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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The Ecology of Predator and Prey

This is another article I wrote in college about coping with various kinds of worry and grief, including that related to global warming and other environmental problems. I am not personally grief-stricken at the moment. Instead, I am tired and pressed for time, having just returned from a few days’ vacation. Hopefully this essay will prove food for thought.

Just before Yule this past year, I was chatting on the phone with a friend of mine, Robert, while doing some sewing. I turned to do something in the kitchen only to discover upon my return that my cat, her ulcerated tumors bleeding again, had covered my workspace, including my dress pattern, with irregular, red spots. I hustled around trying to separate my patterns so they could dry and protect my fabric without interrupting the flow of conversation, whose subject seemed bizarrely civilized under the circumstances; we were discussing the genome of the grape and the proper ways to serve different kinds of wine while I stared, transfixed, at the red, Rorschached blotches like footprints, stalking, taking, slowly, my cat.

Here, observe, three views of life on Earth.


Saturday morning in January, warm, hot as May; the breeze moves, gentle, as I stand on the sidewalk waiting for the bus by the Ethan Allen furniture store and St. Phillips Lutheran Church, chickweeds growing in delicate riot by my feet, so far so good, but also dandelions, clover, greening grass, while the trees stand mute above like skeletons. This isn’t right; though the air is pleasant on my simple skin I can’t enjoy it. This weather is as apocalyptic as last summer’s heat waves when I lay, sick and dreaming, too hot to work, all thought, all feeling driven off by the eternal, heavy, heat, save one; this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but this is the way it is going to be, more often now, because of us. A funeral procession drives by, headed by slowly flashing police escort, dozens and dozens of cars of mute, hard-eyed people. Most of the cars have only a single passenger, or at most, two. An oil truck cuts through the line to make a delivery to the strip mall behind me, its presence as lyric to the day as a line of poetry. I wonder, whose funeral is it?


My cat wants to go out, and I can deny her nothing, except for all the things I have denied her and all the things it simply isn’t mine to give; this leash, for example, is a compromise between her exuberance and her body, too sick to take a rabies vaccine. She has never gotten fully comfortable outside and never developed her body to its feline potential; as far as I know, she has never climbed more than a few feet up a tree. Probably, she never will, now. Maybe she might have if I had simply let her out and hoped she didn’t get bitten, or maybe I should have gone out with her more, for longer. Who am I to draw this line here? Who am I to bring a cat in out of the sun just because I have something else I need or want to do? These are judgments I do not feel competent to make and I never have felt competent to make them through these long years of one kind of leash or another hanging between us, yet make them I must. Nothing that I gave her could ever have been enough to absolve her of further desserts. We walk, and she pauses to scent-mark the bottom twig on the lilac bush, rubbing it with her nose, her gums, sniffing it delicately. I sniff it after her and compare the scent to that of one higher up, above the reach of cats and foxes. I fancy I can detect a difference. She stalks a bird in the ivy bed, and I flatten myself out behind her, trying to move forward without frightening her quarry, giving her as much range as possible with the leash, my arm, and the length of my outstretched body. The bird must have flown while neither of us noticed, for now it is no longer there. The day is fine and high and blue, and she doesn’t seem to know she’s sick. Or, at least she doesn’t favor herself, she goes full-bore, always, along her small, plucky way. I mean, what else does she have to do? It’s not like she’s going to get better, it isn’t like she has time to spare in self-pity. She just plays the cards she’s dealt. This animal is a carnivore, whose kind prune and in so pruning, create the reproductive exuberance of small rodents and birds. Fed on organic ground beef through the agency of human loyalty and partisanship, this cat has lived almost nine years. In that time, how many steers have died young for her?


Walking through campus I can see that the remaining old elms are dying–they have brownish yellow stripes running up the grey and furrowed trunks. My Dad told me about Dutch elm disease when I was little; I have never known a time when its inundations were not part of my history, but as I’ve been watching, over the better part of thirty years, the pandemic has progressed and more of the great cambium fountains have come down. When I was little, I remember, the elms met over the walkways, across the greens. I remember walking, on Community Day, a visceral memory, the smell of cotton candy and funnel cake, a grown-up hand—whose? I only remember the hand—in mine, and above an arching green roof full of multicolored balloons escaped from the careless hands of other children. The greens are open, now, the places of most of the giants taken by smaller trees, another kind of elm, I think, their stems slowly thickening into adulthood. My friend, Robert, is an ecologist who is busy mapping the community types of my state. When I brought him here, on the way to a coffee shop, he remarked that the campus probably counted as Modified Meadow or Modified Hardwood Forest. He’s grasping at straws; this isn’t altered, this is new: American Collegiate, typified by dying elms, manicured grass and a fauna of Frisbee players, grey squirrels, and playful dogs. No matter how aberrant this slow death of trees seems to me, the elms would never have died in such numbers if they hadn’t been planted unnaturally thick to begin with.

Humans are capable of a certain impartial perspective, but at heart we’re partisan animals living in a non-partisan world. Global warming and human-associated habitat destruction are surely no more radical than the asteroid that marked the KT boundary. Life recovered, growing even more diverse in time, and will again; nothing stays the same for long. Similarly, the birthrate of any given species is adjusted to its mortality rate; if it takes three dozen mice born per one that makes it to adulthood to keep even with the hunger of cats, then that is the number that mother mice produce, yet every pup is an individual. One could say each mouse deserves a full and happy life, just as every cat does, but it is the nature of both cats and mice, in their fullness, to produce more than can so live; to lower the mortality rate would require lowering the birthrate which would change the nature of the animals’ lives. Anyway, which individuals don’t get born in that case? Isn’t it better to live for at least a little while? Like climate change and disaster, death and even personal tragedy are just part of how things work; if these things did not exist, life as a whole would be different and probably the poorer for it.

Yet we are partisan, and we must behave in partisan ways; we act, we do one thing rather than another, and so we must make choices based on some judgment, some assessment of value, even if the value is a purely private priority. Mass extinctions happen, and in the grand scheme of things may not actually be a problem, but I must throw my small weight either for this one or against it, and I do not want a mass extinction on my watch, on my conscience. Plants, animals, and diseases do invade each other’s territory; humans may be causing an unprecedented invasion, but we are not causing the only one. Communities adapt and change. Diversity will recover. Nonetheless, I want my trees not to die of some imported disease, even if their gothic branches were themselves an artificial presence. And I want my Gertie to have not had cancer to begin with, I don’t care if she’s no better or worse than a mouse or a beef steer–or me, for that matter, I wanted this one, this particular one, to get the proverbial sun, moon and stars. That I, a mortal human, couldn’t reach them for her does not reduce the injustice any less.

We live in a world of change and transformation; one thing eats another, one thing subsumes another, one thing takes another’s place. Even if it were possible to pick sides, once and for all, on moral grounds, it would not be possible on physical grounds, for not only does the success of a predator mean the failure of a prey animal–and vice versa–but it is the very opposition, the very dynamism of the system, that makes the system in the first place. Under whatever happy facade of civilization or rationalization, we are incontrovertibly members of a system where things break and change and die as an inevitable matter of course, without violating the integrity of the whole. Under whatever veneer of educated perspective, however, we remain organisms who fight and try to win.