PODCAST – Scientific American on The Ethics of Climate Change

In this episode, University of Wisconsin-Madison public health expert Jonathan Patz talks about the ethical issues raised by climate change–who’s causing it and who suffers most from it.

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Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting November 7th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast: Jonathan Patz talks about the ethics of climate change and Joseph McMaster talks about next week’s episode of the TV show, NOVA, which deals with the Dover Intelligent Design Trial of 2005. Plus, we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Jonathan Patz, he is an M.D. and holds a masters in Public Health, and he is part of the Center for Sustainability in the Global Environment, known as SAGE, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he directs a university-wide initiative on global environmental health and is associate professor of environmental studies and population health sciences. As a lead author on several other reports put out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he has a share in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, given to the IPCC and Al Gore. I was in Madison last month and we talked about a paper he has in what is now the current issue of the journal EcoHealth, published by the International Association for Ecology and Health. We spoke in his classroom with his students present.

Steve: Dr. Patz, great to talk to you today.

Patz: Great to be here, Steve.

Steve: You have a paper called “Climate Change and Global Health Quantifying a Growing Ethical Crisis”. What’s the ethical connection to global warming?

Patz: Well, certainly we know that the industrialized world is causing global warming with all the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, and so the ethics is clear: The rich countries producing greenhouse gases on the one hand; and on the other hand you have countries, poor countries in the developing world that are experiencing the most impacts from climate change. This is especially true in the area of health because there are so many climate-sensitive diseases, and if climate is changing, a lot of these diseases will be changing as well.

Steve: What kinds of diseases are we talking about? Lets be specific.

Patz: Well, anything from direct effects of hot temperatures: people die[ying] in heat waves, ground-level ozone, air pollution, or photochemical smog, very temperature-sensitive. So heat waves, air pollution, and many infectious diseases, especially those carried by insects or water-mediated diseases; so infectious diseases are highly sensitive to climatic conditions.

Steve: So we are talking about cholera maybe; are we talking about what kind of insect-borne diseases—malaria?

Patz: Mosquito-carried malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, even West Nile virus; so a lot of these types of diseases, waterborne diseases, cholera; cryptosporidiosis is a disease that probably exposed over four hundred thousand people in Milwaukee back in 1993, after major rainstorms. So, we know that average temperature and average rainfall is generally pleasant and healthy, but it’s the extreme climate events that are dangerous. And that’s what is predicted with global warming.

Steve: Do we have any existing evidence that any of these effects are already happening? Do we see disease patterns that have already changed because of rising temperatures?

Patz: That’s a great question, and according to the World Health Organization, who looked at four different disease outcomes including malnutrition, malaria, flooding, and diarrheal disease—just looking at those four climate-sensitive diseases—they estimate over 200,000 people are killed every year from just the warming that has occurred between 1970 and 2000. And what’s unique about our paper—that’s I think, the real important message here—is that we took those numbers from the World Health Organization. Actually that time it was 160,000 deaths every year from climate change. We mapped those diseases and you see regional differences. For example, malaria and malnutrition really occur in Africa, poor parts of Asia, South America; and then we put that map of climate-sensitive diseases, up against a map of CO2 emissions—and we have a fabulous student at SAGE, Holly Gibbs, who actually put this map together—and when you put the CO2 emissions map next to the World Health Organization map of diseases, there is a stark contrast and those most vulnerable to the health risk of climate change are the least responsible when you look at the maps together. So for example, the United States’ CO2 emissions as far as tons of carbon emitted per person every year is six tons, the global average is one ton. Canada and Australia are similarly emitting like we are at that level. So if the U.S. is at six tons of CO2 per person per year and Japan and Western Europe are approximately two to five tons of carbon per year that they are emitting. Compare that to developing countries, which on average are [emitting] 0.6 tons of carbon per year, and there are more than 50 countries that are less than 0.2 tons of carbon that they are producing every year compared to an average American of six tons of carbon. So that’s the[a] huge imbalance as far as energy consumption in burning fossil fuels. Then when you put that up against the map of climate-sensitive diseases determined by WHO, what you see is in Africa, where you have 70 to 80 percent of the world’s malaria and a large amount of malnutrition, there are very climate-sensitive health outcomes you see; Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America experiencing the greatest health outcomes and that’s where the huge ethical dilemma is. You know you may even go as far as to ask the question through our energy policies, are we exporting disease and suffering around the world?

Steve: Let me ask you about the figure for the CO2 output per person in the United States. Is that figure possibly a little bit misleading because lets say, if we are the breadbasket to the world, does our per capita production really equate correctly because so much of what we are burning those fuels to produce is going to wind up going international?

