Column:Turning Up the Heat on Global Warming

Needles is a small town in southeastern California at the edge of the Mojave desert. It attracted little national or international attention until last week. With daytime temperatures hovering around 120 degrees F in the shade, it became the first location in the world to have a rain storm while the air temperature exceeded 111 degrees F.  Unfortunately, this record-setting shower provided no relief from the heat. Temperatures rapidly climbed back to over 120 degrees. Much of the American southwest is literally baking, and it is highly likely that this year’s fires will convert much of the acreage that survived last year’s fires to desert. The heat has arrived earlier than ever before, and it has been accompanied by a drought that is likely to permanently change the character of the southwest.

The main source of water for this region is the Colorado River, and it is drying up. The underwater pools, known as aquifers, that have helped supply water for California’s agriculture are being depleted for the first time in centuries. This is further evidence that global warming is not coming: it has already arrived.That this would happen has been obvious for decades, but that it would arrive so soon was not anticipated. Those who faced economic challenges if we shifted away from dependence on fossil fuels assured us through the public relations firms, lobbyists, and legislators that they hired that there was no need for concern. They lied.

The fossil fuel purveyors argued that those climate scientists peddling doom and gloom were just a bunch of sissies who coughed at the first sign of a little smog. Those polar bears starving in the Arctic because the ice sheets were melting were probably hired by National Geographic to sew panic in so-called liberals. Coal and oil companies needed to continue making tons of money, and that was only possible if entire nations dismissed the claims that temperatures were rising all over the world. After all, what does a thermometer know about air and water temperatures? When did we start trusting in these scientific gadgets?  

The fossil fuel industries have been a trusted source of misinformation for decades, and if we turn our backs on their propaganda campaigns now, they will make less money. If they do not get lots of money from us, they will not be able to pay themselves the millions of dollars that we are expecting to “trickle down” to us. If Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State under the former U.S.President, had not received a $180 million retirement package from Exxon, the oil company he ran, he could not possibly have managed to scrape by on the hundreds of millions of dollars he had already “earned” negotiating contracts with Russia. If he did not have a few hundred million dollars in his pocket, he could not have trickled much down to the rest of us. He was so valuable an asset to the rest of us in America that Vladimir Putin himself awarded the man a medal. And that retirement package he got when he left Exxon was modest compared to the $400 million Lee Raymond got from Exxon at his retirement party in 2006.

The argument is routinely made that big business promotes misinformation because it is responsible to shareholders who will fire their managers if profits shrink. That is why the tobacco industry fought against claims that smoking tobacco caused lung cancer and chewing tobacco caused oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancer. That those efforts to suppress life-saving information and to promote the sale of a deadly substance resulted in the death or disability of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year was viewed by tobacco industry executives, advertising firms, lobbyists, and legislators as irrelevant. Money had to be made. If people had to die for the money to be made, so be it. Desi Arnaz was paid to smoke cigarettes during episodes of I Love Lucy; he died of lung cancer at age 69. Some of the billions made by cigarette distributors probably trickled down to help defray the funeral costs of millions of Americans.

Frank Langella starred in a movie called The Box. His role was as conductor of a moral test: a couple in need of money would be offered $1 million dollars if they would push a button in a box. They would receive the cash as soon as they pushed the button, but a consequence of their action would be the death of someone they did not know and with whom they had no connection. You get the money if you cause a stranger to die. This struck me as disturbingly similar to choices made in corporate board rooms and government agencies over the past century. Fossil fuel corporations have chosen to push a commodity with hugely negative impacts despite the availability of technology that could make the planet independent of polluting energy sources. The justification that if one company stops doing it, another will step in to take over, sounds disturbingly similar to the hired killer’s rationale that “If I don’t do the hit, someone else will be hired, and the target will be dead anyway.” Yes, Cameron Diaz does press the button in the box.

I expect that the heat will continue to rise, and those fake polar bears will keep falling through the ice until it is too hot to film polar bears, to operate coal-burning plants in China, to burn the rain forest in Brazil, to pump oil in Siberia, and to frack in America. Our leaders and those of many other nations are too often focused on self-interest rather than the common good. We could get out of this hole we are in if people like Rex Tillerson recognized that their $300 million net worth is not going to protect them from the effects of climate change and they turned their attention and resources to getting all of us out of this environmental mess. Our problem is not a lack of resources: it is an excess of greed and a lack of accountability. 

As a physician, I have seen numerous instances of patients subjected to expensive and risky procedures for problems that could have been safely and inexpensively managed with medications, physical therapy, or some other benign intervention. The most widely prescribed medication for treating migraines is little, if at all, more effective than aspirin and costs considerably more. The need for expensive, dangerous and often largely ineffective drugs is promoted by profit driven pharmaceutical companies. An FDA advisory committee recently reviewed a drug for Alzheimer’s disease and suggested the FDA reject the application. The FDA approved the drug, undoubtedly at the behest of politicians with ties to the drug manufacturer. I expect this will result in some people dying from side effects of the medication and that no one will be held accountable.

Global warming can be halted, but that will require something in short supply in many nations, including our own: a willingness to protect the lives and futures of strangers.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.