more volatile, driving them out of soil or water and into the air. When the pollutants in question are carcinogens, that translates into more cancer, or more cancer risk in places that used to be relatively healthy.

Complicating Factors

You knew there would be complicating factors, didn’t you? One source of complication is that there’s a lot we don’t know about what causes various cancers or how the causal connection works. There are a lot of pollutants that might be carcinogenic, but we don’t know, or we know they cause cancer, but not how dosage relates to risk. Will one swim in contaminated flood water do it? We don’t know.

Another major source of complication is that a lot of the processes being advanced to lessen anthropogenic climate change could also carry increased risk of cancer. Nuclear power is one obvious example. Less obvious is that cadmium is used in the manufacture of solar cells, and cadmium is a known carcinogen. Hydrogen fuel cells could pose a problem if the cells leak, since hydrogen is an ozone-thinning gas and thus an indirect skin cancer risk. Even biodiesel could be a threat, since the chemical profile of its exhaust is different than from petrodiesel, and we really don’t know what breathing in that exhaust might do.

It’s not that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t–it’s that the picture is complex and we don’t understand it very well, yet.

What we do know is that using less energy from any source is the best bet for reducing anthropogenic climate change without causing secondary problems. But we knew that already. And using less energy isn’t a popular option.

Specific Pros vs. Vague Cons

While cancer is probably not the worst thing that anthropogenic climate change is doing, it’s definitely on the menu. If you have been touched by cancer in some way, you know how awful the malady is. It’s like a war zone breaks out inside your family and no one else can see or hear the bombs going off, the infrastructure breaking. We know, now, that the further anthropogenic climate change goes without somebody doing something about it, the more cancer there will be.

The problem is that not only don’t we know who is going to get cancer, we also have no way of knowing which cancers are climate-change related. That’s what increased risk means. We might know how many more cancer diagnoses there are, but we won’t know which of those people would have gotten cancer anyway. It’s hard to get emotionally involved with a statistic. You can always convince yourself that it applies to somebody else.

Contrast that with the concrete, obvious benefits of using fossil fuel–if you drive to the store for a loaf of bread, you know perfectly well who got that loaf of bread. If you own a petrochemical company, you know perfectly well who made a very comfortable living. You don’t know who got cancer from that same tank of burnt gas.

The same problem occurs with any cost/benefit analysis of fossil fuel use. If we’re going to get ahead of this thing, we’re going to have to make those unpredictable cancer cases seem just as real as that loaf of bread, that comfortable living.

 

 

 

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A Fiction Interlude

Here is another excerpt from a novel I’m working on. It’s set in the future, so you may notice some oddities, such as the narrator not being sure the readers know what dimes are, but it can basically stand on its own.-C.

As I’ve said, the main building sat—or, I suppose, still sits—on a bit of a hill, so that while the main entrance is at ground level, the back door of the same floor opened onto a second-story balcony. This same geography required that what was basement on one side of the building was a ground floor, complete with windows, on the other. The underground portion of the basement was divided into a utility room, a laundry room, and the school’s large root cellar. You need a large root cellar to feed two hundred-some people through a Vermont winter. The front portion, with the windows, was a long, narrow space that serves both as student lounge and library.

There is no librarian, or, rather, the school’s librarian (her name was Adrianne) had no desk or station within the library. To check out a book, you wrote your name and the book’s name down on a clipboard by the door, and if the book wasn’t back by the time she re-shelved on Sunday, she’d charge you. Everything else about the library was on the honor system. You could eat lunch in there while reading, and some people did.

Besides books and the student computers and printers, that long, low, cool room contained chairs and sofas and a pool table with an optional table tennis top, and plenty of ash trays and fire safety notices, because the staff had long ago seen the futility of trying to prevent students from smoking pot in there. Two large jugs of water stood always full, so that if you brought your own mug you needn’t fear going thirsty while you did your homework, but all other refreshments were strictly bring-your-own. Sometime in my first year I had picked up the habit of reading or writing or daydreaming in the chair second-closest to the door, and by the time the beginning of my second fall trimester rolled around, I thought of that chair and the space immediately around it as my office.

Which is all a way of leading up to the fact that in mid-September, who should step into my “office,” but Saul.

I hadn’t seen him in the better part of a year. I jumped up from my chair, and he saw me and gave me a smile of surprised pleasure. Of course, he hadn’t known that corner of the library had become my primary haunt. He gathered me into one of his wonderful hugs and I had the irrational sense of being glad to be home—as though I, and not Saul, had returned from somewhere.

“I didn’t know you were back,” I told him, when we disengaged. We each sat down, he flopping into the chair by the door with the relief of the exhausted. The day was dangerously hot out, the dim library a cool refuge, and I took the liberty of lifting his mug from his hand and filling it with water.

“Thank you,” he said, and took a long drink. “I only just got here.”

“Didn’t you get back earlier last year?”

“Yeah. Last year some things fell through so I just came back early.” He took another long drink and leaned back against the wall behind his chair. “Jeez, it did not used to get so hot in New England.”