Patz: That’s a great question, but it’s beyond the scope of this current paper and analysis that we’ve done. You can get fairly complex quickly, when you think about agriculture and other means of, you know, energy and what we are actually using, you could make the counter argument that in fact our market, where we are actually importing market goods from China and other parts of the world, then in fact, our energy contribution may be even greater, so could be on the contrary to what you’re suggesting, but that’s another analysis.

Steve: Okay, let me ask you—I saw Bjorn Lomborg being interviewed recently and he was asked about the health impacts of global warming and he said, “What people forget is that if temperatures rise, we are going to have fewer deaths from people freezing to the death.” So what’s your response [to] that kind of an argument?

Patz: Well, that’s an interesting argument and it has been looked at. In fact, in the last three United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, the Health Expert Panel looked at all health outcomes, and there are winners and losers, there are pluses and minuses and there will be fewer deaths from cold-related mortality, that’s true, but when you take these in aggregate and you look across all of the climate-sensitive outcomes and you weigh them, the pluses and the minuses, the conclusion on balance [is that] there will be many more adverse effects than positive ones, but there will be some positive ones. In fact, there was a study that showed that Rocky Mountain spotted fever may decline in the Southeast United States because it’ll get too hot for ticks. You know, so there will be winners and losers, but on balance, we think that the people looking at the impacts have really come out with the conclusion that most of the impacts will be adverse.

Steve: What effect, if any, do you expect this paper to have? Do you expect there to be any kind of policy implementation based on this paper or is this more of an academic exercise?

Patz: Well, we think that this paper has key relevance in the policy world. Because the issue of fairness and equity is actually part of the big negotiations that are about to happen in December, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the issue of fairness. Even, you know, there is a lot on economics and impact, but fairness—it’s an important issue. One caveat regarding the fairness issue, that we are producing global warming and the United States is [the] number one guilty party thus far and other countries, poor countries, are who experience the real burden. One caveat is that we are in a globalized world and so an increase in disease and disease risk is anywhere in the world when you think about air transportation and, you know, food transportation, increases in disease in any region of the world really can affect all of us and so with that aspect, I think, that it would be premature, it will be wrong to think that industrialized nations are actually immune to these problems, because they’ll come back in our globalized world and affect us as well. One other aspect that I think is really important is that I think there is a tremendous opportunity right now, when you think about policy, to stop global warming. And I am talking about energy policy to reduce greenhouse gases. If we reduce greenhouse gases to reduce global warming, think of the co-benefits. You know, we burn fossil fuels—greenhouse gases—that also causes particulate air pollution and other criteria air pollutants that are very dangerous to our health; so there is an obvious win-win, as a far reducing fossil fuels. And another thing, if you think about the American population—what’s our number one epidemic? Right now its obesity, and when you think about if we had greener cities where we are biking and walking more and driving cars less, how much more exercise would we get. And in fact of the leading causes of death in this country, most of them are related to either sedentary lifestyle, air pollution or motor vehicle accidents and if we could begin to confront climate change and have greener cities and more walkability and bikeability, we would have increased level of fitness, reduced air pollution, and reduced greenhouse gases, and I have a student working on this, quantifying these benefits. Another bit of positive news is that already, even though our federal administration has sort of been slow on this climate change issue, across the country at community levels, people have been coming to the play: There is a U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Initiative with over six hundred cities signed on to reduce greenhouse gases. So, you know, I see this climate change challenge, which is very serious and global, as possibly being the greatest public health opportunity that we’ve had in over a century. I am a physician and my first ethical rule is first, ‘do no harm’. So as we move forward on mitigating climate change and reducing greenhouse gases from burning less fossil fuel, let’s be very deliberate and very careful in the energy policies that we plan and not just jump to something. For example like bio-fuels, where [which] if done correctly could be a good measure and may be useful, but done incorrectly right now, by jumping to oil pumps and soy plantations that are destroying forest[s] in Malaysia and other parts of the world or corn, which is not very efficient as far as energy in versus energy out, there are some strategic solutions to do it.

Steve: Thanks very much for your time. I appreciate it.

Patz: Thank you very much Steve. I appreciate being here, thank you.

Steve: For more information, just Google ‘Jonathan Patz’, that’s p-a-t-z.

Now its time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: King Tut’s death mask was removed this week, revealing not just his face but his remarkably even rows of perfect teeth.

Story number 2: Diets rich in fruits and vegetables can keep you thin because the antioxidants in them [seem to] actively seem to fight fat formation.

Story number 3: Researchers have created a working radio that consists of one teeny-tiny nanotube.

