This past month my wife had a health scare. There was a serious possibility that she had cancer, and the only way to be sure was to do major surgery. We met with the oncologist and he explained to us the range of possibilities, the details of the surgery and the possible consequences of that surgery and of the discovery that cancer was present. We went through a range of emotions, my wife especially. At first there was disbelief, then near overwhelming anxiety, then anger at the possible changes to the way we live. While those feelings threatened to engulf us, with the help of family and friends, and our faith, we put one step in front of the other, doing what needed to be done, and, thank God and the medical team, the surgery was successful and we discovered that there is no cancer! The relief was palpable! And the gratitude profound!
I’ve been reflecting on this experience and am struck by how differently so many people respond to the experts who like our physician deliver difficult news to us about the planet we call home.
When the tests came back and suggested that cancer might be present in my wife’s body, she and I didn’t question the test. We sought a second opinion, but we did that because it is prudent to get a second opinion, lest the first one was based on a false positive. If we had decided to be really safe, and gone to 5 physicians, asking them to do the same tests, we might have found ourselves with 4 identical suggestions for action with a fifth outlier physician suggesting there was nothing to worry about. What would we have done? Presuming that each physician engaged in the same kind of diagnostic processes, we would have chosen to follow the advice of the four physicians, even though that invites great anxiety.
The biggest challenge facing our planet today is not war, not the Zika virus, not economic inequality, although all of these are big challenges. No, the biggest challenge facing us is climate change, and its potentially devastating consequences for all living things on this planet. 97% of the scientists around the world who study this subject agree that human action has contributed significantly to the rapidly changing climate, a function of ever increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The most troubling and prevalent of these gases is carbon dioxide, a gas produced by all living things on the planet.
Strangely, many people, including some of our political leaders, have chosen to either ignore the 97% of scientists alerting us to the dangers of our current course or they listen to the 3% of scientists who say that there is nothing to worry about. If you’ve been following the development of this science, you know that some have chosen not only to ignore, but have spent lots of money to undermine the credibility of peer-reviewed scientists whose work demonstrates the impact of human activity on the current climate change models. It would be like my wife and I taking money out of our pocket to challenge the validity of the methods used by the four physicians who suggested the surgery we eventually pursued.
Why is it that so many ordinarily reasonable people refuse to address or actively undermine what the vast majority of scientists are saying? I am sure one could spill lots of ink trying to answer that question. My experience with my wife suggests at least one possible answer. If we take climate science seriously, then the only responsible action is to engage in a rather drastic change in our normal ways of living, particularly in our consumption of products that are linked to fossil fuel production (the chief source of greenhouse gases). The recognition that these are needed changes ignites great anger, anxiety and disbelief, threatening to overwhelm even the most stable and mature people. We are talking about a significant change, to economic institutions, perhaps political institutions, to consumption patterns, to our way of life. We all have a visceral vested interest in not changing, so we would rather deny or actively denigrate legitimate scientific findings.
I can’t help but think what people would have thought of us if in response to our physicians’ best judgment, we had decided to either ignore, or seek to denigrate, their expertise because we did not want to change our lifestyle. We would have rightly been criticized as unreasonable, foolhardy, irresponsible and ignorant of reality. Is that not also true of those of us who either ignore or actively undermine the claims of legitimate science, that is, science that results from the ordinary peer-review process that has put a person on the moon, made advances in cancer treatment and given us the capacity to map the universe?
If we do not act, God knows what kind of planet our grandchildren will have. We are already seeing the impacts of climate change, in rising seawater, melting glaciers and increased rate of species extinction. We can do something now to lessen the negative impact, but in order to do so we need to put one foot in front of the other, and simply do what needs to be done!
Join us on October 23, 2016 at 2PM at Sacred Heart Church in Camden, NJ to hear what can be done, and to commit yourself to living differently. My wife and I followed our experts’ advice and we’ve come out the other side. May it be so for humanity at this perilous time!
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
President Emeritus, Board
Center for Environmental Transformation