He was still in his traveling clothes, a light-weight kilt and a short-sleeved, collared cotton shirt that would have been stylish had it not been sweat-stained. He had the top of the shirt unbuttoned, and I could see a little gold medallion, smaller than a dime, if you’ve ever seen a dime, hanging from a thin, gold chain amid the black curls of his chest hair. I found out later that the medallion bore the image of a butterfly, and that he never took it off, though he never wore it outside his shirt where people could see it, either. He took off his hat and sighed the sigh of the overheated.

“They say it’s an advantage in the winter, though,” I offered.

“If you like ice storms, sure,” he replied, and lifted his head to look at me. “Cold. We could deal with the cold. We knew how. What we have now are rapid freeze/thaw cycles all winter long. That’s why we’ve lost the paper birches and, ironically, why we’re losing some of the southern orchard species, too. How many years is it we haven’t had a decent peach? God. God damn those idiots all to hell. This is a different world, now, and a poorer one. They could have prevented this, but they didn’t.”

“I know you’re right,” I told him, “but the climate doesn’t seem that different to me. I mean, I’m young, but I’m not that young. I remember Before.”

“Oh, it’s different, trust me. Even in the…how old are you?”

“Nineteen.”

“In the past nineteen years, there have been a lot of changes. But people don’t notice, or they don’t notice that they notice. There’s a hot day, but people don’t put it in context because they don’t expect there to be a context. Actually, I think that’s part of the reason to tell stories.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. A narrative frame allows people to put what they experience in context, tells them what is significant and how, what to pay attention to, what to remember. We are living the story of global warming. And you and I know how to follow the plot.”

“So, that’s storytelling as reminder, again,” I ventured, thinking back to our conversation about what seanachis do. “The story affirms what is significant, tells people that certain experiences are real and worth caring about?” I was thinking of all the Yom Kippurs I hadn’t even noticed over the years, because Alicia didn’t think they were worth noticing. Hearing a maggid or two preach in the market some year would have helped, but of course there were none.

Saul looked at me, thoughtfully, and declared that I had a point.


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The Things That Work

Well, Hawaii is exploding, the Southeast is flooding, parts of the Northeast may have been hit by tornadoes, there was softball-size hail breaking windshields somewhere or other, and I can’t get a decent internet connection today so I can’t research and write to you about any of it.

Why not? Well, my home connection is slow right now and wind and rain prevented my heading into town. Nothing dramatic, merely annoying.

I doubt Hawaiian volcanism has anything to do with climate change, but as to the rest of it, if you’re under any of this craziness, ask yourself when was the last time it rained that wasn’t a flood or a tornado or something of the kind? When I was a kid, we used to have normal rains sometimes. Really, we did.

But, like I said, I can’t research anything at the moment. So instead I’m going to tell you about raking.

At the campground where we’re volunteering, most people who need to go from one end of the campground to another drive. In fairness, it’s a pretty big campground, so walking it can take a while. Also, staff often have things to carry, such as ladders, trash bins, or firewood, that would be difficult or impossible to carry by hand. But mostly I think the driving happens because it’s just what you do. It’s a collective habit.

It’s not my habit, but then again I make a point of doing things my way, and I can do that because I am a volunteer. I have more leeway than some.

But today some of us were raking out sites and I tried to talk the others into walking it, in order to avoid using the gas.

There was reluctance. The main concern was what if some of us were needed elsewhere quickly? I suggested biking. That wouldn’t be good enough in some circumstances, but no one of us was on call for anything more serious than possibly having to go to the office and talk with some volunteers. But you can’t bike with a rake. Ok, well the people who aren’t on call can walk and carry the rakes for the people who are on call, who will ride bicycles. In the end, we just walked it and did our raking and everything was fine.

And this is the way it works.

You might have a goal that seems unpleasant or impossible—get to work without driving, cut your electricity bill in half, quit eating beef (a major greenhouse gas emitter), switch to eating all-local food. Whatever it is, it sounds good, but if only you could, right?

Ok, break down the objections. Why can’t this work? What is the hold-up? Be specific.

Now, address each concern. Maybe you work too far away, maybe you heat with electricity and its cold out, maybe you really like beef, whatever it is. The thing about problems is they have solutions. Assume there is a solution and find it or create it. Brain-storm, plot, plan, network, follow up on leads, find the solution. And then you can accomplish your goal.

Do all problems really have viable solutions? Probably not, but you’ll be surprised by how many do if you just make up your mind to look. The key is don’t just say “that’s impossible/unpleasant/impractical” and leave it there.

The same process, of breaking down reluctance into a series of discrete problems, then looking for solutions, can work on a community-wide scale, too. Want a bike trail? A farmer’s market? Curbside recycling? A safe place for kids to play? Figure out why you can’t do it, and then figure out how you can.

Might work on the national scale, too.


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Ursula K. LeGuin

I have just learned that the writer, Ursula K. LeGuin, died this past Monday.

What does she have to do with climate change? Plenty. I’ve written multiple posts with her name in them (I’ve just linked to all five, do you see the links?) in this very blog, either using her work as evidence that we did know about climate change by the early 1970’s (she mentioned it in at least two early novels), or attempting to find comfort and meaning by quoting passages of her writing. She is, in fact, the only fiction writer to appear regularly in this way.

When a great soul leaves, we should notice.