And Story number 4: The problem with snake oil medicine may have been not enough snake oil.

We’ll be back with the answer. But first, on September 26th 2005, I sat in a courtroom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a lawyer said: “For almost certainly the first time ever, can we have the bacterial flagellum please?”It was, of course, the first day of the historic Dover trial in which intelligent design was found guilty of not being science. On November 13th, the PBS TV program NOVA devotes two hours to the trial. I spoke about the program with Joseph McMaster, who co-directed, co-produced and wrote the episode, which is called “Judgment Day”. I called him at his office in Boston.

Steve: Hi Joe. How are you?

McMaster: I am fine Steve. How are you?

Steve: Good. Good to talk to you about this. I find this whole trial and the subject in general endlessly fascinating. The trial’s been now over for two years almost. What took that long? What did you have to do to prepare this television program?

McMaster: We approached this in a combination of documentary as well as taking trial transcripts and recreating some of the key moments of the trial so that, you know, itself, you know, took quite a while, but we did a lot of research and did the usual filming which, you know, all these things take quite a while, and then the editing process. So (laughs) it is an extensive process.

Steve: Yeah. I didn’t mean that to come out wrong. I didn’t mean that in a pejorative sense, by the way. What I meant was, you know, you obviously, because I have seen it—I got a review copy and I’ve seen the entire program—and there was so much work involved and that’s what I was getting at, the amount of work that was involved to do a comprehensive program about this trial. When you started production, did you know it was going to be a two-hour episode or was is it typical one-hour episode that you realized had to be expanded?

McMaster: This was, I believe, from the start, I believe, you know, even from the time it was conceived, this was always to be a two-hour program.

Steve: And you mentioned about the reenactments?

McMaster: Yeah. I mean, Judge Jones made a decision early on not to allow cameras and recording devices in the courtroom—as you know since you were there—and so that meant that there was no video and audio record of the trial, just the transcript. So when we set about doing this, really the only way and the best way available to us to bring the trial to life was to take those transcripts—which are of course verbatim transcripts of everything that is said in the court—and to comb through those and choose key parts from both sides that then we would recreate in a dramatic recreation.

Steve: And that stuff works very well, because the testimony is just so compelling from many of the different parts of the trial.

McMaster: It really is. I mean to read the transcript is actually quite a lot of fun. I mean it’s—you learn a lot—and there is some off-law there and there is some, you know, three or four thousand pages of it, I can’t remember. So, there is a lot there to choose from. That’s for sure.

Steve: It really is like a short course in evolutionary biology, to read the transcripts of the trial.

McMaster: Yeah! That was one of the things that really attracted NOVA to doing the story was that as many people have said it was—and I think as the New Yorker writer, maybe put it early on— “the science class you always wish you had”or something of that nature; but it was a trial that featured lots of science that the lawyers on both sides had to distill and bring down to a level that the judge, who is not a trained scientist of course, would be able to understand and evaluate and make a decision based upon. So, for us it was great. It was a trial full of science that included, you know, great speakers and presenters and a topic— for evolution—that’s so essential to modern biology.

Steve: One of the great things about the NOVA [show] is some attention that’s paid to the local press that got so intimately involved in the trial; and I was at the opening arguments of the trial and Ken Miller’s testimony—the author of one of the biology textbooks that’s widely used and a real expert on evolutionary biology, Ken Miller of Brown University—and I heard his opening testimony. But the local media there just did a tremendous job and the episode talks about the local media, and that’s how I kept upon the rest of the trial—by reading the coverage on the Web everyday that these local reporters a[we]re doing, and they of course had been involved for months and months prior to the trial by attending the school board meetings, at which the drama really started to play out.

McMaster: Yeah! I mean those(unclear 20:28), there are two papers I believe, right there in the local area and then others nearby in Harrisburg of course. But they just did an incredible job and in fact a lot of their articles are still up on their Web sites.

Steve: Yeah.

McMaster: You can read them there, but in the program we tell the story or do an interview with one of the local reporters, Laurie Lebo, who had a professional interest in covering the topic, of course, but also a personal interest in this kind of topic.

Steve: Yeah! Personal interest that you get into in the program because of some family issues over the trial that wound up ending in an unhappy fashion, but that’s all in the show. Well, I just want to say that you know, I really enjoyed watching the advance copy that I got, and as someone who attended part of the trial and followed the trial throughout, I think, the NOVA episode really catches every important aspect of what was going on in there, from the personalities of the defendants on the school board to the beleaguered science teachers to the people in the community and right through to the expert witnesses, especially some of the wonderful stuff that Barbara Forest contributed with her sort of archaeological dig through the various editions of the alternative textbook that members of the school board had tried to get into the hands of the students there at Dover. So everything important that happened at the trial seems to be included in the episode.

