The gift of life – from kidneys to climate
By Cynthia Mahoney, MD
Wow, what a gift. A Bay Area surgeon performed an amazing nine kidney transplants over the Christmas holidays, calling it a privilege to give the “gift of life.” His tweet took me back to my times working with transplant patients, caring for individuals with kidney failure (and their families) facing life-and-death questions: should I go on dialysis, accept a kidney transplant, risk donating a kidney? It was a privilege to share my knowledge and experience to help to make their decisions a little easier, a little better informed.
I no longer treat individual patients. Now I apply my medical background to addressing climate change. I’ve found that the threat of climate change to our human health is every bit as dire as kidney disease is to an individual. I love kidneys—kidneys are great. They work behind the scenes, filtering wastes to keep our blood clean. Most of us never think about our kidneys, not until they stop working. The climate is like that too. We take for granted all the benefits and resources that depend on a stable climate, like agriculture and coastal cities. But now medical societies representing 500,000 doctors—over half the doctors in the US—have rung the alarm, saying “Medical Alert! Climate change is harming our health.” All Americans are at risk, here and now, though effects differ by regions. Here in the West, we suffer deadly heat, droughts, and wildfires with their toxic smoke; the Southeast is hit with hurricanes and floods. An epidemic of tick-borne Lyme disease ravages the Northeast, while mosquito-borne diseases like Zika emerge in the South. These threats exact a toll on our mental health as well.
Just as physicians can predict that a diabetic who keeps eating a high carbohydrate diet will get sicker, we can predict that continued use of fossil fuels will worsen climate change. We witnessed the weather events of 2017, with just 1ºC of warming. Imagine what we can expect if we continue dumping CO2 into our fragile atmosphere. Our civilization could be crippled by 4°C (about 7°F), our world roasted by the end of the century. That kind of heat will impact crop yields, threatening widespread malnutrition. Millions of lives are at stake.
The lifestyle change we need is clear: to transition as quickly as possible to a low-carbon economy. The good news is that the technology is already available. But we need action stat: we are approaching irreversible tipping points. We could lose the patient. What do doctors say? Physicians urge action. The Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health says, “The sooner we take action, the more harm we can prevent.” But like a diabetic refusing to limit carbohydrates, some in the US are resisting the move from carbon-based fuels. What will it take to get us to rapidly adopt the low-carbon diet essential to curbing climate change?
As individuals we can choose personal steps to lower our carbon footprints. But only a portion of fossil fuel use is under individual control. The remainder requires government policies. The prescription: economists agree that a national price on carbon pollution is the best way to accelerate a low-carbon economy. The prestigious Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change has called strong and sustained carbon pricing “the most powerful strategic instrument to inoculate human health against … climate change.” A steadily rising price on CO2 with revenue returned equally to all households is effective, efficient, transparent and equitable. It’s like an insulin shot for an out-of-control diabetic.
Moving to a clean energy economy will bring tremendous health benefits by avoiding the worst of climate change, and cleaning up deadly fossil fuel air pollution now. We can save 200,000 lives here in the US every year, health benefits valued at $500 billion/year.
Climate health is truly the “gift of life” for humanity. We can’t all be transplant surgeons, but each of us can promote climate health by advocating carbon pricing policies to friends, family, coworkers and legislators. This year, we can share the gift of life with not just one precious individual but with millions of our fellow humans.
To learn more, watch the Citizens’ Climate University session on the health Impacts of climate change. Click on the presentation tab to find a handout: “What Do Doctors Say? Fossil Fuels and Climate Change,” which is designed as a leave behind for legislators and others.
Cynthia Mahoney, MD, is retired from her position as a Clinical Associate Professor at Stanford and volunteers with Citizens’ Climate Lobby.