McMaster: Yeah! Oh, that’s great to hear. It’s a (laughs) you know, it’s a mountain of stuff, and I’m amazed, you know, just at how complicated and how layered this is. I mean, there is so much layer and such a vital issue I think for, you know, so many different parts of our society right now. You know, I think people just come at this from all different angles, you know, some from more of a science angle and some from, you know, other angles but …

Steve: Yeah and one of the participants in the episode of NOVA is in fact a direct descendant of Charles Darwin.

McMaster: Yeah! Matthew Chapman (laughs) he’s a very entertaining guy and actually wrote a terrific book on his experience covering the trial and yeah, I we did an interview with him and he definitely has an obviously unique perspective on the whole thing, you know. There, you know, and his family and a lot of people said that well, as you know, having been at the trial, the press was in the jury box—since it wasn’t a jury trial—and a lot of people said that having Matthew Chapman, the great, great grandson I believe, (I may have left out one of the greats there), having him in the jury box there was sort of like having the ghost of Charles Darwin present at the trial. One of the people I interviewed made that comment and I really bet that was extraordinary.

Steve: Yeah! It really is one of the fundamental trials in American history, I think.

McMaster: Well, I mean I think it really was so important because the science that was being talked about is just so fundamental to modern biological science that that it [was] just such an important event on that ground alone.

Steve: I really enjoyed it and I enjoyed talking to you. Thanks for coming on.

McMaster: Thank you, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Steve: By the way, the program was co-produced by Vulcan Productions, created by Paul Allen cofounder of Microsoft. The program airs at 8 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, November 13th. For more info, go to www.pbs.org/nova/id. Also by the way, I got a press release on November 6th announcing a press conference on the 7th by the pro–intelligent design Discovery Institute, which is pre-denouncing the NOVA episode; so you know it’s good. Here’s a quote from the press release: “PBS and Nova should be ashamed of claiming to be fair in how they treat intelligent design. If you are going to be biased, at least be upfront about your agenda in your programming.”Well, they are in fact up front, because they have always been very open about their agenda at NOVA—they are a science program.

Now its time to see which story was TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Let’s review the four stories.

Story number 1: King Tut had perfect teeth.

Story number 2: Fruits and vegetables can keep you thin because they actually interfere with fat formation.

Story number 3: Tiny nanotube radio.

And story number 4: Snake oil medicine may not have had enough snake oil.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Snake oil is now a synonym for phony medicine, but a recent study shows that the right kind of snake oil is loaded with helpful omega-3 fatty acids, which a lot of people get by eating fish. For more, check out Cynthia Graber’s November 1st article on the SciAm Web site, called “Strange But True: Snake Oil Salesmen Were on to Something.”

Story number 3 is true. Alex Zettl of the University of California at Berkley announced the creation of the single-nanotube working radio last week. The press release announcing the invention was titled “World’s Smallest Radio Fits in the Palm of the Hand of an Ant.” I figured the discovery of an ant hand was the big story actually. Of course, as Scientific American editor in chief, John Rennie pointed out, ant radios can be smaller than ours because ants have their own antennas.

And story number 2 is true. Fruits and vegetables tend to be lower in calories than other foods, so that’s a factor in why diet rich in them keeps you thin, but new research indicates that the flavonoid and phenolic acid antioxidants in fruits and vegetables actually decrease levels of an enzyme involved in triglyceride synthesis. The work was done with mouse cells and appears in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

All of which means that story number 1 about King Tut’s teeth being perfect is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Tut’s face was revealed to the world this week for the first time in over 3,000 years, but the boy king could have used braces to correct a big overbite. Nevertheless, Tut remains, as The New York Times put it, “The face that launched a thousand trips to museums”.

Well that’s it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. Check out numerous features at our Web site including the latest science articles, video news and the blog and hit the blog to see my photos of the New York City marathon this past Sunday along with a nice article by JR Minkel on the “Evolutionary Adaptations for Running”. That’s at www.blog.SciAm.com and you can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us; and what with the King Tut news, we leave you this week with the musings of humorous Jean Shepherd from 1976.

Excerpt from Jean Shepherd’s tapes:

Hi, archaeology fans, you know, did it ever occur to you that one day you could very well be an archaeological exhibit. I have a great feeling whenever I go into a museum, or you know see anything on television where it shows archaeological exhibits, that they possibly grow eyes; no, I mean, let’s face it—you know, your average Incan for example had no idea that one day, 26,000 Cub Scouts would line up every afternoon to look at his shoe.